Suu Kyi Faces Jail After Uninvited Guest

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Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi meets with the ruling junta's labor minister, Aung Kyi, in Rangoon on January 30, 2008 in this file handout picture

The Lady was in court, but with the trial in Burma's commercial capital Rangoon closed to the public, few knew whether she wore her trademark flowers in her hair. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who's known in Burma simply as "the Lady," was dragged to the notorious Insein Prison on Thursday morning to face charges of disobeying the terms of her house arrest. On May 3, according to the Burmese state press, an American man illegally swam across a lake to Suu Kyi's waterfront villa and snuck into her compound for two nights. Foreigners are not allowed to stay overnight in Burmese houses — and Suu Kyi is no ordinary lady. The leader of Burma's crushed democratic opposition, she has been confined to her crumbling home by the ruling junta for much of the past two decades. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won nationwide elections by a landslide in 1990 only to have the military regime, which has been in power since 1962, ignore them.

Suu Kyi's trial is due to begin on May 18, according to one of her lawyers. Two housekeepers, who have lived with Suu Kyi since her latest stint of house arrest began in 2003, were also charged. A doctor, one of the only other people with regular access to the opposition leader, was detained a day after the swimmer was arrested while trying to swim back to shore from Suu Kyi's home. Though Suu Kyi's lawyer has said she was upset to discover an unexpected visitor in her home, the democracy activist could still face five years in jail if she is convicted. (See pictures of Burma after Cyclone Nargis.)

After several days of stone-walling by the Burmese regime, an American diplomat was allowed to meet with the detained American swimmer, who was identified by the official Burmese media as 53-year-old former military serviceman John William Yettaw of Falcon, Missouri. Previous articles about him in the state press spelled his name different ways, but U.S. public records online do point to the existence of a John W. Yettaw residing in the Ozarks. Kyi Win, another of Suu Kyi's lawers, said that her uninvited guest was a Mormon; a 2007 obituary for a son of John W. Yettaw said the deceased young man had also been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

On Thursday morning, along with the charges read against Suu Kyi and her housekeepers, Yettaw was charged with entering a restricted area and contravening immigration regulations. His motives for his alleged lake exploits remain unclear.

The incident of the midnight swimmer came just weeks before Suu Kyi's latest round of house arrest was set to expire. But, even prior to the charges stemming from Yettaw's visit, another of her laywers said that her latest appeal for freedom had been denied by the junta. Some international observers had hoped that the military regime would soften its grip on Suu Kyi as the country prepares for elections next year. The army government calls the polls the final step in its formation of a "discipline-flourishing democracy." But scores of NLD members languish in jail, and intimidation of opposition parties by junta goons continues unabated. Polls may well be held in 2010, but they will not take place on a level playing field. Top posts will be reserved for members of the military, and arcane rules have been designed to keep Suu Kyi and other NLD stalwarts from running for office. Burma-watchers also fear that ballot boxes will be stuffed to ensure that the military doesn't lose as it did so spectacularly in 1990.

In the days after her aquatic houseguest visited, Suu Kyi was reportedly feeling unwell. NLD colleagues reported that she was feeling dehydrated and was suffering from low blood pressure. The health of the 63-year-old is watched anxiously not only by Burma's democratic opposition, but by many other Burmese who revere her with a singular — if hushed — devotion. On sensitive dates related to the doomed democracy movement, some women put flowers in their hair, a subtle show of support for the silenced activist. Now, with the Lady suddenly in jail, flowers may bloom in Rangoon anew.

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