Sunday, June 7, 2009

7-6-09 Tensions rise ahead of Suu Kyi verdict by Larry Jagan

BANGKOK// There are signs of growing unrest in Myanmar as the country readies itself for a verdict in the trial of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Diplomats in Yangon believe the recent delays in the trial reflects a growing nervousness among the regime’s military leaders over what to do about Ms Suu Kyi and there are fears a conviction will unleash a wave of political protests similar to those in September 2007.

The signs of unrest are already evident. Every night in Yangon, “Free Aung San Suu Kyi” is scrawled across government buildings in white paint.

“The security forces are busy all night and morning scrubbing off the slogans as quickly as they find them” said a Yangon resident, who declined to be identified.

The spray paint attacks are being replicated in many cities and towns throughout the country, according to opposition sources. Even in ethnic minority areas in the Kachin and Shan states, young activists are spraying slogans on government buildings and handing out pamphlets.

“Ethnic youth are demanding Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate release,” said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the Myanmar opposition based in Thailand. “This is very important.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is facing five years in prison if she is convicted of the charges that she broke the conditions of her house arrest by allowing an uninvited visitor, John William Yettaw, to stay at her residence. She says she is innocent.

The trial is due to resume this week inside Insein prison following several delays and the verdict is expected next week.

In another sign of growing tensions, Myanmar authorities summoned members of Ms Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party to rebuke them for provoking “unrest” over a statement critical of her trial, state media reported yesterday.

Four senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) met officials for 30 minutes on Friday after comments by the party’s youth wing were leaked to the website of a prominent blogger, the New Light of Myanmar said.

“Though NLD has rights for freedom of speech, the announcement ... has harmed peace and stability and prevalence of law and order in the country and disturbed the trial proceedings of a court,” the paper reported in English.

“That can mislead the people into misunderstanding the government, incite activities that may harm the public respect for the government, and cause unrest.”

The junta in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is coming under increased international pressure to release Ms Suu Kyi, with the leaders of Britain, France and the United States all making demands.

Young members of the NLD are preparing a silent protest in the event she is convicted. Students and other young people with no political affiliations have also joined the underground campaign to free Ms Suu Kyi.

The campaign is handing out leaflets and pictures of Ms Suu Kyi throughout the country. In several towns where the NLD have strong bases, including Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, more than a thousand photos of her are distributed daily, as the campaigners dodge the police and security who are trying to stop them.

“Young monks are also angry and preparing to vent their feelings if Suu Kyi is not freed soon,” a senior Buddhist monk in Yangon said on condition of anonymity.

The monks are still seething after the government’s brutal crackdown on their protest movement, the Saffron Revolt, in Sept 2007.

Some young people have now formed the Myay All Zav group and intend to challenge the government in every possible way if Ms Suu Kyi is sentenced to jail at the end of this trial. “We’ll sacrifice our lives if we need to,” said one of the group’s leaders.

Critics say Ms Suu Kyi’s trial was part of a plan by Gen Than Shwe to make sure she did not sabotage plans to introduce a civilian government dominated by the military after next year’s scheduled elections. However, instead of a quiet trial and sentencing, the situation is escalating.

“With one fell swoop, Than Shwe has undermined his own strategy of trying to sideline Aung San Suu Kyi,” a senior western diplomat who knows the opposition leader well said. “Than Shwe’s actions have proved once again that she remains in everyone’s minds – inside and outside the country – as Burma’s real leader.”

“The regime is really worried now: they never expected the international community to be so vociferous and united in pressuring them,” said Zin Linn.

He said this brought about the temporary suspension of the trial – when it was surprisingly adjourned last week. This was probably to allow the junta leaders to formulate their strategy to deal with the mounting pressure and the growing unrest.

“There’s been an unusual string of surprises since the secret trial started,” a western diplomat in Yangon said on condition of anonymity.

“First they let diplomats and some journalists into the court on certain occasions, then they adjourned the hearing for more than a week on a pretext, and now they are allowing the court to hear a challenge against the trial judges’ decision not to allow all the defence witnesses, and delaying the final sessions for at least another week.”

On Friday, Ms Suu Kyi’s defence team, instead of summing up their case as planned, were allowed to present their arguments to a higher court that they should be allowed more than one witness. The prosecution brought 14 witnesses to the stand – all but one were police officers – while the judges limited the defence’s proposed four witnesses to one.

“If you look at the numbers it is one-sided, and that is why we have made this application,” said Kyi Win, Ms Suu Kyi’s chief lawyer. “It is not in accord with the law to reject defence witnesses like this. And we pointed it out to the court [during Friday’s hearing],” defence counsel Nyan Win said.

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