YANGON, Myanmar – Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial Monday, as hundreds of riot police ringed Myanmar’s most notorious prison to block protesters from proceedings that could send her to jail for five years.
Suu Kyi, who has already spend more than 13 of the last 19 years in detention, has been charged with violating the conditions of her house arrest by sheltering an American man who swam to her lakeside home to secretly visit her earlier this month.
The ambassadors of Britain, France, Germany and Italy as well as an Australian diplomat were barred from entering the prison, but the U.S. consul was allowed into the prison compound since the intruder – American citizen John Yettaw – is also on trial.
Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, but she does not have British citizenship, though she could apply for it.
More than 100 Suu Kyi supporters broke through an outer perimeter of barricades around Insein prison in Yangon, but not the inner one that was closely guarded by armed police and government supporters. One young protester was seen being taken away by police.
Yettaw’s family members have described him as well-intentioned and unaware of the problems he could cause by trying to talk with Suu Kyi, but her supporters have expressed anger at him for getting the Nobel Peace laureate into trouble. Suu Kyi’s lawyers have said the 53-year-old was not invited to her residence and that she told him to leave.
Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party and one of four lawyers representing her at her trial, said the court rejected their request to open the trial to the public and media “for security reasons.” He added that they would continue to seek to have the proceeding made public.
“We are certain that we will win the case if it goes according to law because she didn’t break the law,” said Nyan Win, speaking at the party’s headquarters. Courts in military-run Myanmar have rarely ruled in favour of Suu Kyi or any pro-democracy activists.
He said Suu Kyi “looks very fresh and alert just like before,” and had asked the lawyers to tell her friends that she is well.
Suu Kyi had been scheduled to be freed May 27 after six consecutive years of house arrest, but the ruling junta was widely expected to yet again extend her detention period. International lawyers say this would have been illegal under Myanmar’s own laws.
The latest charges are widely seen as a pretext for the government to keep Suu Kyi detained past elections it has scheduled for next year as the culmination of a “roadmap to democracy” which has been criticized as a fig leaf for continued military control.
Suu Kyi, two female party members who are her sole companions under house arrest, and Yettaw are being tried together for violating the conditions of her restriction order, which bans any visitors without official permission.
Yettaw is being tried separately for violations of immigration law and a statute covering swimming in the city’s Inya Lake.