Burmese Activist Faces Hearing Today

Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, will be tried in a special court inside the Insein prison, the country's most notorious jail.
Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, will be tried in a special court inside the Insein prison, the country's most notorious jail. (2002 Photo By David Longstreath -- Associated Press)
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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her two maids were to appear at a prison court today to face charges related to an incident involving a U.S. citizen who broke into her isolated lakeside compound last week.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been under virtual house arrest for 13 of the 19 years since the military junta that rules the country refused to recognize the 1990 landslide victory of her party, the National League for Democracy. Under the terms of her house arrest, the 63-year-old is not allowed to have visitors.

The American, identified as John W. Yettaw, swam across the lake near her house and stayed overnight. He will also face charges, as will her doctor, Tin Myo Win, who was detained last week, sources close to her party said.

Suu Kyi is in the sixth year of her current term of house arrest, which under Burmese law cannot be extended. It ends May 27, and the government may be seizing on the incident to extend her term or possibly put her in prison.

Suu Kyi was to appear in a special court inside the Insein prison, the country's most notorious jail. One of her lawyers said early today that she had been formally charged with breaching the conditions of her house arrest and that her trial had been set for May 18, according to Agence France-Presse.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is regarded as one of the world's most oppressive nations. It is ruled by generals who have enriched themselves with the about $2 billion in annual revenue generated by natural gas fields, as well as trade in jewels, heroin, amphetamines, timber and small arms -- while much of the country remains desperately poor. Hundreds of Suu Kyi's supporters languish in jails across the country.

Kyi Win, an attorney for Suu Kyi, told the Democratic Voice of Burma, a media organization based in Norway, that although the authorities consider Yettaw's visit to be a breach of her house arrest, she had not invited the man to her compound and therefore had not violated the terms of her house arrest.

She "told him to go back, but he didn't," Kyi Win said. "He said he was so tired and wanted to rest, but she pleaded with him. Then he slept overnight on the ground floor."

Little is known about Yettaw, 53, who was arrested as he was swimming back across the lake. The New Light of Myanmar, the government's official newspaper, said authorities confiscated his passport and a black single-strap bag, flashlight, folding pliers, a camera, and Burmese and U.S. currency. He arrived in Burma on May 2 on a tourist visa.

Irrawaddy, a Burmese opposition magazine, reported that Yettaw, identified as a Vietnam War veteran, had met with some exiled Burmese groups in Thailand and told them he was working on a faith-based book on heroism.

The State Department said that U.S. Embassy officials were granted access to Yettaw yesterday. "The embassy has stressed to Burmese authorities the U.S. government's strong interest in Mr. Yettaw's case and our concerns for his health, welfare and fair treatment," the State Department said yesterday.

The court action comes two days before President Obama is expected to renew an investment ban on Burma that was first imposed by President Bill Clinton in 1997. The Obama administration is also conducting a high-profile review of its policy toward Burma, including whether sanctions have been effective and whether the U.S. administration should seek greater engagement with the Burmese government.

In March, a senior U.S. diplomat met with the Burmese foreign minister in Naypyidaw, the ruling junta's jungle capital. The meeting was given prominent mention in the official newspaper.

"We have seen this report, which is certainly troubling if true," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said last night of the court appearance. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "has seen it as well and has asked the department to work to get more information for us," he said.

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