Burma opposition leader Suu Kyi faces trial after visit by uninvited American
The military junta accuses her of violating her house arrest after a Vietnam vet swam across a lake to her home.
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A court in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar) has ordered detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stand trial after an American man – reportedly a Vietnam vet – swam across a lake and sneaked into the house where she is held. Ms. Suu Kyi, whose political party won a 1990 election that the military refused to accept, is accused of violating the terms of her six-year house arrest.
Repeated international calls for the release of Suu Kyi have gone unheeded in the past. The latest legal move to punish her may exacerbate tensions with the Obama administration which has in recent months begun a rethink of how to deal with Burma. The US has levied stiff political and economic sanctions on Burma, one of the poorest in Asia, but admits it has failed to change the isolated junta's behavior.
A lawyer said Suu Kyi will stand trial May 18 on the charge of breaking a security law which carries a possible five-year jail term, the Associated Press reports. She was taken Thursday to a court at a notorious jail outside Burma's largest city, Rangoon (Yangon), where the trial will be held. Two female aides who live with her also face the same charges.
John Yettaw, the American visitor, was arraigned by the same court. He is accused of entering Suu Kyi's house and staying there illegally and could also face five years in jail, in addition to a lesser charge of breaking immigration law. A lawyer for Suu Kyi said she hadn't invited him and was angry that he came.
Opposition activists believe that Burma's junta, which has held Suu Kyi in detention for 13 out of the past 20 years, is looking for a legal pretext to keep her longer. Her current arrest order is due to expire at the end of this month, Bloomberg reports.
Suu Kyi has been detained since May 2003 under a law that allows someone deemed a threat to national security to be held without charge, according to [Jared] Genser, president of the U.S.-based Freedom Now group. The junta says it can detain her under the law for six years, or until May 27, and is now looking for another means to deny Suu Kyi her freedom, he added.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said that Yettaw had confessed to arriving in Yangon on a tourist visa on May 2. He then swam to the compound the following night "and secretly entered the house and stayed there."
Myanmar official sources said the man had succeeded in meeting Aung San Suu Kyi during his time at the house before he was arrested in the early hours of May 6 while swimming back across the lake.
The newspaper said authorities confiscated his passport and a black haversack, torch, folding pliers, a camera, two US 100-dollar bills and some Myanmar currency notes.
In an editorial, The Irrawaddy, a Burma-oriented magazine in Thailand, says Yettaw is the latest self-appointed savior to dabble in Burmese politics. Other foreigners have joined rebel groups or staged solo protests in order to publicize pro-democracy causes. Some Burmese suspect an elaborate conspiracy to extend Suu Kyi's detention but a more likely explanation, argues Irrawadddy editor Aung Zaw, is that Yettaw acted alone.
The American had also turned up in Thailand; he met with some exiled Burmese groups and reportedly told them he was working on a faith-based book on heroism.
They said he is interested in Burma's plight; that his heart is in right place even if his head is not.
And this is exactly what belies the passion of his action – that he did not think it through; that he did not consider the consequences.
If the regime leaders were looking for an excuse to extend Suu Kyi's house arrest, he has given them one on a plate.
After years of isolating Burma, the US government seems ready to try a different tack, nudged by humanitarian agencies seeking access to a poor, disease-prone population. In March, a senior US diplomat traveled to Burma's capital Naypyidaw and met senior government officials there, The New York Times reported. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ordered a review of US policy towards Burma, complaining that neither the path of sanctions nor efforts to engage the regime had born fruit.
Another bout of detention of Suu Kyi would further hurt the credibility of national elections due to be held next year, Time says. The military says the polls would be the final step in its road map to democracy. But top posts have been reserved for the military, which is determined not to repeat the embarrassing defeat in 1990. Many opposition activists are in jail and their parties face an uphill battle to campaign freely against pro-government candidates.