Judges in Myanmar postponed the verdict Friday in pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's trial until Aug. 11 — a sign, activists say, that the ruling junta is hesitating in the face of outrage abroad and fears of unrest at home.
The 64-year-old Nobel Peace laureate is accused of violating the terms of her house arrest when she harbored an American man who swam to her lakeside house and secretly entered the compound. Critics say the military has seized upon the bizarre intrusion as an excuse to keep Suu Kyi jailed through next year's scheduled elections — the country's first free vote in nearly two decades.
But the charges against Suu Kyi — who has been detained for 14 of the last 20 years and was under house arrest at the time of the incident — have refocused international outrage on Myanmar.
Activists and other supporters of Suu Kyi said it was difficult to determine the reason behind the delay, though the regime may be struggling with how to present the verdict — which Suu Kyi herself has said is already "painfully obvious" — to the world.
"Since she was charged, there has been huge amount of pressure from inside and outside of Burma," said Soe Aung, a spokesman for Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thai-based, pro-democracy coalition. "The postponement may show they are having a difficult time. In other words, this may show they are feeling the heat especially from outside the country."
Generals feared protests
Others noted the ruling generals may worry the announcement would set off protests — and so have pushed it to after the sensitive Aug. 8 anniversary of the failed 1988 uprisings.
"The announcement of a guilty verdict will instigate public anger and will be easier for underground activists to organize mass demonstration," said Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma. "Combined with international denunciation, that will be major problem for the regime to control the unrest."
Authorities were clearly anxious ahead of the trial, detaining 10 members of Suu Kyi's opposition party, the National League for Democracy. They were arrested after praying for Suu Kyi at Yangon's famed Shwedagon Pagoda and released after several hours, one of Suu Kyi's defense lawyers, Nyan Win, said.
Thus far, however, neither outside pressure nor the possibility of better economic and political ties with the West has deterred the ruling junta, which appears determined to keep Suu Kyi out of the public eye.
Jared Genser, Suu Kyi's international counsel, said the junta may simply be hoping the delay will do just that — bury the news item in the height of summer.
"It is in some ways a smart move — push off the verdict until the middle of August when numerous government and U.N. officials around the world will be on vacation," Genser said in an e-mail statement. "But it remains to be seen whether this ploy will work or if anticipation will be heightened in the run up to the issuance of the verdict."
International criticism growing
International criticism of the trial has been building since it began May 18, and outrage appeared to peak this month during ASEAN's Regional Forum, when Southeast Asian countries took the unusual step of joining reliable critics like the United States in condemning the regime and calling for Suu Kyi's release. The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations generally refrain from criticizing one another.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed his request Thursday that Myanmar release Suu Kyi and asked the government to "give careful consideration to the implications of any verdict," U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Friday.
Security was heightened ahead of the expected verdict, with teams of riot police stationed nearby. All roads leading to Yangon's Insein prison — where the trial is being held in a court inside the compound — were blocked by barbed-wire barricades.
But minutes after the proceedings began, the judges indicated they were not prepared to rule.
"Judge Thun Nyunt said the trial is adjourned until Aug. 11 to consider some legal issues concerning the case," defense lawyer Nyan Win told reporters.
After the announcement, Suu Kyi rose to her feet, turned to foreign diplomats in the courtroom and joked, "I apologize for giving you more work," a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol. Journalists were not allowed inside the tribunal.
The judge did not elaborate, but Suu Kyi's lawyers were cautiously optimistic about the delay.
"The court has finally accepted that there is some misinterpretation of the law," Nyan Win said.
Defense argues against law
Suu Kyi's lawyers have not contested the facts of the case but argued that the law cited by authorities is invalid because it applies to a constitution abolished two decades ago. They also say that government security guards stationed outside Suu Kyi's compound should be held responsible for any intrusion.
Verdicts were also postponed for the American, John Yettaw, 53, and two women who lived with Suu Kyi — Khin Khin Win and her daughter Win Ma Ma. The women face similar charges to Suu Kyi, and Yettaw is accused of abetting in violating the house arrest and faces up to five years in prison.
Yettaw, a devout Mormon from Missouri, walked around the courtroom after Friday's delay was announced.
"He said 'I love you' to everyone in the room," speaking mainly to his and Suu Kyi's lawyers, said Nyan Win.
Suu Kyi's party won national elections in 1990, but Myanmar's generals, who have ruled the country since 1962, refused to relinquish power.