RANGOON, Burma – Burma's military regime opened Aung San Suu Kyi's trial Wednesday to reporters and diplomats, but the unexpected access did not stem criticism that the hearing is a political ploy to keep the pro-democracy leader behind bars through next year's election.
The Nobel Peace laureate, who has been in detention in Burma, also known as Myanmar, without trial for more than 13 of the past 19 years, is accused of violating the terms of her house arrest after an American man stayed at her home without official permission. The offense is punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.
She is standing trial with two female members of her party who live with her, and John W. Yettaw, the American who swam to her lakeside home under the cover of darkness earlier this month and sneaked in uninvited.
Diplomats at the hearing said Suu Kyi, dressed in a pink jacket and maroon sarong, appeared alert and in good spirits. She greeted the envoys after asking court officials whether doing so would violate any of the country's security laws, telling them she hoped to to "meet you all in better days."
"Yes, we saw Aung San Suu Kyi, and she appeared very strong," Joselito Chad Jacinto, the charge d'affaires of the Philippine Embassy in Burma, said after the court hearing. Suu Kyi has reportedly been ill recently.
"She sat listening intently and alertly to what was going on," he said. "She exuded a type of aura which can be described as moving, quite awe-inspiring."
But diplomats and her supporters said the limited access didn't change their opinion of the trial, which many say is staged.
"All the paraphernalia of the courtroom was there, the judges the prosecution, the defense. But I think this is a story where the conclusion is already scripted I'm afraid," British Ambassador Mark Canning told the British Broadcasting Corp. "No, I don't have any confidence in the outcome."
Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and one of her four lawyers, said allowing diplomats into the trial fell short of demands for an open proceedings. He did not elaborate.
Suu Kyi, who is being held at the infamous Insein Prison along with scores of other political prisoners, had been scheduled to be freed May 27 after six consecutive years under house arrest. The charges against her are widely seen as a pretext to keep her in detention during polls scheduled for next year — the culmination of the junta's "roadmap to democracy," which has been criticized as a fig leaf for continued military rule.
Burma has been under military rule since 1962. It last held an election in 1990, but the junta refused to honor the results after a landslide victory by Suu Kyi's party.
After the court initially rejecting a request Monday for an open trial, the country's Information Ministry ruled Wednesday that five foreign correspondents and five local reporters could attend the afternoon session. Authorities also said all embassies could send one diplomat.
A U.S. consular official had been allowed to attend the court sessions because Yettaw is standing trial, but the proceedings were otherwise closed to the press and public.
Authorities also agreed to allow the Thai, Singapore and Russian ambassadors to meet with Suu Kyi, said a diplomat, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press. They briefly met her in a "guest house" within the prison compound where she is being held. There were no further details available.
The move comes a day after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed "grave concern" about developments related to Suu Kyi and reaffirmed calls for her immediate release. It also called for her to get adequate medical care and be treated with dignity.
"With the eyes of the international community on Burma at present, the honor and the credibility of the government of the Union of Burma are at stake," ASEAN said in a statement.
The comments were unusually tough for an organization that normally refrains from criticizing its member countries.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the charges against Suu Kyi were "unjustified" and called for her unconditional release and that of more than 2,100 other political prisoners.
Suu Kyi's arrest could well derail a "softer" approach that the Obama administration had been searching for to replace sanctions and other tough policies that have done nothing to soften the junta's iron-fisted rule.
China, which as Burma's closest ally probably has the most influence with its ruling generals, has shown no sign it is exerting pressure on Burma's government.
Two photographers working for Japanese media were detained Wednesday by authorities for 20 minutes after they took shots of diplomat's cars entering the prison, witnesses said. They were released after showing proof they were foreign correspondents.
The trial adjourned Wednesday after two more police officers testified for the prosecution, including one who interviewed Suu Kyi after her arrest. He said Suu Kyi told him that she provided Yettaw with rehydration salts and several meals.
The family of 53-year-old Yettaw, of Falcon Missouri, describes him as a well-intentioned admirer of Suu Kyi who merely wanted to interview her, unaware of the possible consequences. Suu Kyi's supporters have expressed anger at him for getting her into trouble.