Suu Kyi's lawyer soldiers on in 'defence of democracy'

Lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, who is representing Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, stays in different houses every night to evade arrest.
Lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, who is representing Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, stays in different houses every night to evade arrest.

BANGKOK • 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 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 it wields power over all of the country's political institutions - including its courts.

Mr Khin Maung Zaw has been tasked with defending Ms Suu Kyi 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 lawyer said over the phone from the capital Naypyitaw 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."

The junta has already purged the country's top courts of potential sympathisers of Ms Suu Kyi, and Mr Khin Maung Zaw's brief is thoroughly stacked against him.

Despite several requests, he has still not seen his client ahead of her March 1 hearing.

"If I don't get permission to meet 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 on to him from relatives.

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

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

He was first jailed at the age of 17 after protesting against an earlier dictatorship by 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 against the island's dire conditions.

Released in 1972, he was arrested 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 the protesters' drive but fearful for their safety - at least three anti-coup demonstrators have been killed so far.

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 committed 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. That is all in defence of democracy."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2021, with the headline 'Suu Kyi's lawyer soldiers on in 'defence of democracy''. Subscribe