Aung San Suu Kyi
A 2007 photo of
Aung San Suu Kyi,
released by a Myanmar state-controlled
newspaper. Suu Kyi has been under
house arrest for more than 14 years. 

Suu Kyi Stands Trial in Myanmar

July 10, 2009 06:45 PM
by Liz Colville
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s powerless National League for Democracy party, faces charges based on an abolished constitution.

Trial Over Man Swimming to Detained Leader’s House

The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, the would-be leader of Myanmar, rests on the issue of whether an American man, John William Yettaw, 53, caused Suu Kyi to violate a restriction against her by swimming to her house. Suu Kyi “has already spent more than 13 of the last 19 years, including the past six, in detention and house arrest,” according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Under the provisions of the charge, Suu Kyi is “prohibited from having contact with embassies and political parties and she is barred from communicating with the outside world,” CBC reports.

But as the trial resumed on July 10, the final defense witness for Suu Kyi, a lawyer and member of the National League of Democracy party, argued that that restriction does not apply because Suu Kyi was “charged under a constitution that was abolished in 1988.”

In May 2008, Suu Kyi’s sentence was extended, Reuters reported at the time. The move came just weeks after a cyclone was estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people, Amnesty International reported.

In total, Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for nearly 14 years, and is “one of more than 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar,” according to Amnesty International.

Background: Myanmar government blocks disaster aid

Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar on May 2-3, 2008. It is believed to have killed as many as 100,000 people and left more than a million homeless, according to Amnesty International. Aid agencies attempted to reach the country to provide food, medical supplies and temporary shelter, but the government blocked many of these efforts until finally, on May 25, 2008, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon negotiated and was able to open the country to foreign aid

But as Amnesty International notes, “It is impossible to know how many of the 140,000 people who died or are missing were victims of the government's inaction, as opposed to the cyclone itself.” Encyclopedia Britannica commented on the country’s “insular military regime, which appeared to be more focused on preparing for a referendum on a new constitution than on assisting the more than two million people affected by the cyclone.”

Reference: Profile and history of Myanmar (formerly Burma)

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a small country in Asia bordered by Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand. A military junta has ruled Myanmar since a military coup in 1962.

The history of Myanmar involves, like many countries in turmoil, colonialism. Ruled by the British since the Victorian era, the country achieved independence in 1948, but according to Thomas Lansner’s “Brief History of Burma,” it was “beset by ethnic strife” as minority groups sought autonomy from the Burmese majority. This new government survived 14 years before the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) took over.

The BSPP prevented free elections and crushed “freedom of expression and association” for 26 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, protests by student and labor groups were routinely quashed, and “[t]orture, political imprisonment, and other human rights abuses were common.”

Politically, there seemed to be hope for Burma in 1990 when 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won the country’s “first multi-party elections for 30 years,” according to the BBC. But her party was never allowed to govern, and the junta has continued its reign.

Key Player: Aung San Suu Kyi (1945- )

Aung San Suu Kyi was born in 1945 in Rangoon, Myanmar (then Burma). Her father, the commander of the Burma Independence Army, was assassinated when she was two years old, according to her biography. Suu Kyi graduated from Oxford University in 1967. She joined the U.N. secretariat in New York and married and had two children with Michael Aris, a Briton. While raising her family, Suu Kyi wrote articles and books on Burma. She was inspired to join Burmese politics after the country’s dictator, General Ne Win, retired in 1988, sparking demonstrations against military rule. The demonstrations were followed by violent suppression by the military.

Soon put on house arrest, Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” That same year, the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov human rights prize, according to the Nobel Prize Web site.

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