Military mete out life… and death
With ‘the Lady’ and other activists facing ever harsher penalties on trumped up charges, Sudha Ramachandran charts the Tatmadaw’s relentless march towards unchallenged power
On October 12, a Myanmar military court convicted deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi on two more corruption charges for allegedly accepting bribes from a businessman. She has been handed out a three-year jail term for each of the two cases, which she will serve out concurrently.
With this, Suu Kyi, who was state counsellor in Myanmar’s ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, faces a total of 26 years in prison for convictions on a raft of charges ranging from corruption to illegal import and possession of walkie-talkies, violation of Covid-19 restrictions and breaching the country’s official secrets act. She is currently being held in solitary confinement in an undisclosed location.
Suu Kyi was arrested on February 1, 2021, when the Tatmadaw (as Myanmar’s armed forces are known) staged a coup to overthrow the elected NLD government. Hundreds of other NLD elected officials, activists and members of the Election Commission were also arrested and are languishing in jail.
Myanmar’s military rulers have levelled trumped up charges against them. Their trials are proceeding behind closed doors and they are being denied access to information and recourse to appeal against their sentences. The trials are a sham, aimed at ensuring that the junta’s political opponents are prevented from returning to active politics. The objective is to eliminate the threat that the elected NLD leaders and democracy activists pose to the military’s illegal grip on power.
Foremost among those the junta wants to see locked up forever is Suu Kyi. Daughter of Myanmar’s founding father Gen Aung San, Suu Kyi is a popular democracy icon, who is a rallying point for the opposition to junta rule. As Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said in January this year, ‘The Myanmar junta’s courtroom circus of secret proceedings on bogus charges is all about steadily piling up more convictions against Aung San Suu Kyi so that she will remain in prison indefinitely.’
Keeping Suu Kyi out of politics is the main objective of the war the junta is waging against its opponents via military courts.
In the days after the coup, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of Myanmar to protest against the military power grab. The country’s armed forced unleashed extreme violence against unarmed protestors, killing hundreds, including children. This brutal repression pushed the protest underground. Thousands escaped to the jungles where they availed of arms training from ethnic armed organisations (EAOs). People’s Defence Forces emerged across the country and in many places have joined hands with the EAOs to battle the military.
In the roughly 21 months since, the level of violence has escalated dangerously, with the Tatmadaw engaging in aerial bombardment of villages, even schools and hospitals.
Just as ruthless as its attempts to militarily crush those opposing its rule is the war that the junta is waging against its rivals and opponents in the courts.
Since the coup on February 1, 2021, the military has arrested some 15,683 people and around 12,540 of them remain in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which tracks arrests and killings.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called out the junta for directing ‘politically motivated’ charges against Suu Kyi, who has denied all the indictments against her so far.She described as ‘absurd’allegations that she accepted about $1.3 million in gold bars and currency from a close political ally. She was convicted of corruption on these charges in April this year and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
There is little doubt that many of the accusations are indeed ‘absurd’. Consider this: five charges of corruption that Suu Kyi is being tried for now relate to the renting and purchase of helicopters for use during natural disasters and state affairs, including rescues and emergencies. Why this is considered corruption when the choppers were meant for the discharge of official duty is unclear.
Myanmar’s generals have sought to justify their coup by claiming that Suu Kyi and her associates rigged the November 2020 general election that the NLD won with a massive mandate, defeating a party created and propped up by the military. On September 2 this year, Suu Kyi was found guilty of election fraud and sentenced to three years with hard labour.
Earlier in August, the former leader and her economic advisor, Australian economist Sean Turnell, were convicted and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment each for violating the Official Secrets Act. The military court ruled that Turnell was provided with access to ‘secret state financial information’. What information this was has not been revealed.
As disturbing as the charges themselves is the way the trials are being conducted. They are being held behind closed doors in a military court. Not only are journalists prevented from attending,but also Suu Kyi’s lawyers were served with gag orders in last October last year.
Even more worrying than the woes of Suu Kyi are those of thousands of less well-known political activists, currently locked away in jail. Unlike the world-famous Aung San Suu Kyi, many of them are faceless. And they are confronted with the terrifying prospect of being forgotten; indeed, the kin of many of these activists are not even aware that they are in prison.
Not only are jailed activists facing false charges pressed against them by the military regime, they are also being tortured to give false evidence, and denied access to lawyers and the right to examine, challenge and verify evidence against them.
Of particular concern is the fate of those who have been sentenced to death. Since February 2021, the death penalty has been meted out to at least 114 people, including 41 in absentia.
In July this year, four of them, including NLD legislator Phyo Zeya Thaw and veteran activist Ko Jimmy, who were sentenced to death by a military tribunal in January on charges of treason and terrorism, were executed.They were denied the right of appeal and legal counsel, in violation of international human rights law. The four men were executed despite repeated calls by the international community to not carry out the death sentences.
The executions of these four political prisoners must have dealt a devastating blow to the hopes of other prisoners facing the death penalty. Will they too suffer a similar fate?
Courts are supposed to dispense justice according to the law. But in Myanmar,with the courts acting as per orders from the military, justice and legality are barely worth their names.