Page last updated at 20:24 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 21:24 UK

Burma tense as Suu Kyi is tried

Riot Police officers adjust barricades at a road block near Insein prison in Rangoon on Monday, on 18 May
Security was tight around the jail where Aung San Suu Kyi is being held

Burma's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been spending the past few days inside Insein Prison - and her trial is being watched with concern by the international community and fear and apprehension inside the country. All foreign journalists are barred from Burma, so our correspondent in Rangoon must remain anonymous for his own safety.

There are very few people in Burma willing to talk to a stranger about politics, let alone Aung San Suu Kyi.

Across this country she is spoken about in hushed tones and even then only referred to as "the lady" in English.

She became an icon of the pro-democracy movement more than two decades ago, but has spent 13 of those years locked up under house arrest.

Security outside her home at 54, University Avenue Road, is normally tighter than a military base, but in the last few days it has been possible to drive past and even film, as the "lady" has been moved to Insein Prison outside Rangoon.

We see her [Aung San Suu Kyi] like a Nelson Mandela figure - one day she will be, but it may still take a long time
Unidentified Burmese

It was a security breach which led to her being charged and to the start of her trial for breaking the conditions of her house arrest.

A mysterious American by the name of John Yettaw swam across the lake which backs on to her house, and for some reason stayed the night, and then another night.

Although her lawyers claim she was not the guilty party, the government has decided to throw the book at her - if found guilty of breaking the rules by having someone stay, she faces anything between three and five years in jail.

Insein maximum security prison was built by the British colonialists in the 19th Century when it was the biggest jail in the Empire.


Now it is the most feared in Burma - especially when lengthy jail terms are given to people denied the right of free speech and locked up for critical opinions of the ruling junta.

But on Monday "the lady" appeared well - "perky and in good spirits" - according to the few able to report back on the first day of her trial.

She has got to be released, so must the more than 2,000 political prisoners who are also being held
Mark Canning
UK Ambassador to Rangoon

Her lawyer tabled a motion that the court should be opened to observers, but the request was denied.

The first two of 22 state witnesses were called as the proceedings got under way - also in court was the adventurous American.

It is not known how long the trial will go on, but it could be weeks rather than days according to her lawyer.

There are many conspiracy theories here over why he went through such an effort to avoid the guards and pay her a visit.

Anti-government websites show him, home-made flippers and all, making his way across the lake with the police deliberately looking the other way.

Generals' chance

It seems unlikely, but the point is it could not have worked out better for the generals running the country, planning an election next year, and wanting the icon of the opposition out of the public eye.

They like a semblance of legality here to legitimise their position and the expiry of Aung San Suu Kyi's six-year term of house arrest at the end of the month was going to give them some problems - until an American man with a mission washed up on her shores.

Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi gather near Insein jail in Rangoon on Monday
Dozens of Ms Suu Kyi's supporters gathered outside Insein in quiet protest

Before the trial began the British ambassador and three other top level European diplomats arrived at the prison asking for access as they would get in most other places in the world.

They were not only refused, they were prevented from even reaching the front door.

"We've seen a number of moves recently which show the way in which the elections are likely to be conducted will be every bit as unsatisfactory as we feared," said Mark Canning, the British ambassador to Rangoon.

"Clearly to have an election that carries any credibility in the region and more widely a number of things have to happen.

"She has got to be released, so must the more than 2,000 political prisoners who are also being held, and there has to be the start of a meaningful process of dialogue between the government, the oppositions and the ethnic nationalities."

The riot police were out in force, manning barricades on the approach roads and filming and photographing anyone suspected of protesting against the government.

Fear widespread

Demonstrations here are a dangerous business.

After the last protests of 2007, when the monks took to the streets, the number of political prisoners being held in Burma doubled.

They are still being held today, along with opposition politicians brave enough to speak out and those who were too vocal in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis which struck Burma's delta a year ago.

There is a real sense of fear and paranoia on the streets - and it is not necessarily misplaced, as there are informers everywhere.

1988: Military junta comes to power after crushing pro-democracy uprising
1989: Martial law declared; opposition NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi put under house arrest
1990: NLD wins elections; result rejected by the ruling junta
1995: Suu Kyi released from house arrest, but movements restricted
Sept 2000: Put under house arrest again when she tried to defy travel restrictions
May 2002: Released unconditionally
May 2003: Detained after clash between NLD and government forces
Sept 2003: Allowed home after operation, but under effective house arrest. In the years since, the orders for her detention periodically renewed

If we approached anyone in the street and started asking openly about the government or the situation - with or without a camera - we would be arrested and so would they in a matter of minutes.

Finding someone who will be honest with a stranger is difficult, but one man did agree to talk to us.

"People are angry - they are very angry about what the military has done," he said. "The trial is simply to keep 'the lady' out of the way because they are afraid of her.

"We see her like a Nelson Mandela figure. One day she will be, but it may still take a long time.

"She is still the person everyone looks up to, but she has been detained a long time - we will also need a prime minister to run the country day to day, and I am not sure where that person will come from."

The international condemnation - particularly from the West - has been strong, with talk of more sanctions, but most admit they have had only a limited impact.

Strong grip

Burma is a country rich with oil and gas, timber and gemstones, and there are countries willing to support the ruling generals for a generous share in their resources.

Much of Thailand's gas comes from Burma, the oil fields are some of the richest in South-East Asia, and the influence of China is strong in business and in culture.

There has been little word from their giant northern neighbours over the Burma generals' human rights record, but that does not come as a surprise to people here.

They heard little news of the trial until the evening news, which devoted a few short seconds to a report on its opening.

They may be angry, but the government still has a strong grip on this country.

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