The trial in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have secretly begun a day early, without the knowledge or presence of her lawyer, shortly after the military regime filed a new charge against the deposed leader.
The UN’s special rapporteur Tom Andrews said he understood a “secretive trial” had already started and that a combination of expected mass protests on Wednesday and reports of large troop movements meant the military “could be on the precipice of … committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar”.
Judge Nan Aye Mya Thiri said outside court in Naypyitaw that police decided to bring the case against Aung San Suu Kyi and the ousted president Win Myint on Tuesday despite the pair being remanded until Wednesday, Myanmar Now reported.
They appeared in court via video link and appeared to be in good health, the judge added.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, who has been barred from seeing either of them since their detention during the coup more than two weeks ago told reporters that he only arrived after an unexpected videoconference the judge said had been held with the ousted leader. He said he had been told the trial could last for six months to a year, according to the New York Times.
Aung San Suu Kyi has already been charged with importing walkie talkies, but now faces a second charge of violating a national disaster law by breaching Covid regulations during last year’s election. Win Myint already faces the same charge.
Myanmar was plunged into an internet blackout for the third night running, Britain-based monitoring group NetBlocks said, as the generals try to wear down the uprising.
In the two weeks since the military ousted Aung San Suu Kyi and put her under house arrest in the administrative capital Naypyidaw, big cities and isolated village communities alike have been in open revolt.
Andrews, the UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, said he was worried the situation was spiralling out of control. “I fear that Wednesday has the potential for violence on a greater scale in Myanmar than we have seen since the illegal takeover of the government on February 1,” he said in a statement.
He said he had “received reports of soldiers being transported into at least Yangon from outlying regions”.
“In the past, such troop movements preceded killings, disappearances, and detentions on a mass scale,” he said. “I am terrified that given the confluence of these two developments – planned mass protests and troops converging – we could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar.”
The military justified its power seizure by alleging widespread voter fraud in November elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.
The Nobel laureate’s lawyer told AFP on Tuesday she had been hit with a second charge, of violating the country’s disaster management law. “She was charged under section 8 of the export and import law and section 25 of the natural disaster management law as well,” Khin Maung Zaw said.
While it was unclear how the disaster law applied in Aung San Suu Kyi’s case, it has been used against deposed president Win Myint – also arrested on February 1 – relating to a campaign event that the junta alleges broke coronavirus-related restrictions.
Khin Maung Zaw added that Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint were next expected to appear via video conference during the trial on 1 March.
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Tuesday that both Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint were in a “safer place” and “in good health”. “It’s not like they were arrested – they are staying at their houses,” the general, who became the country’s vice-minister of information after the coup, told a press conference.
The United States and Britain condemned the new charge against Aung San Suu Kyi, and renewed demands for her release.
They were joined by the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, who said on Tuesday that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see”.
So far, only Washington has announced targeted sanctions against the generals, calling on them to relinquish power.
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said that “sanctions are expected”, and that the regime would continue to “maintain friendly relations” with the international community.
More than 420 people have been arrested since the coup, according to a list of confirmed detentions from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.
Security forces have used increasingly heavy measures to quell huge nationwide street protests and a disobedience campaign encouraging civil servants to strike. Rubber bullets, tear gas and even sling shots have been used against protesters, and troops have fanned out around the country in recent days.
Protests in Yangon on Tuesday, the 11th straight day of demonstrations, were smaller than in previous days but strategically targeted. Student activists have gathered at the major Myaynigone Intersection while another rally was held outside the US embassy.
Pockets of protesters also held rallies outside government offices including the Central Bank, Myanmar Port Authority and the Customs Department, to pressure civil servants to join a civil disobedience movement that is crippling commercial and government functions and resisting efforts by the military to restore normality.