Myanmar Opposition Leader To Stand Trial Again

A lawyer for Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she has been charged with violating terms of her house arrest and could face a prison term of up to five years. The trial is scheduled to begin Monday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was taken to prison this morning. She's being charged with violating the terms of her house arrest. The case against her involves an unusual visitor: an American man who managed to swim right up to Suu Kyi's lakeside home, and then was allowed to spend the night. The American was also arrested as he swam away the next day.

Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years. NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan joins us now.

And Michael, a strange case, really, also could seem to be very serious for this Nobel Peace Prize winner.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Yeah, it's very strange, but for her, I mean, she faces five years in prison if she's convicted. And you know, that's five years, Renee, for a woman who's already spent, as you said, 13 of the past 19 years either in prison or under house arrest after her party won the landslide victory in 1990 elections called by the military, which then, of course, ignored the results.

The timing of this whole thing, Renee, is very, very interesting too, because her current house arrest is set to expire later this month. And there are many democracy activists and diplomats who say these charges provide a very convenient way for the regime to put her away again, to get her out of the way as they prepare for general elections next year.

MONTAGNE: Was there any chance, though, that she would've participated in those elections? Is that what the government's worried about if she was let out from house arrest?

SULLIVAN: She can't actually run against them, no. She's not allowed to. She's been banned from running 'cause she was married to a foreigner, even though her husband, an Englishman, has now passed away. But she does remain hugely popular, and her National League for Democracy still retains a great deal of support.

And if the regime had let her go at the end of her current term, she presumably would've done all she could on behalf of the opposition, even though the opposition and many foreign governments aren't expecting much from this election. They see it as a sham designed to just consolidate the general's grip on power and nothing more.

MONTAGNE: Suu Kyi is not really allowed visitors. Very rarely is she allowed visitors, under very strict circumstances. Do you know anything more about this American who's accused of visiting her by swimming to her compound?

SULLIVAN: It's all still very, very mysterious. I mean, we know his name. His name is John William Yettaw. He's been identified in Myanmar's media as being from Fulton, Missouri. And as you said, he evidently swam to her house on the 3rd of this month, undetected, and he stayed there for a day, possibly two.

Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyer says he wasn't invited and that she, in fact, begged him to leave, probably because she knew the trouble he was causing both of them. But she eventually relented when he said he was tired, and she let him stay.

Many opposition types are skeptical of both him and his intentions. And some are wondering if this whole thing is just a set-up from the word go in order to provide the regime a pretext for extending her detention.

U.S. embassy officials have met with Mr. Yettaw, but they're not saying much. And he, too, is being detained in Insein Prison, though it's not clear what he's going to be charged with.

MONTAGNE: What happens now?

SULLIVAN: Her trial is set to begin, and that of the two women who work for her and live at the house. Those trials are set to begin on Monday. It's not clear how long they will last, or what they're gong to do with Aung San Suu Kyi if she's convicted. But they probably don't want to keep her in prison. She's been pretty sick recently. They probably don't want to take the chance she'll die in prison.

It's probably much more likely they'll just put her under house arrest again, although security will no doubt be a lot tighter than it was when Mr. Yettaw dropped in after his swim. And there's been no word yet on what's going to happen to him, either.

MONTAGNE: Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan.

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Myanmar Opposition Leader Faces New Charges

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured in 2007. i i

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured in 2007, has spent 13 of the past 19 years either in prison or under house arrest for her efforts to promote democracy in military-ruled Myanmar. Myanmar News Agency/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Myanmar News Agency/AP
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured in 2007.

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, pictured in 2007, has spent 13 of the past 19 years either in prison or under house arrest for her efforts to promote democracy in military-ruled Myanmar.

Myanmar News Agency/AP

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was charged Thursday with violating the terms of her house arrest after an American man sneaked into her lakeside home, her lawyer said.

Suu Kyi, 63, has spent 13 of the past 19 years either in prison or under house arrest for her efforts to promote democracy in military-ruled Myanmar. Her latest term of house arrest was set to expire May 27, and she now could face a prison term of up to five years. Many supporters and human rights groups view Thursday's charges as a possible pretext to prevent Suu Kyi's involvement in next year's general elections.

The American man, identified by Myanmar media as 53-year-old John William Yettaw of Missouri, reportedly swam across a lake and entered Suu Kyi's house without her knowledge on May 3. One of Suu Kyi's lawyers said his client asked the man to leave but allowed him to stay for two days after he said he was tired. Yettaw was arrested as he swam back across the lake and was charged with illegally entering a restricted zone and breaking immigration laws, the lawyer said.

"Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems," the lawyer, Kyi Win, told reporters. "He's a fool."

Suu Kyi was set to stand trial Monday at a special court in Yangon's Insein Prison, according to another lawyer, Hla Myo Myint. Two other women who live at the house also were scheduled to go on trial Monday in connection with the incident.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei said Yettaw was not legally represented at Thursday's arraignment but that the embassy was trying to find him an English-speaking lawyer. Myanmar's state television reported Thursday that Yettaw had served two years in the U.S. military and listed his occupations as "student, clinical psychology, Forest Institution." The charges against him carry a maximum combined penalty of six years in prison.

In the past, the junta — which regards Suu Kyi as the biggest threat to its rule — has found reasons to extend her periods of house arrest, which human rights groups say is illegal even under Myanmar's own law.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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