Burma’s democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will stay an extra year and a half under house arrest, adding to her already staggering 14 years of detention, after a court at the infamous Insein prison in Rangoon found the Nobel Peace Prize laureate guilty of breaching the conditions of her house arrest.
Suu Kyi’s lawyers argued during the trial that she should not be held responsible for the bizarre behaviour of an American man, John Yettaw, who swam to her lakeside villa in May and stayed there uninvited for two days.
Suu Kyi, 64 years old, has been kept under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years since Burma’s military regime refused to recognise the landslide victory of her National League for Democracy in Burma’s last free elections in 1990.
The ruling military junta handed a softer verdict than expected. The court initially ordered a three-year prison sentence but the home affairs minister, General Maung Oo, announced moments later that military ruler Than Shwe had signed a special order suspending the sentence and ordering that Suu Kyi should spend 18 months under house arrest.
The opposition leader returned to her lakeside residence after the verdict.
Suu Kyi was due to be freed in about three weeks. Critics accuse the regime of using the charges as an excuse to keep her locked up for general elections due to be held next year.
“There is widespread speculation that she was put on trial to insure she remains in detention for elections scheduled for 2010. She remains the number one threat to the military regime’s grip on power and the Burmese authorities obviously don’t want her to participate in that election”, says Nelson Rand, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Bangkok.
‘Eccentric’ American gets seven years
The junta’s court handed harsher punishment to 47-year-old US national John Yettaw, sentencing him to a total of seven years of imprisonment and hard labour on three separate charges.
Yettaw, believed to be suffering from epilepsy,diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder, got three years for breaching security laws, three years for immigration violations and one year for a municipal charge of illegal swimming; but it was not clear if the terms would run consecutively or concurrently.
“Yettaw is described as eccentric by his wife and friends. He’s driven by his Mormon belief, he’s a Vietnam war veteran, and he claims he swam to her house because he had a vision (…) He had made a previous attempt to swim to her house in November”, says Rand.
Suu Kyi gave Yettaw shelter for two days and didn’t report him to the authorities for “humanitarian reasons”. Yettaw appears to be mentally-disturbed and he told the court he swam to Suu Kyi’s villa after receiving a “message from God” that he must protect her against a terrorist plot to assassinate her.
Suu Kyi’s trial has sparked outrage across the world but international criticisms have failed to influence the reclusive regime. Burma, also known as Myanmar, is already the target of tough US and European Union sanctions but analysts say the junta can still rely on regional trade.
“Countries in the region should have done more for Suu Kyi, especially China, Thailand, and Indonesia, which have deeper relations and more legitimacy to engage the junta”, said Reed Brody, a legal adviser at rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Only a few hours after the court delivered its verdict, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called for an urgent meeting among his ASEAN counterparts to discuss the implications of Suu Kyi’s sentence.
“Historically, ASEAN pursue a non-interference policy with its member states, perhaps it’s changing now, with them taking a tougher stance”, says Rand.
Other world leaders reacted sharply to the condemnation. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said the verdict was “brutal and unfair” and called on the European Union to impose tougher sanctions. A “saddened and angry” Gordon Brown called for the UN Security Council to impose a worldwide embargo on the sale of arms to Burma. "This is a purely political sentence designed to prevent her from taking part in the regime's planned elections next year," the British prime minister said in a statement.
As for the European Union, it issued a statement vowing to impose “targeted measures” against the military regime.
Meanwhile, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere used the micro-blogging site Twitter to condemn Suu Kyi’s conviction. In a short message in Norwegian, Stoere wrote: "18 mths house arrest for Aung San Suu Kyi. Condemn it, junta wants her out for the elections, unacceptable."