A court in Burma has sentenced two supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to 18 months in prison after they prayed for her release.
The two were convicted of insulting religion after leading prayers at a pagoda for Ms Suu Kyi and other activists to be freed, her party said.
Ms Suu Kyi, 64, has been in detention for more than 13 of the past 18 years.
She is on trial, accused of breaking the terms of her house arrest, and is being held at Rangoon’s Insein prison.
A spokesman for Ms Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy, said Chit Pe and Aung Saw Wei were sentenced on Tuesday.
They were arrested in April after leading prayers at a pagoda in Twante, about 40km (30 miles) south of Yangon, said the spokesman, Nyan Win.
Supporters traditionally pray for the release of Ms Suu Kyi and other activists at Buddhist pagodas.
Prison sentences for insulting religion were rare in Burma until recently, correspondents say.
But the law was resurrected in 2007 to jail monks demonstrating against the military authorities, and has since been largely used to prosecute political cases.
Nyan Win also said that three other members of the party had been arrested on 12 June after handing out photos of Ms Suu Kyi in Rangoon.
“We do not know the details about their arrest but they were detained on remand under the Explosives Act,” he said.
Observers say the charges against Ms Suu Kyi – which carry a maximum punishment of five years in jail – are designed to keep her imprisoned until after next year’s election.
Her trial is due to resume on Friday. She was charged after an American man swam uninvited to the house where she was being held, and stayed there overnight.
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Like the South African leader Nelson Mandela before her, Aung San Suu Kyi, has come to be seen internationally as a symbol of heroic and peaceful resistance in the face of oppression. For the Burmese people, Aung San Suu Kyi represents their best and perhaps sole hope that one day there will be an end to the country’s military repression.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991. Her sons went to Oslo to accept the award on her behalf. At the presentation, the Chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Francis Sejested, called her “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless”. “Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be silenced because she speaks the truth,” he said.
Now aged 64, Suu Kyi is the daughter of the late Burmese nationalist leader, General Aung San, whose resistance to British colonial rule culminated in Burma’s independence in 1948.
After attending school in the Burmese capital Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi lived in India, and then went to Britain for her University education. This is where she met and married her husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford University academic. Already then, Michael Aris knew his wife’s destiny might ultimately lie with Burma. “Before we were married I promised my wife that I would never stand between her and her country,” he says.
Aung San Suu Kyi first came to prominence when she returned to Burma in August 1988, with her husband and their two sons remaining in Britain. She became the leader of a burgeoning pro-democracy movement in the aftermath of the brutal repression of a pro-democratic uprising earlier that summer.
The movement quickly grew into a political party that went on to win an overwhelming majority 82% percent in national elections in 1990, by which time she had already been under house arrest for a year. The military regime, however, refused to relinquish power and stepped up intensified repression of her party, the National League for Democracy.
Martin Smith, a writer on Burmese affairs, says there are several reasons why Aung San Suu Kyi proved such a natural leader. “Her father was the founder of the democratic movement. So Suu Kyi in a way had inherited that kind of tradition. “But the second thing is of course down to Aung San Suu Kyi herself, her role in the democracy movement and her speeches about the need for change in Burmese society. “And I think there is a further thing she very much had on her side – that is her comparative youth in Burmese politics.”
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By Frida Ghitis
Every time we become distracted, the generals in Burma manage to jolt us back to attention. The world’s most despotic regime is alive and well, inflicting suffering on its people after five decades in power, while the world does little more than issue an occasional statement of outrage. We’ve grown awkwardly accustomed to that. Now, security forces in the former capital Rangoon (now named Yangon) have sprung into action. The junta’s most recent move comes perfectly timed to ensure continuing hopelessness.
The latest outrage in Burma, the country renamed Myanmar by its ruling generals, came May 14, when startled witnesses saw a security convoy speeding from the home of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, headed for the horrific Insein prison. After years of house detention, the ailing Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was moved to prison to face a show trial. The generals had found a convenient excuse to extend her detention.
The 63-year-old Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy was denied its election victory in 1990, has spent most of the past three decades under house arrest as the ruling junta keeps a tight grip on the power it has refused to relinquish since 1962. The latest detention term was set to expire this month. Then, an American man called John Yettaw swam the distance of the lake adjoining Suu Kyi’s house and visited with the woman known simply as “The Lady.”
Security forces charged her with violating the terms of her detention, which call for almost complete isolation broken only by a monthly visit by her doctor. Her doctor, too, incidentally, was recently jailed while Suu Kyi’s health deteriorated.
The trial’s outcome is all but assured. Now that Suu Kyi’s house arrest has officially expired, she is — in Orwellian fashion — technically free, but confined to one of the world’s worst prisons.
Some will blame Suu Kyi’s new predicament on Yettaw. That misses the point. The unauthorized visitor gave the junta a convenient pretext. The regime was not about to free the one person who stands as a symbol of the Burmese people’s endlessly postponed wish for democracy, reminding us all of the illegitimacy of the government. In fact, it is conceivable that the generals knowingly allowed him to dodge security and reach the house. (I attempted to see Suu Kyi in Rangoon several years ago. The plainclothesmen guarding the perimeter made it coldly clear I would get nowhere.)
After years of sanctions and high-minded rhetoric, the international community has nothing to show for its efforts at persuading the generals to remove their boot from their country’s throat. The generals have grown obscenely wealthy exploiting the land’s mineral riches as their people live in grinding poverty. Burma spends less on health care than any country.
When a hurricane swept ashore last year and killed more than 140,000, the toughest task for aid groups was convincing the authorities to let them help. The generals are so intensely despised that a few years ago they suddenly decided to move the capital from the biggest city, Yangon, to a piece of land in the thick of the Asian jungle, where presumable coup attempts would face more difficult odds.
The junta has spent decades pretending change is just around the corner; that’s why they allowed the 1990 election, which Suu Kyi shocked them by winning. Their latest charade says there will be another election in 2010. Nobody expects it to be open. They certainly would not allow Suu Kyi to go free just in time for 2010.
The Obama administration is reviewing America’s failed Burma policy. A new approach should include pressuring Burma’s Asian neighbors — including China — to take a tough stand against the regime. A dictatorship should receive the message that without freedom for Suu Kyi and true reform, force is an option to bring change.
During this latest incident, cries for Suu Kyi’s freedom have come from Europe and America, but Asia has remained eerily quiet. After all, the governments of countries surrounding Burma have benefitted from its vast natural resources and from trading with the corrupt rulers.
Aung San Suu Kyi has long stood as a symbol of the Burmese people’s hopes for an end to despotism. But her defiant, dignified visage brings to mind more than the aspirations of an oppressed country. It also reminds us of how dismally ineffectual the international community has proven in protecting a people from the brutality of their own government. Suu Kyi reminds us all that we have failed.
Frida Ghitis, a resident of Decatur, is a world affairs columnist and author.