Thursday, 21 May 2009

Suu Kyi allowed to speak out

Myanmar Buddhist monks pray Wednesday during a demonstration in front of the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok Wednesday. AFP

The Phnom Penh Post

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Democracy icon unexpectedly addresses diplomats at trial

YANGON - Myanmar opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi was unexpectedly allowed to speak to diplomats at her internationally condemned trial Wednesday and expressed hope for "better days" in the future.

She smiled and looked healthy as she thanked envoys for coming to Insein prison in her first public comments since the ruling junta charged her last week with breaching her house arrest, an AFP reporter inside the court said.

"Thank you very much for coming and for your support," the 63-year-old, wearing pink Burmese traditional dress, said inside the courtroom at the end of the third day of the trial.

"I can't meet you one by one, but I hope to meet you all in better days," she added.

Aung San Suu Kyi then went for a meeting with the ambassadors of Singapore and Russia and a senior diplomat from Thailand at the so-called "guest house" inside the prison compound where she is being held.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner told the envoys that she was "well and being well treated" in prison, the Singaporean government said.

She also said that she "did not wish to use the intrusion into her home as a way to get at the Myanmar authorities" and expressed hope for "national reconciliation if all parties so wished".

The surprise move by the military regime to allow some diplomats and media access to the trial followed intense international pressure and a scathing condemnation by Myanmar's normally placid Southeast Asian neighbours.

Aung San Suu Kyi faces up to five years in jail if convicted of charges of breaching her house arrest, which stem from an incident earlier this month in which an American man, John Yettaw, swam to her lakeside house.

Authorities held the first two days of hearings behind closed doors and had turned away European diplomats on Monday, but on Wednesday said representatives from all 30 foreign embassies would be allowed in.

The regime also allowed five journalists from foreign news organisations and the same number from local organisations to report on the hearing. Details had previously emerged only in state media or through Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyers.

But diplomats said they did not have much confidence in the trial.

"I think this is a story where the conclusion is already scripted," the British ambassador to Yangon, Mark Canning, told the BBC.

"I don't have any confidence in the outcome. While the access we had today was very welcome, it doesn't change the fundamental problem."

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the last 19 years in detention since the regime refused to recognise her party's landslide victory in the last elections to be held in Myanmar in 1990.

Thailand was picked because it holds the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while the Singaporean envoy is the doyen of Yangon's diplomatic corps and Russia heads the UN Security Council.

The Southeast Asian bloc, which has faced trouble with Myanmar since admitting the country in 1997, warned on Tuesday that the regime's "honour and credibility" were at stake over Aung San Suu Kyi's trial.

EU nations have said they are mulling tighter sanctions over the handling of the trial, while US President Barack Obama formally extended American sanctions last week.

The EU may also ask China to pressure Myanmar's military junta to free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an EU commissioner said Wednesday.

The 27-nation group, which outlaws weapons sales to Myanmar, curbs financing for its state-run companies and won't allow junta leaders to visit Europe, wants Asian powers such as China and India to pressure Myanmar's ruling generals to free Suu Kyi.

EU officials may ask their Chinese counterparts including Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to use their influence with Myanmar's junta when they meet to discuss EU-China ties in Prague.

"We have to reinforce the dialogue with Burma's neighbors," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner who will participate in the summit.

"It should at least be always a discussion point with China, with India and with others."

While relations between the EU and China have warmed since then, the reaction in Asia to Aung San Suu Kyi's trial has been muted so far, and the bloc's demands for the Chinese government to pressure Myanmar may fall on deaf ears.

"Myanmar's issue should be decided by the people of Myanmar," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters in Beijing.

"As a neighbor of Myanmar, we hope that relevant parties in Myanmar can realise reconciliation, stability and development through dialogue."

China may be more receptive to the EU's entreaties than it acknowledges publicly, and European officials believe the Chinese government can make inroads with Myanmar's leaders, said Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels.

"It's one of the main things that could happen at the summit," Erixon said by phone. "Her imprisonment is almost a matter of religion in Europe. This is a big issue, and it's also an issue where Europe believes they can get China to do things."

Critics say the junta has trumped up the charges to keep Aung San Suu Kyi locked up during elections due next year, and also to beat a May 27 deadline when her latest six-year period of detention expires.

The trial on Wednesday heard from only one police witness about the arrest of Yettaw, who used a pair of homemade flippers to swim across the lake before spending two days at Aung San Suu Kyi's residence.

Yettaw, a 53-year-old former US army veteran from Missouri, and two female aides who live with the opposition leader are also on trial.

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