Grave but confident, Burma's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi testified before a prison court yesterday, saying she did not violate her house arrest by admitting a man who swam to her lakeside home.
In front of diplomats and journalists, who were allowed inside the courtroom at Rangoon's Insein prison for a second time, Ms Suu Kyi said she had given the US army veteran John Yettaw "temporary shelter". She said she first knew of his bizarre visit at dawn on 4 May, when her housekeeper woke her to say a man had arrived at the dilapidated villa where she has been held, incommunicado, since 2003.
When asked by a judge whether she had breached the restriction order keeping her at her residence, the 63-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner replied firmly: "I didn't."
Mark Canning, Britain's ambassador to Burma who was allowed into the court, said: "She made it clear that this whole thing had been thrust upon her. When pressed about why he [Mr Yettaw] did it, she said they should ask him – after all, he was sitting just 10 feet away."
Ms Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest or in jail for 13 of the past 19 years, faces a prison term of up to five years, if, as widely expected, she is found guilty of breaching the terms of her detention by failing to report Mr Yettaw's arrival to security officials guarding her house. She pleaded not guilty to the charges on Friday.
Mr Yettaw, a Mormon from Missouri, has said he swam more than half a mile across Inya Lake to warn Ms Suu Kyi of a vision he had that she would be assassinated. He left behind various items, including a pair of homemade flippers and two black chadors, cloaks which are worn by some Muslim women.
Dressed in a lilac traditional Burmese outfit of a fitted jacket and long skirt, Ms Suu Kyi, who is the daughter of Burma's independence hero, General Aung San, was questioned for about half an hour yesterday. She told the court she did not inform the military authorities about Mr Yettaw's intrusion. "I allowed him to have temporary shelter," Ms Suu Kyi said when asked about claims that she had given him food and let him stay.
She said Mr Yettaw left at 11.45pm on 5 May, adding: "I only knew that he went to the lakeside. I did not know which way he went because it was dark."
Mr Yettaw's antics are a political gift for Burma's military junta, which can use them as a pretext to keep the popular figurehead of peaceful resistance locked up during and beyond elections due next year. The authorities had considered freeing her, Brigadier General Myint Thein said, but the situation had "regretfully" changed since the incident involving Mr Yettaw.
Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in the country's last elections in 1990, but she was never allowed to take power.
Yesterday she walked over to the diplomats in the courtroom and said she welcomed their presence. "It's always good to see people from the outside world," Mr Canning quoted her as saying. She was later led away by three female guards. Her lawyer said he expected the trial to last four or five more days.
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