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How a Missouri Mormon may have thwarted democracy in Myanmar.
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.
But the international community, said Thin Thin Aung of the Women’s League of Burma, has “not really started acting. They just keep saying, ‘We’re concerned.’ We’d like to see immediate action.”
The harshest condemnation has come from nations with thin ties to Myanmar, namely Western powers.
Exiled pro-democracy leaders are now focusing on swaying the trading partners that keep Burma afloat, particularly the Association of Southeast Nations, or ASEAN, a 10-nation alliance that includes Myanmar.
ASEAN, in a statement, has politely asked the junta to release Suu Kyi. The alliance’s “principle of non-interference” among member nations doesn’t allow for much more.
Myanmar, which supplies natural gas and other resources to its neighbors, has repeatedly embarrassed ASEAN on the world stage. But its member nations tend to stop short of punishing their trading partner.
“ASEAN told the military its credibility is at stake,” said Aung Zaw, an exiled magazine editor now based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. “What credibility are they talking about?”
Myanmar’s friendships with China and Russia have helped block action from the U.N. Security Council, which has also heard pleas from exiled Suu Kyi’s supporters. More than 20 fellow Nobel laureates have also pressured the U.N. to step in.
Suu Kyi, 63, is weak and sometimes needs intravenous drips, say members of the National League of Democracy. They claim the dungeon-like conditions — in which tuberculosis and AIDS spread freely — could even prove fatal.
On Wednesday, the junta showed a small gesture of appeasement: Suu Kyi’s trial was briefly opened to a handful of diplomats and journalists.
She thanked them for coming, according to Reuters, and said, “I hope to meet you in better days.”
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