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The sunny side of Suu Kyi's sentence

Several hours ago, Aung San Suu Kyi, the face of Burma's beleaguered democracy movement, was sentenced to 18 more months of house arrest in a military trial.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will tell you that's bad. Practically every Western head of state, actually, will tell you that's bad. So will those who've been imprisoned or exiled for pursuing democracy in Burma, which remains tightly controlled by an isolated military regime.

Now, with that out of the way, consider that it could have been much worse.

Months back, Suu Kyi was dragged away for giving shelter to an oddball American in makeshift flippers. (His swimming to her lakeshore home violates her house arrest.) Even then, Burma watchers were already calling the game.

Next year, Burma's military junta plans to finally succumb to elections. Unleashing Suu Kyi to lead an anti-junta, pro-democracy opposition would be unthinkable. So the guy in flippers was a convenient pretext to prolong her detainment.

For most, the question was never, "Will they set her free?"

It was, "How long will they put her away for?"

Suu Kyi's 18 months of extended house arrest will keep her from participating in next year's elections. It was actually cut down from an original sentence of three years in prison.

But they're not sentencing her to hard labor. And they're not sending her where most pro-democracy activists end up — the central Insein Prison, described as an " HIV factory" by one former prisoner I met in Bangkok.

Maybe all the censure over Suu Kyi's detainment, from the West but also Burma allies Thailand and even China — helped tame her original sentence. We'll probably never know.

U.S. Senator Jim Webb has not yet cancelled his upcoming trip to Burma — the first from a U.S. politician in more than 10 years.

More fascinating still will be State Department crisis handlers' regard for John Yettaw, the flipper-wearing Ozarks resident who swam to Suu Kyi's house on some muddled religious mission. (He just wanted to pray with her, he said.)

Do you go out on a limb for the guy who blew it for one of the Western world's most adored democracy figureheads? Or do you let him ride out his sentencing of seven years of hard labor?

Not sure. But I don't think Bill Clinton will be making any surprise rescue missions on this guy's behalf.

P.S. Recommended reading: This Asia Times interview with a Burmese historian, who makes a case for engaging with the military junta and ditching the easy "Suu Kyi = good, junta = evil" storyline perpetuated by the international media.