Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the pro-democracy opposition leader in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, who has been kept under detention for most of the past two decades. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory in 1990 elections but was denied power by the military, which has ruled since 1962.
The junta experimented with lifting her house arrest in 2002, but locked her up again a year later after ecstatic crowds gathered to cheer for her wherever she went. In May 2009 she was charged with violating the terms of her house arrest after a bizarre event in which an American man swam across a lake and spent at least one night on the grounds of her home.
She pleaded not guilty to violating the detention rules, charges that carry a prison term of up to five years. Her trial has aroused growing condemnation from around the world, including from a meeting of Asian and European foreign ministers in Hanoi on May 26.
Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced awng san sue chee, with each syllable equally stressed) became caught up in the pro-democracy movement in 1988, when she returned home from Britain to nurse her dying mother. Myanmar was then in the midst of protests against years of eccentric autocracy under General U NeWin. Her father, General Aung San, the nation’s independence hero, was assassinated by political rivals on July 19, 1947.
Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent campaign for democracy, remains the symbol of the hopes of those opposed to the junta, and apparently of the junta’s fears as well. When the country’s revered Buddhist monks joined protests over rising prices in the fall of 2007, the military allowed them to proceed — until one of the processions led to her home and she came to her gate to greet them. A brutal crackdown swiftly followed.
After the international outcry over the crackdown, Myanmar’s governing officials said they would increase dialogue and consultations with her. On Nov. 8, 2007, she said in a statement released by the United Nations that she was willing to “cooperate” with the military government in the “interest of the nation.”
But the overtures soon stopped and reconciliation between pro-democracy forces and the government stalled.
On May 18, 2009, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial on charges that could result in a prison term of up to five years, a harsher form of the isolation she has endured under house arrest. She is being charged along with two women who live with her as housekeepers and her doctor.
The trial resulted from a May 5 incident, when an American man, John William Yettaw, swam across a lake to her home. Her lawyer said Mr. Yettaw told her he was a Mormon and prayed extensively while he was in her house. Her arrest came two weeks before the statutory expiration of her most recent six-year detention and many analysts saw it as a legal ploy to allow the junta to extend her confinement.
Mr. Yettaw is being held by Burmese authorities and was charged with illegally entering a restricted zone, which carries a maximum penalty of five years, and breaking immigration laws, which carries a maximum one-year penalty.
On May 26, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi testified that Mr. Yettaw had arrived at her home during the night of May 3 but that she did not learn of his presence until 5 a.m. on May 4, according to wire service reports.
She conceded that she had not informed the authorities and said that she had given him “temporary shelter” until he left on May 5. He was arrested as he was swimming away.
Her lawyers have said she did not report the intrusion or make Mr. Yettaw leave immediately because he complained of cramps and because she did not want him or the security officers who guard her house to get in trouble.
The junta is preparing for an election in 2010 that would be its first multiparty poll since 1990. The generals are on the verge of achieving a goal that in their eyes would justify their harsh rule and crown them as saviors of the country: an election that would legitimize the continued dominance of the military. And they appear to be afraid that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi could ruin it all if she were allowed a voice that could rally opposition against them.