RANGOON, Burma – Burma's military regime appeared to be rushing through the trial of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with five witnesses testifying for the prosecution Tuesday. Her followers say the proceedings are designed to ensure the Nobel Peace laureate remains locked up during elections next year.
Suu Kyi, who has been in detention without trial for more than 13 of the past 19 years, is accused of violating the terms of her house arrest by allowing a visitor to stay 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 man who triggered the charges by swimming to Suu Kyi's property under the cover of darkness earlier this month and sneaking uninvited into her home.
Suu Kyi 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 for her to stay 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, which has been renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta, has been under its control 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 National League for Democracy party.
Nyan Win, a party spokesman and one of her four lawyers, said five of the prosecution's 22 scheduled witnesses testified Tuesday.
"Now it is very clear that they are trying to speed up the trial," he told reporters at party headquarters. "If it goes on at this rate, it could even be over by next week."
Asked what the motive might be for speeding up the trial, he said "They must have their plans, though I don't know." Nyan Win had speculated Monday that the trial could last up to three months.
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.
Tuesday's witnesses included the two police officers who were said to have fished Yettaw out of Yangon's Inya Lake after he swam away from Suu Kyi's residence, said Nyan Win.
"The police officers said they first thought he was a thief. After they found out that the man was a foreigner, the police officers handed him to the Special Branch," he said. Special Branch police usually handle political cases.
A U.S. consular official has been allowed to attend the court sessions because Yettaw is standing trial, but the proceedings were otherwise closed to the press and public. A U.S. Embassy spokesman, Richard Mei, said the mission had no comment.
Hundreds of police in full riot gear, some armed with rifles, were deployed along all roads leading to Insein prison where the trial was taking place, while about 100 Suu Kyi supporters gathered peacefully nearby. Dozens of plainclothes policemen and more than a hundred members of a pro-junta militia were deployed near the prison.
Some members of her party who gathered near an inner layer of barricades said supporters of the junta tried to provoke them with abuse.
"Some people shouted bad words about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and tried to start a fight," said Ko Yin Aye, a youth member of her party. 'Daw' is a term of respect use for older women.
Suu Kyi's arrest last week reignited criticism of Burma's military rulers and led to renewed calls by world leaders for her immediate release.
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 get-tough policies that have done nothing to divert 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 signs it will exert pressure on Burma's government.
"Myanmar's issue should be decided by the Myanmar people," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at a regular news briefing. "We hope that the relevant parties in Myanmar could realize reconciliation, stability and development through dialogue."