Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was charged on Thursday with breaking the terms of her house arrest just two weeks before she was to go free, a move seen as an attempt by the military junta to silence its chief opponent ahead of next year's election.
The charges follow a mysterious visit to her home by John William Yettaw, 53, an American who swam across a lake and sneaked into her home seeking food and a place to rest.
Suu Kyi, who was scheduled to be freed on May 27 after six years of house arrest, now faces up to five years in prison if convicted of violating the terms of her detention, said lawyer Hla Myo Myint.
The trial of the Nobel Peace laureate is scheduled to start Monday at a special court at Yangon's notorious Insein Prison, where she was arraigned and then held on Thursday.
"It is nothing more than a political ploy to hoodwink the international community so that it can keep (Suu Kyi) under lock and key while the military maneuvers its way to election victory on 2010," said a statement from the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.
The coalition describes itself as the country's government-in-exile and has links to Suu Kyi's party. Burma is the old name for Myanmar and preferred by the military regime's opponents.
Foreign leaders, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, condemned the charges and called for her release.
"If the 2010 elections are to have any semblance of credibility, she and all political prisoners must be freed to participate," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.
In the past, the junta which regards Suu Kyi as the biggest threat to its rule, has found other reasons to extend her periods of house arrest, bending the letter of the law. Suu Kyi, 63, has already spent more than 13 of the last 19 years in detention without trial for her nonviolent promotion of democracy, despite international pressure for her release.
Early Thursday morning, armed police drove Suu Kyi and two women who live with her to Insein Prison. The women, assistants loyal to her political party who have lived with her since she was detained in 2003, were charged with the same offense, lawyers said.
The junta scheduled elections as part of its so-called "roadmap to democracy," but the effort is widely perceived as a guise for continued military control.
Parliamentary rule was overthrown by a coup in 1962, and the army has been in control since then. It held an election in 1990 but refused to honor the results after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won in a landslide.
The party announced two weeks ago that it would consider taking part in next year's polls if the country's military rulers meet three demands, including Suu Kyi's release. While it has not ruled out participating even if the demands were not met, further action against Suu Kyi heightens the prospect of an election boycott.
Many of Suu Kyi's supporters were furious at the man who triggered the charge and faces criminal charges himself. "Everyone is very angry with this wretched American. He is the cause of all these problems," Suu Kyi's lawyer, Kyi Win, told reporters. "He's a fool."
Yettaw was arrested last week for allegedly swimming across a lake to secretly enter Suu Kyi's home and staying there for two days. His motives remain unclear.
An Asian diplomat briefed on the case Thursday said Yettaw told the government he had gone there to pray.
"But the government doesn't seem to believe him," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Yettaw's ex-wife, Yvonne, said he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons, but she was aware of no connection between his faith and his activities in Myanmar.
Yvonne Yettaw, speaking from Palm Springs, California, told The Associated Press that her ex-husband lived on veteran's disability benefits, supplemented by occasional construction work. She said he had been working on a psychology paper about forgiveness after trauma, and went to Southeast Asia for research on that, though he was "real secretive" about his journey.
"I wasn't told why he was going, what he was going to do," she said, noting that he left four children, ages 10 through 17, home under the supervision of neighbors in his home state of Missouri. She said that when he left the U.S. in April, he told her she would know in two weeks "whether I'm coming back when I'm supposed to come back."
"I think there was a possibility that he could get in trouble," she said.
Yettaw was charged at a Thursday court hearing with illegally entering a restricted zone, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, and breaking immigration laws, which is punishable by up to one year behind bars, said Hla Myo Myint, a lawyer for Suu Kyi.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Mei said Yettaw had no legal representation, but an English-speaking lawyer was being sought. Earlier this week a pro-government Myanmar Web site said that on arrival at Suu Kyi's house, Yettaw first met her two female assistants - a mother and daughter, who are her sole allowed companions - and told them he had diabetes and was tired and hungry. The two women were said to have given him food.
Some of the details in the report on tharkinwe.com were later published in the state media, suggesting they were leaked by the security services. "When the man arrived she (Suu Kyi) asked him to leave. She did not invite him in," Kyi Win, another of Suu Kyi's lawyers, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
He told the U.S. Government-backed Radio Free Asia that Yettaw pleaded with her to let him stay because he felt weak, so she reluctantly let him stay in a downstairs bedroom.
The tharkinwe.com Web site also claimed that Yettaw made a similar secret visit to Suu Kyi's house late last year. The U.S. Embassy has confirmed that Yettaw was in Myanmar at the time and his 17-year-old son, Brian, said he had backpacked for four months in Asia last year with his father, who stayed two months longer.