Burma Sends Mixed Signals About Nobel Laureate's Fate

By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

BANGKOK, May 26 -- Burma's military government has officially ended the six-year house arrest of opposition leader and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, but she remains in prison while awaiting the outcome of her trial on charges of breaching the terms of her detention.

Suu Kyi, who is accused of allowing a U.S. citizen who swam to her lakeside home to spend the night there, took the stand Tuesday. She said she gave only "temporary shelter" to John W. Yettaw, 53, of Falcon, Mo., according to reporters and diplomats who were present at the court in Rangoon's Insein Prison.

Asked by a judge whether she had violated the terms of her detention under the military government's Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements, Suu Kyi responded, "I didn't."

Late Tuesday, President Obama issued a stern statement calling on the Burmese government to release Suu Kyi "immediately and unconditionally." He strongly condemned her arrest and detention, saying it was "arbitrary, unjustified, and in contravention of Burma's own law."

The Obama administration has been conducting a high-profile review of policy toward Burma, also known as Myanmar, including the effectiveness of sanctions.

"Suu Kyi's continued detention, isolation, and show trial based on spurious charges cast serious doubt on the Burmese regime's willingness to be a responsible member of the international community," Obama said, adding that the government had "an important opportunity . . . to demonstrate that it respects its own laws and its own people."

The 63-year-old Nobel Peace laureate has been held for 13 of the past 19 years, and the formal ending of the restriction left her supporters with mixed emotions.

"We don't know whether we should be happy or sad, because she is still in detention on these charges. I cannot guess the verdict, but according to the law, she should be completely free," Nyan Win, her attorney, told Agence France-Presse.

If Suu Kyi is convicted, she faces an additional three to five years in Insein, which her supporters say could be life-threatening, given her physical frailty.

Yettaw and two female companions of Suu Kyi's are also on trial.

A top police official told diplomats Tuesday that the government had considered releasing Suu Kyi on "humanitarian grounds," the Associated Press reported. But it reversed that decision when the "unexpected incident of the intrusion of the American happened," Brig. Gen. Myint Thein said.

The trial has been perceived as an attempt to use Yettaw's uninvited intrusion as an excuse to keep Suu Kyi locked up through elections planned for next year and has drawn widespread condemnation.

"In light of the concern about the recent developments relating to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, ministers . . . called for the early release of those under detention and the lifting of restrictions placed on political parties," foreign ministers attending the annual Asia-Europe Meeting in Hanoi said in a statement Tuesday.

Among the signatories was China, Burma's biggest trading partner, which had previously refused to be drawn into the debate.

"People are beginning to look at this problem in terms of stability, not just of Burma but for the region," said Bill Rammell, a British minister of state attending the meeting. .

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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