Page last updated at 03:15 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 04:15 UK

Why is Burma's junta afraid of Suu Kyi?

Burma's generals
Burma's generals have detained Aung San Suu Kyi for 13 of the past 19 years

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

The trial of Burma's renowned opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is being held in secret, behind the walls of the country's most notorious jail, the aptly named Insein Prison.

Anyone approaching the prison had to pass through two lines of barbed-wire barricades, manned by armed police. Very few did. Four EU diplomats were refused entry.

A small handful of sympathisers were allowed to stage a silent vigil between the two cordons. Her lawyers were instructed not to repeat any of the testimony given in court.

It sounds like the trial of a dangerous, terrorist suspect.

But the defendants are a waif-like 63-year-old woman and her two female companions, accused of nothing more than allowing an uninvited well-wisher, an American, who had swum across the lake to reach her home, to stay until he had recovered from his exhaustion.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent much of the past two decades under house arrest, the last six years in such severe isolation that she has had almost no opportunity to communicate with the outside world.

Her party, which resoundingly won the last election 19 years ago, has been weakened and divided by almost constant military harassment.

Meanwhile the army, her nemesis, has more than doubled in size, has extended its control into all areas of life and now consumes around 40% of the national budget.

Powerful figure

So Ms Suu Kyi does not appear to pose much of a threat. Yet even as she has been increasingly isolated, her potency as a symbol of the hunger so many Burmese clearly have for change and an end to military rule seems to have grown.

Insein prison
Aung San Suu Kyi is being held at the Insein prison in Rangoon

Qualities that have sometimes provoked quiet criticism of her leadership style when she was free, like her aloofness and her stubborn adherence to principle, have made her appear more heroic as a prisoner.

Her lonely stand has won her passionate admirers across the world, including, presumably, the hapless American John Yettaw whose misguided attempt to meet her has now got her into such trouble. There is simply no political figure in Burma who can match her crowd-pulling charisma.

And that worries the military as it prepares the ground for the country's first election in 20 years.

Widely dismissed outside Burma as a sham, because it guarantees to preserve the predominant role of the armed forces in politics and society, this election matters a great deal to Than Shwe, the ageing, secretive general who still calls most of the shots in Burma.

It will allow him to cast off the stain of illegitimacy which has haunted Burma's military rulers for the past two decades and give them a veneer of legitimacy.

Electoral legitimacy is something I have heard Burmese ministers go on and on about at length during my own visits there.

Their main complaint is the legitimacy Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, has always claimed from its 1990 election victory, an election the military later annulled.

This seems to infuriate them, and these ministers go to extraordinary lengths to try to discredit these claims. Legitimacy, it seems, is a big issue for the generals, as is security.

'Than Shwe's succession'

"Next year's election is all about Than Shwe's succession," says Aung Naing Oo, a former student activist now living in exile in Thailand.

Aung San Suu Kyi

"He is obsessed with assuring his security once he steps down after the election. So he is being very careful about who is put in key positions. He has to make sure nothing goes wrong."

Than Shwe has not forgotten the last time he released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, in 2002, in the mistaken belief that Western sanctions would be eased in return.

They were not and she was greeted as a national saviour, mobbed by huge crowds as she travelled around the country. A year later, dozens of her supporters had been killed or jailed by military-backed thugs, and she was back under house arrest.

That is why there is a clause in the military-drafted constitution barring anyone "who enjoys the rights and privileges of a foreign citizen" from running for office - Ms Suu Kyi, through her marriage to the late British academic Michael Aris, falls into that category.

There was never much realistic hope that she would be released before the election. A criminal conviction now would disqualify her from contesting the election even as a candidate. The chances are she will still be in custody when it takes place.

So what about afterwards?

Once the generals have, in their own view, consigned the 1990 election to the history books by holding an election they are more or less guaranteed to win, perhaps then they will have the confidence to release Aung San Suu Kyi.

And perhaps, once Than Shwe, who is 76 and often in poor health, has left the scene, Burma may see a gradual softening of its repressive political climate. But no-one is counting on it.

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