Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was set to go on trial Monday on charges that many observers have criticized as attempt by the military junta that deposed her to delegitimize her democratic election and cripple her political future.
Suu Kyi’s prosecution poses the greatest challenge for the 75-year-old and her National League for Democracy party since February’s military coup, which prevented them from taking office for a second five-year term following last year’s landslide election victory.
Human Rights Watch charged that the allegations being heard in a special court in the capital, Naypyitaw, are “bogus and politically motivated” with the intention of nullifying the victory and preventing Suu Kyi from running for office again.
“This trial is clearly the opening salvo in an overall strategy to neuter Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party as a force that can challenge military rule in the future,” said Phil Robertson, the organization’s deputy Asia director.
The army seized power on Feb. 1 before the new lawmakers could be seated, and arrested Suu Kyi, who held the post of special counsellor, and President Win Myint, along with other members of her government and ruling party. The coup reversed years of slow progress toward more democracy for Myanmar.
The army cited the government’s failure to properly investigate alleged voting irregularities as its reason for seizing power — an assertion contested by the independent Asian Network for Free Elections and many others. Junta officials have threatened to dissolve the National League for Democracy for alleged involvement in election fraud and any conviction for Suu Kyi could see her barred from politics.
The junta has claimed it will hold new elections within the next year or two but the country’s military has a long history of promising elections and not following through. The military ruled Myanmar for 50 years after a coup in 1962, and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years after a failed 1988 popular uprising.
The military’s latest takeover sparked nationwide protests that continue despite a violent crackdown that has killed hundreds of people. Although street demonstrations have shrunk in number and scale, the junta now faces a low-level armed insurrection by its opponents in both rural and urban areas.
Suu Kyi is being tried on allegations she illegally imported walkie-talkies for her bodyguards’ use, unlicensed use of the radios and spreading information that could cause public alarm or unrest, as well as for two counts of violating the Natural Disaster Management Law for allegedly breaking pandemic restrictions during the 2020 election campaign, her lawyers said Sunday.
“All these charges should be dropped, resulting in her immediate and unconditional release,” said Human Rights Watch’s Robertson. “But sadly, with the restrictions on access to her lawyers, and the case being heard in front of a court that is wholly beholden to the military junta, there is little likelihood she will receive a fair trial.”
Government prosecutors will have until June 28 to finish their presentation, after which Suu Kyi’s defense team will have until July 26 to present its case, Khin Maung Zaw, the team’s senior member, said last week. Court sessions are due to be held on Monday and Tuesday each week.
Two other more serious charges are being handled separately. Suu Kyi is charged with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carried a maximum 14-year prison term, and police last week filed complaints under a section of the Anti-Corruption Law that states that political office holders convicted for bribery face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a fine.
Although Suu Kyi faced her first charge just days after the coup, she was not immediately allowed to consult with her lawyers. Only on May 24, when she made her first actual appearance in court, was she allowed the first of two brief face-to-face meetings with them at pre-trial hearings. Her only previous court appearances had been by video link.
A photo of her May 24 appearance released by state media showed her sitting straight-backed in a small courtroom, wearing a pink face-mask, her hands folded in her lap. Alongside her were her two co-defendants on several charges, the former president as well as the former mayor of Naypyitaw, Myo Aung.
The three were able to meet with their defense team for about 30 minutes before the hearing began at a special court set up inside Naypyitaw’s city council building, said one of their lawyers, Min Min Soe. Senior lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, said Suu Kyi “seems fit and alert and smart, as always.”