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A twist in Aung San Suu Kyi's fate

How a Missouri Mormon may have thwarted democracy in Myanmar.

Protesters in support of Myanmar's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi hold a rally calling for her release outside the Myanmar embassy in Tokyo May 18, 2009. (Michael Caronna/Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy faithful cringed upon hearing their leader was dragged off to the most notorious prison in Myanmar last week. Many have suffered there themselves.

Within the country's suppressed democracy movement, the words “Insein Prison” have a cruel ring. One of its former political prisoners, Moe Zaw Oo, described it as a brutal “factory of HIV/AIDS.”

Worse yet, they say, is the world’s lack of action. Many had hoped Suu Kyi’s ongoing prison trial — spurred by an American religious fanatic swimming to her lakefront home — would draw a harder line from foreign powers, particularly the United Nations.

But again, the junta that rules Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, appears unmoved by the world’s scorn.

“This is a nightmare,” said Nyo Ohn Myint of the National League of Democracy, devoted to reinstating free elections in  Myanmar. “The U.N. Security Council could do a lot more than what they’re doing.”

Suu Kyi has mostly lived under house arrest since 1990, when the country's military junta refused her election to the prime minister’s seat. The Nobel Peace Laureate remains backed by a pro-democracy movement-in-exile, many of them also voted into a  Myanmar parliament that never was.

Then came John Yettaw, a 53-year-old Mormon from the Ozarks. Compelled, as many are, by Suu Kyi’s image of poise and resolve, he entered Burma and swam to her heavily guarded lakeside home using homemade flippers. Accounts of his motive vary: his wife says he’s “eccentric” and Suu Kyi’s lawyer calls him “nutty.”

The Missourian told Burmese authorities he came to pray with her, The Associated Press reported.

When Suu Kyi allowed him to stay several nights on the ground floor, the junta pounced. Boarding a foreigner without permission is illegal under Myanmar law. Many assume that Suu Kyi’s imprisonment, which was within two weeks of expiring, will be extended once again.

This could silence her in advance of 2010 elections, which exiles suspect are being manipulated to legitimize the junta. More than 2,100 other political prisoners are also confined at Insein and other sites.

Suu Kyi’s trial has prompted much outcry. Many heads of state, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have issued strongly worded statements. So have celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Madonna. The United States, particularly prone to condemning  Myanmar in recent years, has extended sanctions.