Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Burma holds breath as Suu Kyi stands trial

By Tim Johnston in Bangkok

(FT) -For Burma’s beleaguered opposition, waiting to hear if Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was to be sentenced to more years behind bars, Wednesday marked a series of grim anniversaries: 19 years since the vote where she led them to overwhelming victory and six years since she was last free.

Mrs Suu Kyi is on trial in Rangoon’s Insein prison, charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest after an American citizen swam the lake that backs on to her home and stayed two nights.

Mrs Suu Kyi, who sees herself as warrior rather than victim, has come out fighting against the charges.

“This incident occurred because of a security breach [by authorities]. However, until now no action has been taken on security,” she said in a statement to the court on Tuesday. “The fact that I am the only party being prosecuted shows the partiality of the prosecution.”

There was a heavier-than-usual police presence on the streets of Rangoon on Wednesday, but a group of some 250 supporters of Mrs Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy gathered outside the party’s dilapidated headquarters to release birds and pray for freedom.

“We call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners,” Ohn Kyaing of the NLD told the crowd.

It was a stark contrast to May 27 1990, when jubilant crowds dared to hope they had unseated the military government with an overwhelming vote for the NLD. But it soon became clear that the army regarded the vote not as a general election, but as a vote for a constitutional assembly, and was not willing to hand over the reins of power to the NLD.

Mrs Suu Kyi’s challenge to the army provoked a backlash which has seen her spend almost 13 of the intervening 19 years under house arrest; her party reduced to a shell by arrests and intimidation; and a consolidation of the military’s power.

Mrs Suu Kyi and the two house keepers who are charged alongside her could face up to five years in prison if they are found guilty. John Yettaw, her American visitor, who says he swam across the foetid waters of Lake Inya to warn her that he had had a vision that her life was in danger, could face seven years in prison if he is convicted of immigration offences and entering a restricted zone.

Her supporters say that if Mrs Suu Kyi, who is 63 and in uncertain health, is forced to spend five years in the notoriously unsanitary conditions of Insein prison, her life could indeed be in danger.

They believe that the Burmese authorities are using the uninvited visit of Mr Yettaw, a 53-year-old veteran of the Vietnam war who lives in Falcon, Missouri, as an excuse to keep Mrs Suu Kyi locked up until after the elections they have scheduled for next year.

The authorities have written a constitution which they say will herald an age of “discipline-flourishing democracy” but which critics say will merely entrench the power of the military.

The trial has sparked almost universal condemnation, even from Burma’s traditional allies.

Mrs Suu Kyi’s detention has hurt the image of south-east Asia’s regional group and strained its policy of quiet diplomacy, Asean chief Surin Pitsuwan said on Wednesday.

”The organisation is mindful of the fact it does not want to interfere in the internal affairs of any member state,” Surin, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), told reporters in Phnom Penh.

Barack Obama, US president, added his voice to the chorus on Tuesday.

“Aung San Suu Kyi's continued detention, isolation, and show trial based on spurious charges cast serious doubt on the Burmese regime’s willingness to be a responsible member of the international community,” Mr Obama said.

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