Protesters gather as Suu Kyi faces prison trial
Allies of Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gathered outside the Rangoon prison on Monday where the Nobel Peace laureate faces trial on charges that could lock her away for five years.
The military regime has ignored international outrage at what critics call trumped-up charges against Suu Kyi, accused of breaking the conditions of her house arrest, which had been due to expire on May 27 after six years of detention.
Win Tin, a senior member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and the country’s longest-serving political prisoner until his release last year, led 200 NLD members in a protest outside Insein Central Prison.
They were watched by armed police manning barbed-wire barricades and members of a pro-junta militia. Plain-clothes officers kept busy snapping photographs of the protest. Businesses in the area were ordered to close.
One leader of the NLD youth wing was arrested near the prison, but party officials did not have more details.
The government has called 22 witnesses against Suu Kyi and a verdict in the closed-door trial was not expected on Monday. If convicted, she faces three to five years in jail.
“She is ready to tell the truth that she never broke the law,” her lawyer Kyi Win said.
Critics have accused the regime of trying to sabotage her defence by revoking the law licence of Aung Thein, a prominent activist lawyer, at the weekend.
United States diplomats were seen entering the prison where John Yettaw, the American intruder who triggered the case against Suu Kyi by sneaking into her lakeside villa earlier this month, faces trial on several charges.
Critics say the trial is aimed at keeping the charismatic opposition leader in detention ahead of multi-party elections in 2010, derided by the West as a sham aimed at entrenching more than four decades of military rule in Burma.
The generals have not forgotten the NLD’s landslide election victory in 1990, which the military rejected.
“The trial is all about keeping any voices of dissent silent in the run-up to rigged elections next year,” said Zoya Phan of the Burma Campaign UK, which said demonstrations would be held at Burma’s embassies in 20 cities around the world on Monday.
The military has detained Suu Kyi for more than 13 of the past 19 years, much of that time at her Rangoon home guarded by police, with her phone line cut and visitors restricted.
Yettaw, a 53-year-old Missouri resident who used homemade flippers to swim to Suu Kyi’s home this month, is charged with immigration violations, encouraging others to break the law and entering a restricted area.
His motives are unclear. He swam to her home before, on November 30 last year, and left a copy of the Book of Mormon after she refused to see him, according to a copy of the police complaint translated by the US Campaign for Burma, a pro-democracy group.
He tried again on the night of May 3.
“This time, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi allowed him to stay at her residence until the night of May 5, 2009, spoke with him and provided him food and drinks,” the police complaint said.
Kyi Win said Suu Kyi had told Yettaw to leave, but he refused. She did not report him to authorities because “she did not want anybody to get into trouble because of her”, he said.
Western governments, the United Nations, human rights groups and fellow Nobel laureates have condemned the charges against Suu Kyi and called for her immediate release.
US President Barack Obama renewed sanctions against the military government on Friday, saying its actions and policies, including the jailing of more than 2 000 political prisoners, continued to pose a serious threat to US interests.
The reaction from Asian neighbours, which have an eye on Burma’s rich timber, gas and mineral reserves, has been mixed.
China and India have been silent, but the Philippine government said it was “deeply troubled and outraged over the filing of trumped-up charges” against Suu Kyi and worried about her health in the country’s most notorious jail.
“These recent incidents will surely impede the process of national reconciliation and the roadmap to democracy in [Burma],” Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto G Romulo said.
Asian governments have favoured a policy of engagement, but neither it nor sanctions imposed by the West have coaxed meaningful reforms from junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, widely believed to loathe Suu Kyi.
He is pressing ahead with a seven-step “roadmap to democracy” expected to culminate in the elections in 2010.—Reuters