‘There were gasps in court, but all she did was smile’

Author: By Phoebe Kennedy in Rangoon

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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