The show trial of the century


Joseph Zeitlyn tracks the dirty tricks the Burmese military pulls to keep Aung Sang Suu Kyi jailed

Freedom restrained: The barricaded entrance to Insein prison(top); Suu Kyi leaves court
Photo: Reuters

THE STORY of Aung San Suu Kyi’s latest ordeal is a tale shrouded in propaganda and censorship, besieged by one of the most draconian media environments on the planet and set in the battle for the future of a nation.

As her trial enters its second week, recriminations are entering fever pitch even as the true nature of what actually occurred and why is unclear, with little hope of truth reaching the light of day.

It all started in early May when it was reported that an American man was plucked out of the waters of Yangon’s Lake Inya in the early hours of the morning of the 5th of May. The man, 53-year-old John William Yettaw was said to be in possession of an empty water bottle, wire cutters, some US dollars and a camera.

The world came to know of the ‘swimmer’ from the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run Yangon newspaper and junta mouthpiece.

Soon, photos were leaked of the man who had been caught after reportedly swimming back from Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home. He had apparently broken into one of the most heavily guarded houses in Yangon and spent a few nights there. The photos showed an elderly man posing for self-portraits, with one showing him wearing homemade flippers.

The fuse was lit. Myanmar’s most widely known ‘celebrity’ and Nobel laureate was firmly back in the spotlight less than three weeks before her last stint of detention was due to end, on the 27th.

Suu Kyi leaves court

Though under the law against causing public disturbances under which she was incarcerated a person can be detained for 5 years without trial or release, in 2008, her detention was extended extra-judicially by a year. She would now stand trial for violating the terms of her house arrest and the Myanmar law that states that no one can have a foreigner stay overnight at their house without informing the authorities.

Rumours spread rapidly as the world only had the initial article and the leaked photos to go on. The logical jump was made with swift and knowing cynicism: no one expected the junta to release Suu Kyi let alone abide by any legal framework. The ‘swimmer’ provided the perfect storm with which to sink the democracy movement’s guiding star.

The ‘swimmer’ was described by people in his native Missouri as an earnest, intellectual father of many children and a member of the Christian Mormon sect.

Meanwhile, a palpable anger grew amongst many Myanmarese as further eyewitnesses reported that Yettaw was an overly emotional ‘extremist’ supposedly on a ‘spiritual journey’. Whilst his idiotic actions were condemned, the validity of the story was also questioned. Yettaw was said by his ex-wife to suffer from asthma. The swim to and from Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence would have been a 4½ km journey, one that would have supposedly been too much for him to handle.

If that wasn’t enough, as the trial started, an anonymous taxi driver came forward and claimed he had dropped off the American in front of Suu Kyi’s residence and seen him enter through the front gate, showing a red card to the guards at the door. Even if he had swum back, how had he been able to sidestep guards quite so easily?

Such questions sparked accusations that the entire affair had been either concocted or used to further Suu Kyi’s detention. The accusations led to a backlash of counter-claims from the junta as global leaders clamoured against the ‘kangaroo court’ trying Myanmar’s last democratically elected leader.

The regime seems convinced that the CIA are about to attack, a la Rambo movies

Harsh words from regional allies bit the hardest as Thailand, holding the alternate presidency of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) spoke in rare open criticism of the authoritarian regime in Naypyidaw, Burma’s new capital. The EU heralded the ASEAN statement as ‘remarkable’ whilst the junta greeted it as against the body’s ‘conformity’ and an affront to the ‘dignity of Thailand’.

The junta meanwhile concluded that pro democracy exiles, largely based in Thailand had concocted the ploy to ‘embarrass the government’. It is a common meme for a regime that seems in thrall to a theory, fired by Rambo films, that the CIA are about to attack. The narrative is perhaps conjured for propaganda’s sake as much as out of genuine paranoia.

The democracy movement has captured the imagination of the West as is displayed by the apparent actions of Yettaw. Like a crusade, the notion of ‘freeing Burma’ has entered the ‘evangelist’ western imagination. Aung San Suu Kyi, moreover, was married to a Briton and was educated there and in India. Her internationalist credentials are thus portrayed as unpatriotic and untrustworthy by a regime that can be characterised as xenophobic at the best of times, creating a convenient narrative that there are indeed imperialist enemies at the gate.

Meanwhile, the junta’s most ‘colourful’ spokesperson, its consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung claimed that Yettaw was Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘boyfriend’ in a spiteful attempt at a smear. Myint Aung’s last outing on the international press was noted for the open racism he displayed towards the Rohingya minority group, whom he described as ‘ugly as ogres’.

On the 14th of May, Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial began in the notorious Insein jail. A colonial era megalith with as many horror stories as it has rats, Insein’s prisoners are sometimes housed in colonial-era kennels. Where one colonial Alsatian would have resided, three tortured political prisoners currently do.

Suu Kyi was made to testify without giving her time to consult her lawyers

With the eyes of the world straining for news of the trial of the only incarcerated Nobel Laureate, protests erupted around the world and a virtual shutdown of Yangon occurred. The high pressure was felt on all sides and the junta relented by allowing select journalists and diplomats into the courtroom for a single day every week. Little of substance has come out of the trial; Suu Kyi has said she will plead not guilty. Adding colour to the tale, Yettaw has said he visited Suu Kyi because he had visions that she would be assassinated. He claimed he had visited before last year and it emerged that he had left six books in the house, including the Book of Mormon, a burqa as a disguise and several pairs of goggles.

Last week it was announced that Suu Kyi would testify as a witness at very short notice with no time to consult her lawyers. This came after a police official announced a recalculation of how long she has been detained. He further stated that they had considered releasing her before Yettaw showed up. As usual, most statements have to be questioned.

In this atmosphere, a sense of desperation emerges. Most have concluded that the verdict has already been written, with the court proceedings apparently being rushed through. If anything has emerged, it is a game in which the regime’s culpability in foul play is hidden for the sake of its image or turned into a charade by near universal condemnation at a level that is almost unprecedented, with usually silent neighbours such as China making statements condemning the process.

The bizarre sequence of events makes Yettaw a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald of our time; his motives unclear, his methods a mystery, his culpability unknown. In all likelihood he has stumbled into a tragedy, as a naïve catalyst of oppression in the ongoing drama of Myanmar’s search for accountable governance.

Zeitlyn is a freelance journalist reporting from Myanmar