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Myanmar Opposition Leader To Stand Trial Again

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was taken to prison this morning. She's being charged with violating the terms of her house arrest. The case against her involves an unusual visitor: an American man who managed to swim right up to Suu Kyi's lakeside home, and then was allowed to spend the night. The American was also arrested as he swam away the next day.

Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years. NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan joins us now.

And Michael, a strange case, really, also could seem to be very serious for this Nobel Peace Prize winner.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Yeah, it's very strange, but for her, I mean, she faces five years in prison if she's convicted. And you know, that's five years, Renee, for a woman who's already spent, as you said, 13 of the past 19 years either in prison or under house arrest after her party won the landslide victory in 1990 elections called by the military, which then, of course, ignored the results.

The timing of this whole thing, Renee, is very, very interesting too, because her current house arrest is set to expire later this month. And there are many democracy activists and diplomats who say these charges provide a very convenient way for the regime to put her away again, to get her out of the way as they prepare for general elections next year.

MONTAGNE: Was there any chance, though, that she would've participated in those elections? Is that what the government's worried about if she was let out from house arrest?

SULLIVAN: She can't actually run against them, no. She's not allowed to. She's been banned from running 'cause she was married to a foreigner, even though her husband, an Englishman, has now passed away. But she does remain hugely popular, and her National League for Democracy still retains a great deal of support.

And if the regime had let her go at the end of her current term, she presumably would've done all she could on behalf of the opposition, even though the opposition and many foreign governments aren't expecting much from this election. They see it as a sham designed to just consolidate the general's grip on power and nothing more.

MONTAGNE: Suu Kyi is not really allowed visitors. Very rarely is she allowed visitors, under very strict circumstances. Do you know anything more about this American who's accused of visiting her by swimming to her compound?

SULLIVAN: It's all still very, very mysterious. I mean, we know his name. His name is John William Yettaw. He's been identified in Myanmar's media as being from Fulton, Missouri. And as you said, he evidently swam to her house on the 3rd of this month, undetected, and he stayed there for a day, possibly two.

Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyer says he wasn't invited and that she, in fact, begged him to leave, probably because she knew the trouble he was causing both of them. But she eventually relented when he said he was tired, and she let him stay.

Many opposition types are skeptical of both him and his intentions. And some are wondering if this whole thing is just a set-up from the word go in order to provide the regime a pretext for extending her detention.

U.S. embassy officials have met with Mr. Yettaw, but they're not saying much. And he, too, is being detained in Insein Prison, though it's not clear what he's going to be charged with.

MONTAGNE: What happens now?

SULLIVAN: Her trial is set to begin, and that of the two women who work for her and live at the house. Those trials are set to begin on Monday. It's not clear how long they will last, or what they're gong to do with Aung San Suu Kyi if she's convicted. But they probably don't want to keep her in prison. She's been pretty sick recently. They probably don't want to take the chance she'll die in prison.

It's probably much more likely they'll just put her under house arrest again, although security will no doubt be a lot tighter than it was when Mr. Yettaw dropped in after his swim. And there's been no word yet on what's going to happen to him, either.

MONTAGNE: Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.