Published January 14, 2015
Burma's Nobel Prize-winning pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi faced new charges Thursday less than two weeks before her house arrest was due to end after an American man swam across a lake to sneak into her home, her lawyer said.
Supporters accused the military government of using the incident to keep her in detention in the country, also known as Myanmar, ahead of general elections scheduled for next year.
Suu Kyi, whose detention was set to end May 27, could face a prison term of up to five years if convicted, said lawyer Hla Myo Myint. The trial is scheduled to start Monday at a special court at Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison, where she was arraigned Thursday.
She is accused of breaking the terms of her detention by harboring the visitor for two days, even though he was uninvited and unwelcome.
The junta appears eager to ensure that general elections scheduled for next year are carried out without any significant opposition from pro-democracy groups that say the balloting will merely perpetuate military rule under a democratic guise.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters at the U.S. State Department that she was deeply troubled by Burma's "baseless charge" against Suu Kyi. She said the government is looking for a "pretext" to place further unjust restrictions on her.
Human rights groups said they feared the trial would be used to justify another extension of Suu Kyi's yearslong detention despite international demands for her release. The 63-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate has already spent more than 13 of the last 19 years — including the past six — in detention without trial for her nonviolent promotion of democracy in Burma, also called Burma.
The motives of the American, John William Yettaw, 53, remained unclear. State television on Thursday said he had served two years in the military and listed his occupation as "student, clinical psychology, Forest Institution."
"I know that John is harmless and not politically motivated in any way," his stepson, Paul Nedrow, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "He did not want to cause Suu Kyi any trouble."
Nedrow said he was concerned over his stepfather's health because he was a diabetic and the ailment "could cause him to become disoriented and confused and be unable to make wise choices for himself."
Kyi Win, another lawyer for Suu Kyi, said the opposition leader did not invite the man to her home and in fact told the man to leave. He said the incident was merely a breach of the normally tight security authorities impose on Suu Kyi.
"Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems," Kyi Win told reporters. "He's a fool."
In the past the junta — which regards Suu Kyi as the biggest threat to its rule — has found reasons to extend her periods of house arrest, bending the letter of the law.
"The Burmese regime is clearly intent on finding any pretext, no matter how tenuous, to extend her unlawful detention. The real injustice, the real illegality, is that she is still detained in the first place," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who wrote a chapter about her in his book "Courage."
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith described Suu Kyi's arrest as "gravely concerning" and urged her immediate release.
Yettaw, who was arrested last week, was charged at Thursday's hearing with illegally entering a restricted zone, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, and breaking immigration laws, which is punishable by up to one year in jail, said Hla Myo Myint.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei said Yettaw had no legal representation at his arraignment but that the embassy was trying to find him an English-speaking lawyer.
The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, which describes itself as the country's government-in-exile, said the junta was using the incident to extend Suu Kyi's detention.
"It is nothing more than a political ploy to hoodwink the international community so that it can keep (Suu Kyi) under lock and key while the military maneuvers its way to election victory on 2010," the group's prime minister, Sein Win, said in a statement.
Suu Kyi has recently been ill, suffering from dehydration and low blood pressure. Her condition improved this week after a visit by a doctor who administered an intravenous drip, said Nyan Win, the spokesman for her National League for Democracy party, who is also part of a team of three lawyers hoping to represent her.
"Please tell them (reporters) I am well," Kyi Win quoted Suu Kyi as saying. But he added: "I am very concerned about Suu Kyi's health, even though she said she is well."