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Hopes and fears over Suu Kyi trial

Portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi in Bangkok during her 64th birthday - 19/6/2009
Photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi are banned in Burma

The trial of Burma's pro-democracy leader on charges of breaking the terms of her house arrest has been proceeding in fits and starts at a court inside Rangoon's Insein prison, but a verdict is expected soon.

A BBC correspondent in Burma spoke to people about their hopes and fears for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Foreign journalists are barred from Burma, so our correspondent must remain anonymous for his own safety.

In Burma's second city, Mandalay, the streets are full of bicycles at rush hour as men and women head to their places of work and study.

But behind the picture-postcard setting of palaces and stupas [temples], is a country where people can be arrested for telling a joke or having a photograph of jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Behind closed doors, in the security of their homes and among those they can trust, people hand out pictures of Ms Suu Kyi.

To be caught by police with her photograph is cause enough to be imprisoned. To be caught talking to a foreign journalist means risking a sentence to a term in one of Burma's many jails.

But people are angry and want the world to know of their plight and their reverence for the woman referred to as The Lady.

She is the symbol of what was and what may be.

'Only hope'

To many Aung San Suu Kyi remains the symbol of the hopes of those opposed to the generals who rule this country.

U Bein's Bridge in Mandalay - file photo
Talking to foreign journalists risks a jail sentence in Burma

I had to travel to the 200-year-old U Bein's Bridge on the outskirts of the city to meet an opposition supporter.

On the world's longest teak bridge, we met with a handshake and checked that nobody could listen to us.

Carefully, he took a picture from shirt pocket and handed it to me.

It is a colour picture of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. He had been given it that morning at his friend's house.

I asked him: why do people see her as so important?

"People love Aung San Suu Kyi. People believe Aung San Suu Kyi. She's our only hope."

Just saying these words could lead to imprisonment.

Looking over his shoulder at a couple of passing monks, he waited until they had walked by. In Burma, even the holy men are looked at with suspicion. Informers are everywhere.

"We love her. She is the hope of the people. If she was jailed the people will be angry. And this could be the small spark that can burn down the palace," he told me.

With elections due next year, many believe that her arrest is a convenient way for the generals to keep the one person they fear out of the way.

But the people are poor in Mandalay. Inflation is high and many have to keep more than one job to provide for their families.

A LIFE IN DETENTION

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
May 2009: Charged with breaking conditions of house arrest after a US national breaks into her compound

And nobody trusts the police. Everyone I asked about the problems in Mandalay pointed at the police, who are constantly requesting money.

Memories of the 2007 protests, when monks and opposition supporters marched through the streets of this city, are still fresh in the mind. People are afraid.

One man I met had been jailed for handing a monk a bottle of water during the protests in 2007.

"People will not show their anger, but in their hearts they are sad," he told me.

"When the protestors went down the streets, crowds lined the roadside and cheered them. But the people are poor. Nobody could give them food - so they handed out water. And anyone who offered anyone a drink was arrested, and many were taken away to prison for months."

People will be watching for news from Insein Prison in Rangoon.

But will the iconic status they give the woman in the dock lead the people of Mandalay into the streets once again, or will fear of the government force them to keep their support for all she stands for only in their hearts.



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