Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi makes first in-person court appearance

In this image from Myawaddy TV, a photograph shown during a news report showing the appearance of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former president Win Myint, sitting 3rd from right, and former Naypyitaw Council chairman Dr. Myo Aung before a special court, shown while a report about Suu Kyi’s case is read by a news presenter in Naypyitaw, Myanmar (AP)
20:33pm, Mon 24 May 2021
CBAD8A00-D2B9-4E0E-ADDF-D0366C357A34 Created with sketchtool. E9A4AA46-7DC3-48B8-9CE2-D75274FB8967 Created with sketchtool. 65CCAE04-4748-4D0F-8696-A91D8EB3E7DC Created with sketchtool.

Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi has appeared in court in person for the first time since the military arrested her when it seized power on February 1.

State television MRTV broadcast on its evening news programme the first photo of Ms Suu Kyi since the coup.

It showed the 75-year-old 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, former president Win Myint and Myo Aung, the former mayor of Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital.

A photograph of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s court appearance was shown during a report about her case read by a news presenter (AP)

One of their lawyers, Min Min Soe, told the Associated Press by phone that the three were able to meet with their defence team for about 30 minutes before the hearing began at a special court set up inside Naypyitaw’s city council building.

Ms Suu Kyi’s only previous court appearances have been by video link and she had not been allowed to meet in person with any of her lawyers.

Min Min Soe said Ms Suu Kyi wanted to tell Myanmar’s people that her National League for Democracy party will stand by them.

She said that “since the NLD was founded for the people, the NLD will exist as long as the people exist”, Min Min Soe said after the hearing.

She appeared to be referring to the ruling junta’s threat to dissolve the party.

Khin Maung Zaw, head of Ms Suu Kyi’s legal team, said “she seems fit and alert and smart, as always”.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is always confident in herself, and she is confident in her cause and confident in the people,” he said, using an honorific for a respected older woman.

Thein Hlaing Tun, a lawyer representing Myo Aung, was arrested after the hearing on a charge of spreading information that could cause unrest.

Min Min Soe, right, and Khin Maung Zaw, left, the lawyers assigned by the National League for Democracy party to represent deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi (AP)

Monday’s hearing was largely procedural.

The defence lawyers said their discussions with Ms Suu Kyi involved all the charges against her.

State television said the hearing concerned the charge against all three defendants of spreading information that could cause public alarm or unrest.

Ms Suu Kyi also faces two counts of violating the Natural Disaster Management Law for allegedly violating Covid-19 pandemic restrictions during the 2020 election campaign; illegally importing walkie-talkies that were for her bodyguards’ use; and unlicensed use of the radios.

The most serious charge that Ms Suu Kyi faces is breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a penalty of up to 14 years’ imprisonment, but that is being handled by a separate court.

Ms Suu Kyi’s supporters say the proceedings are politically motivated and are meant to discredit her and legitimise the military’s seizure of power.

If convicted of any of the offences, she could be banned from running in the election that the junta has pledged to hold within one or two years of its takeover.

Aung San Suu Kyi (AP)

Also on Monday, an American journalist working for a Myanmar news magazine was detained at Yangon’s airport as he was preparing to board a flight to Malaysia.

Frontier Myanmar said it does not know why its managing editor, Danny Fenster, was detained.

The junta has arrested about 80 journalists, roughly half of whom remain detained awaiting charges or trial.

The military ousted Ms Suu Kyi’s government after her party won a landslide victory in a general election last November that would have given it a second five-year term in office.

Before the start of democratic reforms a decade ago, Myanmar was ruled by the military for 50 years.

The junta claims it was justified in taking power because of alleged widespread election fraud, especially irregularities in voting lists.

The Asian Network for Free Elections, a non-partisan poll watching organisation, in a report issued last week rejected the military’s allegations of massive fraud, saying the results of the voting were representative of the will of the people.

The junta has accused Ms Suu Kyi of corruption and presented on state television what it said was evidence that she took bribes, but has so far only said it intends to pursue charges for that offence.

Anti-coup protesters flash the three-finger salute during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, against the military takeover (AP)

Her lawyers dismiss the allegations.

Several cases are also pending against other senior members of Ms Suu Kyi’s party.

According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has been keeping a detailed tally of arrests and deaths since the coup, almost 4,300 people are in detention, including 95 who have already been sentenced.

Resistance to military rule is widespread.

About 100 young people gathered on Monday in a lightning protest in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, carrying banners and chanting pro-democracy slogans before hurriedly dispersing.

Flash mobs have replaced the mass demonstrations that were held in February and March because of the deadly response of security forces.

According to the Assistance Association, 818 protesters and bystanders have been killed by security personnel since the coup.

Junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said in an interview last week with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television that the death toll had been exaggerated and was actually about 300, and that 47 police had been killed and more then 200 injured.

The UN special envoy for Myanmar warned on Monday of a possible civil war in the country, saying people are arming themselves against the military junta and protesters have started shifting from defensive to offensive actions, using homemade weapons and training from some ethnic armed groups.

Chrisrine Schraner Burgener told a virtual UN news conference that people are starting self-defence actions because they are frustrated and fear attacks by the military, which is using “a huge scale of violence”.

A civil war “could happen,” she said, and that is why for the past three weeks from her base in Thailand she has discussed with many key parties the idea of starting an inclusive dialogue that would include ethnic armed groups, political parties, civil society, strike committees and the army, as well as a small group of witnesses from the international community.

Sign up to our newsletter