Monday, May 18, 2009

BURMA'S AUNG SAN SUU KYI ON TRIAL

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: January 2008
Ms Suu Kyi's latest detention order was set to expire this month

Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has gone on trial in Rangoon.

She is charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest, because of a visit by an American man who swam across a lake to her house earlier this month.

A lawyer for Ms Suu Kyi says she will plead not guilty as the American, John Yettaw, had not been invited.

The charges have been widely condemned as baseless, but a guilty verdict would mean she was in jail during the run-up to elections planned next year.

Ms Suu Kyi has already spent 13 of the past 19 years in jail or detained in her home, and she faces a further three to five years if found guilty of these latest charges.

It is unclear how long the trial will take, but estimates range from a few days to several weeks, as the government is expected to summon 22 witnesses to support its claim.

Two of Miss Suu Kyi's assistants are on trial with her, and Mr Yettaw's court hearing is also starting on Monday.

Security remains tight around the notorious Insein prison where Ms Suu Kyi - the leader of Burma's pro-democracy movement and a Nobel laureate - is being tried.

Dozens of supporters, including prominent members of her National League for Democracy party, have gathered near the jail, but riot police have set up barbed wire barricades to prevent them getting too close.

Burmese state news agency handout photo of John Yettaw

The ambassadors of Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy have also been barred from entering the prison, but the US consul was reportedly allowed in, possibly to see Mr Yettaw.

According to Burma's constitution, Ms Suu Kyi was scheduled to be freed on 27 May after six consecutive years of house arrest.

The misguided exploits of an apparently well-intentioned individual have now given the military government a pretext to keep her locked up, according to the BBC's South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head.

Earlier this month Mr Yettaw arrived on her back lawn in Rangoon, almost certainly uninvited, after swimming across a lake using home-made flippers.

She reportedly asked the man to leave, but he pleaded exhaustion and was allowed to stay the night.

"After listening to the sequence of events, it is very clear that there is no breach of conditions of her restrictions," Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyer Kyi Win told reporters.

"She just felt sorry for this man as he had leg cramps after he swam across the lake. That's why she allowed him to stay."

Activists from Amnesty International (Hong Kong) hold a placard calling for Aung San Suu Kyi's release
Protests against the trial are taking place around the world

Ms Suu Kyi's home is one of the most closely guarded locations in Rangoon, and her supporters believe the military authorities must have allowed the man to reach it, as he tried the same stunt unsuccessfully last November.

Analysts say the trial shows that the military junta is still afraid of Aung San Suu Kyi's influence over Burmese people, despite the fact she has been in detention for most of the past two decades.

They are keen to keep her detained in the run-up to the elections in 2010, which have largely been derided as a sham by the international community.

Ms Suu Kyi's trial is taking place in such haste and secrecy, and on such bizarre charges, that it has already been dismissed as a sham by many governments around the world.

Demonstrations are planned outside Burmese embassies in 20 cities on Monday, to protest against the trial.

US President Barack Obama formally extended sanctions against Burma on Friday.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Monday that the European Union should also consider toughening sanctions against the Burmese regime.

But so far there has been no official reaction from Burma's two large neighbours, China and India, or the South East Asia regional group Asean, which counts Burma as a member.

BBC NEWS REPORT.

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