Suu Kyi trial in Burma (Myanmar) highlights activist's limited power

The regime allowed journalists and diplomats to watch the trial as it entered its third day.

Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters
Protesters from Burma's (Myanmar) National League for Democracy hold a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi during a rally calling for her release in front of the Burma embassy in Seoul.
Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters
Burmese monks living in Thailand pray during a rally calling for Aung San Suu Kyi's release in Bangkok on Wednesday. Burma opened the prison trial of Ms. Suu Kyi to diplomats and journalists on Wednesday in an effort to calm international outrage over the case.
Aung Hla Tun/Reuters
Nyan Win, spokes man of Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and one of her lawyers, speaks to reporters in front of the party's headquarters in Rangoon, Burma.

By now, the junta that governs Burma (Myanmar) is accustomed to the din of international outrage that follows each new incrimination of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The latest has the pro-democracy icon in an ongoing trial inside Burma's notorious Insein Prison. She's charged with briefly sheltering an American admirer who donned makeshift flippers and swam to her lakeshore home, where she has lived under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years.

The trial has revitalized Ms. Suu Kyi's power to elicit sympathy worldwide for Burma's suppressed democracy movement. But it has also highlighted the difficulty of translating that moral authority into political reform.

"Especially in the West, they love this image of Suu Kyi. But Burma has proved it can withstand international pressure," says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Sentence was set to expire

Suu Kyi's latest charges come less than two weeks before her current sentence was set to expire. Supporters had been publicly doubting whether she would be released on May 27 as scheduled.

The junta needed a new excuse to muzzle Suu Kyi in advance of 2010 elections, which will probably be staged, says Mr Chachavalpongpun, echoing a widely held view.

"Every direction is closed off to Suu Kyi," he continues. "Whether they arrest her or put her in jail, things will remain the same. The military needs to distance her from the election process as much as possible."

John Yettaw, the Missourian who illegally swam to Suu Kyi's compound and stayed overnight, represented a "golden opportunity" for the junta, he says.

Housing foreigners without permission is illegal under Burmese law, and both Mr. Yettaw and Suu Kyi were arrested. Yettaw's stay also violated the terms of her house arrest: no guests without official permission.

"I admire her decision," says Nyo Ohn Myint, a senior member of Suu Kyi's party, the National League of Democracy, who is based in Thailand. Suu Kyi's unwillingness to turn the man away, he says, reveals her trademark kindness.

Pro-democracy diaspora

World leaders have expressed admiration for Suu Kyi as a prisoner of conscience. She has been imprisoned off and on by the junta since 1990 elections that should have made her prime minister. The military rejected the results and imprisoned many others also elected in those polls.

Many of those people eventually fled to form a global pro-democracy diaspora. Though they've failed to topple the junta, they have succeeded in keeping Suu Kyi's name alive – and winning Western sympathy for their cause.

Western nations have issued waves of condemnation in defense of Suu Kyi.

"They've [the regime] at least boosted her image," said Aung Zaw, who fled Burma to found the Thailand-based Irawaddy magazine on Burma affairs. "Their fear of her proves she's relevant. I can imagine her in her cell, smiling and thinking, 'Thanks for the PR.' "

The junta made an unexpected allowance Wednesday by inviting reporters and diplomats to Suu Kyi's trial, now in its third day.

But Suu Kyi's symbolic strength has not proven powerful enough to sway Burma's military government. Nor can it block the support of regional trading partners, including China, which back Burma, a country rich in timber and natural gas.

"Events in Myanmar should be decided by the people of Myanmar," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu at a news briefing.

Suu Kyi's imprisonment has elicited a stronger-than-expected rebuke from ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Burma. The group has a policy of noninterference among member countries. An ASEAN statement released this week requested "humane treatment" for Suu Kyi.

Although the group expressed "grave concern," it declined to bring sanctions.

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