YANGON (Reuters) - Western critics slammed Myanmar’s ruling generals on Friday for pressing “trumped-up” new charges against detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but the move drew only a mild rebuke from Asian neighbors.
The United States, Britain, the European Union, the United Nations and human rights groups condemned the trial that Suu Kyi faces from Monday on charges she broke the terms of her house arrest after an American intruder stayed in her home.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the “regime is clearly intent on finding any pretext, no matter how tenuous, to extend her unlawful detention.”
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was deeply troubled by the “baseless” new charges against Suu Kyi and would raise the issue with China and Southeast Asian countries.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement that “instead of being arrested she should have been released from house arrest, which was a clear violation of international law as determined by the United Nations.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the charges should be dropped and told Myanmar to “release her immediately from her existing detention which is illegal, even under Myanmar’s own laws.”
“Myanmar authorities might claim Aung San Suu Kyi has breached the conditions of her detention, but they have broken both their own laws and their international human rights obligations,” Pillay said in a statement issued in Geneva.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also expressed “grave concerns” and said Suu Kyi “is an essential partner for dialogue in Myanmar’s national reconciliation.”
But their widespread calls to free the ailing 63-year-old, whose latest six-year detention is due to expire on May 27, were expected to fall on deaf ears in Yangon.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, said the international outcry was predictable, but “few doubted that the junta would come up with some reason to keep her imprisoned.”
The charges stem from an incident this month involving American John William Yettaw, who is alleged to have swum across Inya Lake using home-made flippers and spent two days in her home.
Yettaw, described by state media as a 53-year-old psychology student and a resident of Missouri, was charged on Thursday with “illegal swimming,” immigration offences and encouraging others to break the law.
Yettaw did not explain his actions to U.S. diplomats during a brief meeting this week, but speculation about his role was rife on the streets of Yangon on Friday.
“I think the regime must be behind this incident one way or another. They do not want to free Daw Suu,” said a retired politician, using the Burmese honorific for older women.
Others were angry at what they called a “publicity stunt” by a troubled man.
“Whatever motive he had, he’s made the mess in our country more complicated. We just can’t stand the sight of his picture,” said Mie Mie, a newspaper seller.
Lawyers insist Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 13 of the past 19 years under some form of detention, did not invite Yettaw and is innocent of the charges.
In Bangkok, Burmese exiles said the charges, which carry a jail sentence of up to five years, were aimed at keeping Suu Kyi sidelined ahead of promised multi-party elections in 2010.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide election victory in 1990 only to be denied power by the military. Critics say the polls next year are a sham aimed at entrenching the military’s rule.
Activists say China, India and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, could use their economic influence to exert pressure, but reaction in the region has been muted.
“We are questioning whether this trial is proportional or not, in relation to an American who went into her house,” said Teuku Faizasyah, spokesman for Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry.
ASEAN’s policy of engagement with the junta has failed to produce meaningful political reforms, but tough economic sanctions imposed by the West have not achieved much, either.
Clinton acknowledged that fact during a visit to the region in February, when she said the Obama administration was looking for new ways to influence Myanmar’s military rulers.
“That a new policy is needed is beyond dispute,” Cossa said. “What that policy should or will be is far from clear.”
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Darren Schuettler and Alex Richardson; Editing by Paul Tait