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Suu Kyi Trial: Burmese Protest With Small Signs Of Defiance

06/ 1/09 02:17 PM ET   AP

Myanmar Opposition Leader

YANGON, Myanmar — The spray-painted demands appear overnight: "Free Aung San Suu Kyi" read the scrawls on walls across this city _ only to be whitewashed by security forces as soon as they are discovered.

Since the trial of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader began two weeks ago, these small signs of defiance hint at the undercurrent of anger over the treatment of a woman considered to be a living icon by many of her compatriots.

But out in public, under the watchful gaze of the military regime, supporters feel helpless to do more as the trial winds to an end, with closing arguments scheduled for Friday.

There is little sign that private anguish will explode into the mass protests _ all violently suppressed _ that have marked the history of Myanmar, also known as Burma, since the military began its rule in 1962.

"I'm so upset about what has happened in my country," said Zin, a 28-year-old housewife who, like most Burmese, won't give her full name for fear of retaliation. "People are angry and people are sad, but we can't do anything for her. We have no power."

Suu Kyi, 63, a Nobel Peace laureate, is being tried on charges of violating her house arrest after an American, John W. Yettaw, swam uninvited to her lakeshore home and stayed for two days.

She has already been held in detention for 13 of the past 19 years, including the past six. Closing arguments have been delayed until Friday, but expectations are high that she will be found guilty since Myanmar's courts operate under the command of the ruling military.

Lawyers for Suu Kyi met Monday to prepare for the trial's closing arguments, said Nyan Win, one of her defense team and a spokesman for her National League for Democracy party.

"We are very confident that we will win the case if everything goes according to law," Nyan Win said. The defense has not contested the basic facts of the case, but argues instead that the relevant law has been misapplied by the authorities.

The trial has drawn condemnation from the international community and Suu Kyi's local supporters, who worry that the military junta has found an excuse to keep her detained through elections planned for next year.

But with memories of the government's bloody crackdown against the Buddhist monk-led uprising in 2007 still vivid, few people are willing to challenge a regime with no qualms about using violence against its own citizens. At least 31 people were killed that September, including a Japanese journalist, the U.N. says.

Aung, a 55-year-old businessman who witnessed the military's response to the protests two years ago, said the Burmese learned a bitter lesson from that experience. Thousands were detained in the aftermath of demonstrations that drew 100,000 people into Yangon's streets. Hundreds of activists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

"The person who becomes involved in protests, their whole family is persecuted. If you want to be brave, OK, but do you think all your family must be brave too?" he said. "Nobody wants to risk that now."

Longtime observers say it is unlikely that major public demonstrations will follow Suu Kyi's sentencing.

"If Suu Kyi is found guilty and jailed, there will be much popular anger, but it won't make a real difference because (the government) is well-equipped and experienced in dealing with the people's protests," said Donald Seekins, a Myanmar expert at Japan's Meio University.

Seekins said the regime has already posted soldiers throughout Yangon, the largest city, "and can suppress demonstrations with little difficulty."

For a nation still recovering from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis last year, which left at least 138,000 dead, the ongoing economic hardship makes coping day-to-day _ not politics _ the priority for many Burmese, said Aung.

"People are so disturbed, so angry" about Suu Kyi, he said, clenching his fist for emphasis. "But Nargis was a big hit. Everybody's suffering and when people suffer, they don't have time to think about anything."

In the streets of Yangon this past week, there was little evidence of heightened tension, with businesses operating normally.

However, increased security could be seen around Suu Kyi's gently decaying lakeshore home as well as near her party's headquarters as a key anniversary was marked _ 19 years since Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory at the ballot box but were prevented from taking office.

A few political stalwarts have still managed to keep the faith. At a small celebration Wednesday attended by foreign diplomats, senior party members wore T-shirts calling for Suu Kyi's freedom and then released a total of 64 doves and balloons into the air at the dilapidated party offices. She will turn 64 on June 19.

Meanwhile, several dozen faithful, including 80-year-old former political prisoner Win Tin, have been holding daily vigils in the rain outside the gates of Insein prison, where Suu Kyi is being held, despite the presence of plainclothes security videotaping their movements and recording their identities.

Acknowledging the difficulties faced by regular Burmese, Win Tin said last week that "everyone is angry, but people are concerned with earning their daily bread. They are afraid, and there is no leadership."

Even if people wanted to talk about the incarceration of "The Lady," as Suu Kyi is known, the dangers of criticizing the ruling regime too openly are known to everyone, said Thein, a 48-year-old English teacher.

Instead, he said, political discussions are reduced to furtive whisperings in neighborhood teashops and small gatherings in private homes.

"People have been frustrated a long time," Thein said. "We don't trust anything. We don't trust each other. Always we think, 'Is he a spy?' The rule is: 'Don't talk politics.'"

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Filed by Hanna Ingber Win  |