By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 21, 2009
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, May 20 -- Burma's military rulers allowed foreign diplomats and Burmese reporters to attend the widely criticized trial of democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday, a move that observers said showed the junta's growing confidence in its legal case for continuing her incarceration.
Suu Kyi, 63, who has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest without trial, is accused of violating the conditions of her detention by allowing an overnight stay by John W. Yettaw, an American who two weeks ago swam across the lake that backs onto her house. On Wednesday, she greeted observers during an hour-long appearance in the courtroom inside Rangoon's notorious Insein prison.
Yettaw, of Falcon, Mo., has been charged with violating immigration laws and entering a restricted zone and is on trial along with Suu Kyi and her two housekeepers, a mother and daughter.
Yettaw, 53, faces seven years in prison if he is found guilty. Suu Kyi, who is fighting the charges against her on the grounds that she did not invite Yettaw to visit, faces an additional five years in detention, as do her housekeepers.
Under Burmese law, all citizens are required to notify authorities if anyone other than a family member wants to stay overnight in their homes. The regime's opponents accuse the authorities of using that law to prolong Suu Kyi's incarceration and prevent her from playing any role in elections they have said they will hold early next year.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in elections in 1990, but the military refused to recognize the results. Hundreds of the party's supporters have since been given long prison sentences.
Suu Kyi appeared poised and confident in court Wednesday, observers said.
"Thank you for coming and for your support," she told diplomats from more than 30 countries who attended the trial. "I'm sorry I can't meet you one by one. I hope to meet you in better days."
After the hearing was adjourned, officials allowed her to meet with diplomats from Russia, Singapore and Thailand in the prison guesthouse where she is being held during the trial. Diplomats at the hearing said the Nobel Peace laureate appeared in good health.
"Yes, we saw Aung San Suu Kyi, and she appeared very strong," said Joselito Chad Jacinto of the Philippine Embassy in Burma, according to the Associated Press. "She sat listening intently and alertly to what was going on. She exuded a type of aura which can be described as moving, quite awe-inspiring."
But diplomats said they had not changed their opinion of the trial simply because they had been allowed to attend, the AP reported. Most said they assumed that Suu Kyi would be found guilty.
The charges have provoked widespread international condemnation, including a call by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for Suu Kyi's "immediate release." The group -- of which Burma, also called Myanmar, is a member -- pioneered the idea of constructive engagement with the junta.
Sanctions imposed on Burma by the United States and Europe have proved ineffectual in deflecting the Burmese generals from their course, largely because the country's neighbors -- China, Thailand and India -- have continued to increase their trade with the regime.
"We have to reinforce the dialogue with Burma's neighbors," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union's external relations commissioner. "It should at least be always a discussion point with China, with India and with others."