Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday behind bars

Aung San Suu KyiSitting inside a small, purpose-built cell within Burma's notorious Insein prison, democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi today turns 64.

Suu Kyi, no stranger to long periods of isolation, will most likely spend part of her day in meditation: a practice that she admits sees her through the most difficult times.

Like the hundreds of other political prisoners who suffer ill-treatment inside Burmese jails, she may also notice the little things that those on the 'outside' often overlook: birds chirping, the measured walk of an insect across a wall, the sound of late afternoon rains rolling overheard, distant city sounds — cars, horns and buses.

For the first time, rather than being under house arrest, Suu Kyi is being held on criminal charges. She faces the prospect of spending between three to five years behind bars in the former capital's central prison.

Just long enough, observers say, for the Burmese generals to keep her out of the way in the lead up to planned elections in 2010, and away from the transitional process that the elections may usher in.

Suu Kyi was due to be released on 27 May. However, the arrival of a strange and unexpected visitor, American tourist, John Yettaw, changed all that.

Yettaw made his second visit, this time in a much publicised two kilometre swim across Inya Lake to her compound, where she was held under house arrest for nearly 14 years. Observed by policemen who, according to Yettaw, threw rocks at him, he was able to elude security personnel and enter the compound.

Inside, he pressed Suu Kyi's two female assistants from her political party, the National League for Democracy. After initially asking him to leave, Suu Kyi agreed to let him stay the night due to his apparent poor health.

For the Burmese military authorities, having confined Suu Kyi for the maximum length of time under the terms of their own laws, Yettaw's visit was timely. Burma requires all non-family overnight visitors to be registered and forbids overnight stays by foreigners. Suu Kyi was charged with violating the terms of her house arrest.

Charged under Section 22 of the aptly titled 'Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements', on 14 May she was ordered to stand trial in Insein prison. The charges and trial met with widespread condemnation from the international community. But Burmese authorities have continued to pursue the case.

In Burma trials involving political prisoners (who currently number 2155) are notoriously short and often held in secret. Many political prisoners were last year sentenced to terms ranging from 10 to 65 years.

But as a small concession in response to international criticism, a number of diplomats and a handful of journalists were allowed to observe some parts of this trial. The regime has also uncharacteristically made some effort to see that court procedure and protocols are followed.

British Ambassador, Mark Canning told the BBC that 'all the paraphernalia of the courtroom was there, the judges, the prosecution, the defense. But I think this is a story where the conclusion is already scripted.'

Since the charges have been brought, two members of Suu Kyi's legal team have had their licenses revoked. The wife of another of her lawyers has been sacked from her job. Key witnesses, such as members of the police and security personnel on duty at the time of the alleged offence, have not been called.

Another key witness, Suu Kyi's personal physician, Dr Tin Myo Win, who met Yettaw on his first visit to her compound in 2008, is mysteriously absent from the proceedings.

After Suu Kyi's lawyers appealed to the Appeals Court to allow the testimony of key defence witnesses who had been banned from appearing in the case, the divisional court to which the case was remitted reinstated one of the witnesses.

But it upheld the ban on another two witnesses (both senior members of the National League for Democracy). The Appeals Court has agreed to hear an appeal against this decision. It is clearly in the regime's interests to prevent the League from using the trial as a political platform.

So, despite all the 'bells and whistles' of a Burmese court, Suu Kyi is unlikely to receive a fair trial and will most likely spend the next few years in prison, unless there is a dramatic turn of events. This is undoubtedly happening by the decision of the Generals.

Suu Kyi won't be able to hear from her cell the sounds of the latest Burmese military offensive, ostensibly against ethnic Karen insurgents along the border with Thailand. Some say this offensive has been made to deflect attention from the political activity surrounding the trial in Rangoon.

Whatever the motive, the offensive has attacked innocent Karen civilians. At last account it has displaced more than 600 families — mainly women and children. These people have been left vulnerable at the beginning of the monsoon season. The rains are already making it difficult to provide basic shelter, clothing and food, and leave them at high risk of contracting malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever.

Suu Kyi's birthday behind bars may not be the happiest of occasions, but the day does give us pause to consider the magnitude of her personal sacrifice and the enormity of the obstacles ahead. It is also an occasion to reflect on what she continues to represent — Burma's only meaningful hope for lasting peace and reconciliation in a country deeply troubled and left derelict by decades of military rule and civil conflict.

Birthday text and video messages can be left for Aung San Suu Kyi at
Financial donations for villagers fleeing ongoing fighting in Karen State can be made to the Thailand Burma Border Consortium.

Carol Ransley is a human rights advocate who has monitored the situation in Burma for 15 years. 

Topic tags: Aung San Suu Kyi, burma, Insein prison, 64th birthday, National League for Democracy, John Yettaw



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Existing comments

Thank you Carol for your support of Aung San Suu Kyi and spreading some useful information.
Ray O'Donoghue | 19 June 2009

As a woman in my 60s I honour Suu Kyyi's life. Whatever the outcome, she puts me to shame. I'll really try not to indulge in self pity for the very minor inconveniences of my life and pray for her to always find a resting place in her inner sanctum.
Patricia Taylor | 19 June 2009

Your moral strength is an inspiration to us all
Brother George O.F.M. | 19 June 2009

I am very admire of Aung San Suu Kyi, she was a stronger women, she solve lot of bad happen in her family and her life with her stronger heart.
Emily Huang | 27 May 2017


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