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Suu Kyi 'likely to be jailed for years'

International outrage is building over the secret trial of Myanmar's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar activists hold a poster of Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in front of the Chinese embassy in Bangkok.
Myanmar activists hold a poster of Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in front of the Chinese embassy in Bangkok.

BANGKOK // Myanmar's charasmatic pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will probably remain in detention for at least another five years, according to diplomats based in Yangon. Her secret trial enters its second week today when it opens inside Insein prison. The international outcry and protests throughout the world since she was arrested and charged 10 days ago show no signs of subsiding and could grow.

The Myanmar authorities are so worried by the possibility that the UN may bow to western pressure to step up sanctions and other measures against the regime they have launched a diplomatic offensive at the United Nations in New York and many of the world's capitals to deflect international pressure. This week, Myanmar's treatment of its pro-democracy icon will feature prominently at two separate meetings of Asian and European foreign ministers, and could overshadow their concerns about the international economic crisis.

Ms Suu Kyi faces five years in prison if she is convicted of the charges that she broke the conditions of her current house arrest by allowing an uninvited visitor, a US citizen named John Yettaw, who swam across a lake to her back door this month, to stay and gave him food and drink. "I am not guilty because I have not committed any crime," Ms Suu Kyi told the court on Friday, according to her lawyer.

The opposition leader is also accused of accepting books and other material from the man, who originally swam to her residence in November and left gifts then, including a religious text of his faith, the Book of Mormon, two black robes, sunglasses and a flashlight. Ms Suu Kyi insists that the detention order prohibits her from sending out material, but not from receiving it, according to her lawyer, Nyan Win. The authorities are responsible for the security at the house and should have prevented the intrusion; if anyone is at fault, it is the local police, he added.

The trial is anything but transparent, and most observers believe she will be convicted and sentenced to prison. "The court proceedings have obviously been scripted," said a senior diplomat who attended the court hearing on Wednesday, the only day diplomats were allowed to observe the proceedings. "I'm sure they will jail Daw Suu," said Aung Thein, a prominent lawyer who was helping prepare her defence when his law licence was revoked on the eve of the trial one week ago.

Human rights groups say they believe that revoking Mr Thein's right to practice law was the latest "blatant attempt" by the regime to intimidate lawyers who are working on political cases. More than a dozen lawyers are in jail for working "sensitive" cases, including defending top monks and former student leaders arrested during the Sept 2007 protests that were crushed by the military. Concern about the mounting international pressure on Myanmar has prompted the regime to go on a diplomatic offensive. The junta is claiming that the incident was organised by "internal and external anti-government forces", a term the government usually uses to refer to pro-democracy groups, the foreign minister, Nyan Win, told his Japanese counterpart, Hirofumi Nakasone, last week in a 15-minute phone conversation.

Myanmar's consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, wrote in a letter posted on the consulate's website that Mr Yettaw was either a "a secret agent" or Ms Suu Kyi's "boyfriend". "Foreign countries should realise that the present case concerning Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not 'trumped up' by the government, as some have been willing to claim," said a briefing note sent by the foreign ministry to all Myanmar embassies around the world, urging them to defend the government's position.

"Ignorance by big countries [Britain, the US and Europe] of Myanmar's political process is tantamount to derailing Myanmar's transition to democracy," the briefing paper continued. These arguments are unlikely to deter the international community from pressing on with calls for Ms Suu Kyi's immediate release from prison and an end to the "show trial" as Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, called it.

These concerns will be discussed by foreign ministers from Europe and Asia at two summits, the Asia-Europe ministerial meeting in Hanoi, which starts today, and the Asean summit in Phnom Penh. But "the meeting in Hanoi was mooted before the trial started, and is unlikely to achieve anything of substance", David Tonkin, a former British ambassador to both Thailand and Vietnam, predicted in an interview.

As for the Security Council, Myanmar's ambassadors have been instructed to say the situation does not affect international peace and security and "thus is not the concern of the UN Security Council". Many eminent legal figures now disagree. A report by five judges published last week by Harvard Law School accused Myanmar of committing systematic human rights abuses and suggested Myanmar's military regime may be committing crimes against humanity and war crimes prosecutable under international law. The report recommended that the Security Council initiate an investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A former UN rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar has also endorsed this proposal. "Over the years, my own reports and others have collected sufficient evidence to demonstrate not only the systematic human rights violations, but the crimes against humanity committed by the junta," Paulo Pinheiro da Silva, who investigated human rights abuses in Myanmar for more than seven years until March 2007, said in an interview.