Myanmar’s junta has barred a lawyer representing deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint from speaking to the media, the lawyer said Friday, days after he revealed that authorities attempted to force Win Myint to resign as the military seized power in a February coup.
Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer representing the two National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders in their trial on charges of “defamation” at a court in the capital Naypyidaw, said in a post to his Facebook page that the junta’s Pyinmana township administrator had banned him from speaking to the news media, foreign diplomats, foreign governments or anyone from outside the law, beginning on Thursday.
According to the order, which was issued under Article 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, any communication with said entities would “constitute harassment or cause harm to those working in accordance with the law and prompt public unrest.”
The ban will remain in effect “until further notice,” it said.
On Tuesday, Khin Maung Zaw had informed the media that Win Myint testified in court about senior military officials attempting to force his resignation, citing a false health condition, on the day of the coup. When he refused, the officers threatened him, but he would not be swayed, Khin Maung Zaw said.
The former president was detained later that day, along with Aung San Suu Kyi and several other high-ranking party officials, and the military took control of the country.
Another lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that Khin Maung Zaw had simply relayed Win Myint’s testimony and “never exaggerated anything.”
Kyee Myint, a high court lawyer in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon, told RFA that the ban on Khin Maung Zaw is illegal.
“The Code of Criminal Procedure and the Media Law do not allow this—they issued this Article 144 order citing a law from over a century ago,” he said.
“The Media Law was introduced only recently … so, when an ancient law competes with a new law, the latter prevails. According to the 1973 Speech Act, the Media Law overwrites those old [Article] 144 laws. That's why they can’t do this to him.”
Kyee Myint said he believes the military banned Khin Maung Zaw from talking about the case because it “fears the influence of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.” He noted that the ban had only been issued after Win Myint’s testimony was widely reported in the international media.
The junta says it unseated the NLD government because, they claimed, the party had engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.
In the more than eight months since the Feb. 1 coup, security forces have killed 1,178 civilians and arrested at least 7,341, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.
The ban on Khin Maung Zaw follows similar restrictions on lawyers who commented on the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi. The deposed State Counsellor had previously instructed her legal team to report back to the media, saying court hearings should be made public.
According to a Yangon-based lawyer, who also declined to be named, Aung San Suu Kyi defense attorney San Marlar Nyunt was barred from speaking to the media in August. Another lawyer who regularly commented to the media on Aung San Suu Kyi’s case has refused to do so for the past two weeks, he said.
Junta Deputy Minister of Information Major General Zaw Min Tun told RFA that restrictions had been imposed on Khin Maung Zaw because his remarks could be “destabilizing to the country” at a time of acute political tension.
“Do these [statements] contribute to the stability and peace of the people at a time like this? You can reasonably decide whether it is helpful or not—it does not help,” he said.
“The restriction was issued because it could lead to more division between the two sides.”
But Kyaw Thiha, a member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee, told RFA that the junta is trying to use an information blackout to maintain its grip on power.
“Even lawyers are now barred from speaking in public about the court trial of state leaders,” he said.
“This is like an official declaration to the world, which is watching us. It is an overt declaration that this regime has maintained a news blackout and will continue to direct the country’s internal affairs using unjust laws.”
Win Myint, Aung San Suu Kyi, and former Naypyidaw Mayor Myo Aung all face the charge of “defamation of the state” under Article 505 (b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code related to two statements issued by the NLD Central Executive Committee on Feb. 7 and 13 that prosecutors say were meant to disrupt public order and instigate against the state.
Win Myint has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
The NLD Central Executive Committee’s Feb. 7 statement urged foreign governments, diplomatic missions, United Nations agencies, and international organizations not to recognize the junta and claimed the military had violated Myanmar’s 2008 constitution by staging a coup against elected government leaders.
The Feb. 13 statement, which was released while the junta was circulating a restrictive bill on cyber security, claimed that all regulations, rules, and laws enacted by the military government were illegal.
The court in Naypyidaw on June 29 overruled objections by defense lawyers that the statements were inadmissible because they were released after the leaders were detained and held incommunicado.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.