Aung San Suu Kyi's lawyer soldiers on in Myanmar 'in defence of democracy'

Lawyer Khin Maung Zaw (centre) has been tasked with defending Ms Aung San Suu Kyi from a pair of obscure charges. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - Staying in different lodgings each night to evade arrest, the lawyer representing Ms Aung San Suu Kyi said her trial will help determine whether Myanmar's people again become "slaves" of the military.

Soldiers raided the civilian leader's residence and detained her in pre-dawn raids three weeks ago, effectively ending Myanmar's 10-year experiment with democracy.

The new military regime has pledged to hold elections in a year, but for now, the junta wields power over all the country's political institutions - including its courts.

Mr Khin Maung Zaw has been tasked with defending her from a pair of obscure charges for possessing unlicensed walkie-talkies and violating coronavirus restrictions.

"Myanmar is now at a crucial point of history," the 73-year-old told AFP by phone from Naypyitaw, the country's capital, while reflecting on weeks of nationwide protests demanding his client's release.

"If we lose, we will become slaves of the military junta for 40 or 50 years. We have to win this battle."

Meanwhile, the G-7 countries said on Tuesday they "firmly condemn" violence committed by Myanmar's security forces against protesters and urged them to "exercise utmost restraint and respect human rights and international law".

The bloc of wealthy nations - comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States as well as the European Union's (EU) High Representative - reiterated their opposition to the Feb 1 coup and the increasingly heavy-handed response to demonstrations against it.

"Use of live ammunition against unarmed people is unacceptable. Anyone responding to peaceful protests with violence must be held to account," G-7 foreign ministers said in a statement. "We condemn the intimidation and oppression of those opposing the coup. We raise our concern at the crackdown on freedom of expression, including through the internet blackout and draconian changes to the law that repress free speech."

The G-7 called for an end to the "systematic targeting" of protesters, doctors, civil society and journalists and for the military junta to revoke its declared state of emergency.

In Myanmar, the junta has already taken action to purge the country's top courts of potential Ms Suu Kyi sympathisers, and Mr Khin Maung Zaw's brief is thoroughly stacked against him.

Despite several requests, he has still not been given permission to see his client ahead of her March 1 hearing.

"If I don't get permission to meet with her for the hearing, I will let all the world know that the trial is not fair," he said.

He has also stepped up his own safety precautions, due to "indirect pressures" passed onto him from relatives.

"At night, I have to stay away from my house and I have to stay in other people's houses," he told AFP.

No reason to be afraid

Born in 1948 in Pyinmana, a town now on the outskirts of the capital built by an earlier junta, Mr Khin Maung Zaw says he's used to threats from a powerful military.

He was first jailed at the age of 17 after protesting an earlier dictatorship for distributing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights around his university campus in Mandalay.

He was sent to the notorious Coco Islands prison, 400km off the coast of Myanmar.

He said it was the "equivalent of a gulag". It was later demolished after inmates staged a hunger strike to protest the island's dire conditions.

Released in 1972, he was arrested again three years later for joining student demonstrations. He has spent a total of nine years behind bars.

"I have no reason to be afraid for myself because I have weathered all these executions and repression," he said.

Since the coup, the authorities have steadily ratcheted up their use of force to contain the massive civil disobedience campaign sweeping the country.

Mr Khin Maung Zaw is amazed by their drive, but fearful for their safety, with at least three anti-coup demonstrators killed so far.

"The spark has become a pyre fire," he said. "In the past, when the military becomes desperate, they will do anything."

His last high-profile case was defending Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

Both men spent nearly 18 months in prison for reporting on atrocities against the country's stateless Rohingya minority.

The case placed him at odds with the administration of Ms Suu Kyi, who had defended the army's attacks on the Rohingya community and, according to a United States diplomat, once referred to the reporters as "traitors".

But Mr Khin Maung Zaw said he does not consider the "personal aspects" of the case, which were unimportant compared with the country's efforts to avoid a return to military rule.

"I'm not representing Aung San Suu Kyi as a person - I am representing a publicly elected person under attack by the military forces," he said.

"That is all in defence of democracy."

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