'There were gasps in court, but all she did was smile'
Decision to extend Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest meets with outrage in Burma and beyond.
Wednesday 12 August 2009
She had about half an hour to snatch a few last glimpses of Rangoon as the police convoy sped away from Insein jail, down the lakeside highway and back to the crumbling house on University Avenue – her home and prison for another 18 months.
Burma's pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was put back under house arrest yesterday at the end of a three-month trial that Gordon Brown described as a "sham".
Diplomats attending the hearing said Ms Suu Kyi, 64, stood straight and still as the judge in Rangoon's Insein jail found her guilty of breaching the terms of her detention by sheltering an uninvited guest, and sentenced her to three years with hard labour.
"There were gasps in the court and you could feel a ripple of outrage," said one European diplomat. "But her reaction was remarkably stoical, she even turned to her lawyers and smiled."
After a dramatic pause, the interior minister entered the courtroom and read out a special order from Than Shwe, the senior general in Burma's military junta, commuting the sentence to 18 months of house arrest in the interests of "maintaining community peace and stability".
Ms Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has been in detention for 14 of the last 20 years, but retains a wide and passionate following, and is still the most potent threat to Burma's hated generals. The maximum sentence she could have received was five years' hard labour, but observers say it had been carefully reduced in order to keep her out of the way until after elections scheduled for next year, which are unlikely to do more than put a civilian façade on five decades of military rule.
"Eighteen months is perfectly designed if the motivation is, as we think, to keep her away from the elections and the aftermath when they will be trying to embed a new government," said Sean Turnell, a Burma expert at Australia's Macquarie University.
The trial stemmed from a bizarre incident in May when an American man, John Yettaw, swam to her lakeside home to warn her of a dream he had had that she would be assassinated. Ms Suu Kyi initially urged him to leave, but allowed him to stay for two nights when he complained of cramps and exhaustion.
Mr Yettaw, a 54-year-old Vietnam veteranr, was hauled from the lake by police as he swam away from the house. Ms Suu Kyi and her two housekeepers were arrested and charged with violating the conditions of her arrest by providing him with food and shelter.
Looking bewildered, Mr Yettaw was convicted of immigration violations and "swimming in a non-swimming area", and sentenced to seven years, with four years' hard labour. Ms Suu Kyi's housekeepers, a mother and daughter, were given 18 months of house arrest.
Diplomats speculated that Mr Yettaw, a diabetic and epileptic who has been in poor health throughout the trial, would be quickly pardoned and deported.
Ms Suu Kyi has returned to her decaying villa to read, meditate and hope. She had anticipated a guilty verdict and asked her lawyers to provide her with medicines and dozens of new books, including biographies of Winston Churchill and thrillers by John Le Carré. She may be allowed to receive the occasional, censored letter from her two sons in England.
Immaculately dressed in a pink and purple Burmese outfit, Ms Suu Kyi approached diplomats in the courtroom before being led away. "I look forward very much to working together for the peace and prosperity of my country and the world," she said. No one can guess when that time will come.
For now, the verdict will snuff out any prospect of better relations between the junta and Western nations. US President Barack Obama called for her "immediate unconditional release", while Gordon Brown said he was "saddened and angry" and that Britain would campaign for a total arms embargo against the Burmese regime. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the verdict "brutal and unjust" and urged the European Union to quickly adopt new sanctions. The UN Security Council met last night to discuss the verdict.
Back in Rangoon, riot police manned roadblocks around the prison and there was heavy security across the monsoon-soaked city. Around 200 supporters of Ms Suu Kyi gathered outside Insein for the verdict and dispersed quietly after it was announced. "Everyone is disappointed – and angry," said one 34-year-old supporter who gave his name only as Win. "But we cannot shout or march. We know these police will shoot us."
Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in Burma's last elections in 1990, but the generals refused to accept the result. Critics say next year's elections cannot be free and fair with Ms Suu Kyi, and more than 2,000 other dissidents, behind bars. "So long as Aung San Suu Kyi and all those political opponents imprisoned in Burma remain in detention, the planned elections in 2010 will have no credibility," said Mr Brown.
John Yettaw: 'Well-intentioned' man in hot water
*Friends and family of John Yettaw said they were stunned by the harsh seven-year sentence handed down to a "well-intentioned" man.
His ex-wife, Yvonne, said from California that she was shocked: "Our children are stunned. He went out there with good intentions but without thinking of the consequences."
Mr Yettaw's lawyers will appeal against the sentence. Diplomats are hopeful that he will be granted clemency, possibly on health grounds, and allowed to return to the US.
The asthmatic former soldier, who has recently been in hospital after suffering epileptic seizures, was arrested on his second visit to Burma. He told officials he had been driven to swim across Rangoon's Inya Lake to Aung San Suu Kyi's home after receiving a warning from God that she was to be killed. While travelling elsewhere in Asia, he told fellow backpackers he was researching a book on forgiveness and trauma.
On an earlier visit to Aung San Suu Kyi's home last November, Mr Yettaw was sent away from her door but in May he was allowed to stay.
His son Clint died two years ago in a motorcycle accident. His stepson, Paul Nedrow, said: "After Clint's death, he took something that was already of intense interest to him because of previous experiences in his life, healing and forgiveness after traumatic events, and threw himself into his research."
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