BANGKOK: Staying in different quarters each night to avoid arrest, the lawyer representing Aung San Suu Kyi says her trial will help determine whether the people of Myanmar will again become “slaves” to the military.
Soldiers broke into the residence of the civil leader and stopped her in pre-dawn attacks three weeks ago, effectively ending Myanmar’s 10-year experience with democracy.
The new military regime has promised to hold elections in a year, but for now the junta has power over all the country’s political institutions – including its courts.
Khin Maung Zaw was in charge of defending Aung San Suu Kyi against accusations having unlicensed walkie-talkies and violating coronavirus restrictions.
“Myanmar is now at a crucial point in history,” the 73-year-old man told AFP by telephone from Naypyidaw, the country’s capital, as he reflected on weeks of national protests demanding the release of his client.
“If we lose, we will become slaves to the military junta for 40 or 50 years. We have to win this battle ”.
The junta has already taken steps to purge the country’s higher courts of potential Aung San Suu Kyi supporters, and Khin Maung Zaw’s petition is totally against him.
Despite several requests, he was not yet allowed to see Aung San Suu Kyi before the March 1 hearing.
“If I can’t get permission to meet her for the hearing, I will let everyone know that the trial is not fair,” he said.
He also stepped up his own security precautions, due to “indirect pressures” passed on him by relatives.
“At night, I have to stay away from my home and I have to stay with other people,” he told AFP.
“NO REASON TO BE AFRAID”
Born in 1948 in Pyinmana, a city today on the outskirts of the capital built by a previous junta, Khin Maung Zaw says he is used to threats from powerful military personnel.
He was first arrested at the age of 17 after protesting against a previous dictatorship for distributing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights around his university campus in Mandalay.
He was sent to the famous prison on the Coco Islands, 400 kilometers off the coast of Myanmar.
He says it was the “equivalent of a gulag”. It was later demolished after the prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest the island’s dire conditions.
Released in 1972, he was arrested again three years later for joining student protests. He spent a total of nine years behind bars.
“I have no reason to fear because I have resisted all these executions and repression,” he said.
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Since the coup, authorities have steadily increased the use of force to stem the mass civil disobedience campaign that is sweeping the country.
Khin Maung Zaw is surprised by the initiative, but fearful for its safety, with at least three anti-coup protesters killed so far.
“The spark turned to pyre fire,” he said. “In the past, when the military was desperate, they would do anything.”
His last standout case was the defense of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
Both men spent nearly 18 months in prison for reporting atrocities against the country’s stateless Rohingya minority.
The case put him at odds with the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, who defended the army’s attacks on the Rohingya community and, according to an American diplomat, once referred to reporters as “traitors”.
But Khin Maung Zaw says he does not consider the “personal aspects” of the case, which were not important compared to the country’s efforts to prevent a return to the military regime.
“I am not representing Aung San Suu Kyi as a person – I am representing a publicly elected person under attack by the military,” he said.
“This is all in defense of democracy.”