Brave Suu Kyi supporters keep vigil for trial

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As the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi opened in Rangoon today, dozens of her supporters braved razor wire barriers, road blocks and paramilitary intimidation outside Rangoon's notorious Insein prison, where the trial is taking place, to show their solidarity with her.

The democracy leader is accused of violating the terms of her house arrest by allowing her unwelcome guest, John Yettaw, an American citizen who swam across the lake to the family villa where she is confined, to stay. If found guilty she could be jailed for five years.

Win Tin, a member of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), who spent 19 years in isolation in the jail as a political prisoner, was one of the protesters. In a telephone interview with The Independent he said the trial was simply a ploy to extend her detention, which is about to expire.

"They are using this to extend her house arrest and to avoid her being present during the elections," said the 79-year-old former journalist. "[That way,] she cannot meet the people, she cannot say anything against the election. She will be absent." Elections under a new, widely criticised constitution are scheduled for next year.

British ambassador Mark Canning and other senior foreign diplomats tried to enter the prison to attend the trial but were turned back at a road block.

The closed court inside the high-security prison heard Lt Col Zaw Min Oo, chief prosecutor, accuse Ms Suu Kyi of being "in breach of discipline" for failing to turn Mr Yettaw over to the police who guarded her house.

But Nyan Win, one of Ms Suu Kyi's three lawyers, rejected the charges. Speaking to The Independent outside the court, he said, "It is ridiculous to say it was a breach of discipline when this man was an intruder, she did not invite him there." He added that the trial could last up to three months.

Ms Suu Kyi, 63, will plead not guilty, but observers fear that the outcome of the trial - a guilty verdict - is not in doubt. Her supporters believe the regime may use the case as a pretext for extending her latest six-year term of detention ahead of a 2010 general election which the military hopes will entrench its dominance under a new, much criticised constitution.

Mr Yettaw, a Mormon and Vietnam veteran whose motives are still unclear, swam more than a kilometre across Rangoon's Inya Lake to Ms Suu Kyi's home in early May. Ms Suu Kyi pleaded with him to leave, her lawyers say, but allowed him to stay the night when he complained of cramp and exhaustion. The 53-year-old American, who was arrested as he swam away from the house, is charged with immigration offences and entering a restricted zone.

Belying reports of fragile health, the opposition leader, dressed in an elegant Burmese outfit - a sky blue fitted jacket and matching long skirt - was in good spirits, according to Nyan Win.

"She asked me to give a message to all her friends and supporters that her health is good and that she is as alert and focused as ever," he said.

Ms Suu Kyi was first put under house arrest almost 20 years ago, in July 1989, as her party was campaigning in Burma's first general election since a coup d'etat ushered in military rule in 1962. She was still being held incommunicado when the triumphant results were published. But the military regime refused to honour the victory, arresting and killing many of the party's supporters and MPs and driving many more into exile.

Ms Suu Kyi's last, brief interlude of freedom ended with a regime-sponsored attempt on her life in July 2003. She was briefly incarcerated in Insein Prison before being once again locked up in her decaying lakeside villa.

Since then her conditions of imprisonment have been far harsher than before. She has no telephone and cannot receive letters. In that sense, her arrest has brought a welcome breath of fresh air and solidarity from the outside world. "We were able to inform her of the support of the international community," said Nyan Win, referring to calls by world leaders such as Gordon Brown for her release. "She has no radio or TV so she is really heartened to hear these things."

Ms Suu Kyi is being held in the grounds of the prison, which is notorious for its squalid conditions and the abuse suffered by inmates. She was reported as saying her accommodation was “comfortable.” Mr Yettaw and Ms Suu Kyi’s two housekeepers and companions, a mother and daughter who have lived with her since 2003, are being tried together with her.

Nyan Win said the trial could last for three months. A diplomat commented: "The regime hates the world's attention on this so they will try to kick it into the long grass and hope the interest fades."