When two Reuters journalists were jailed for exposing a massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, then-civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi refused to come to their defense and said the verdict had “nothing to do with freedom of expression at all.” The comments brought a swift rebuke from the international community and further damaged whatever was left of Suu Kyi’s international reputation as a human rights icon.
After more than 500 days in prison, the two journalists were freed in a presidential amnesty in 2019. But in a twist that no one saw coming, their lawyer at the time is now defending Suu Kyi after she was arrested and removed from power in a military coup on Feb. 1.
Khin Maung Zaw, 73, is a prominent attorney used to taking on cases where the deck is stacked against him in Myanmar’s beleaguered justice system. He doesn’t dwell on the ironies leading up to what is arguably his most difficult fight over a long career.
They include defending another press freedom case in 2017 in which three journalists—including two foreigners—were arrested for attempting to get drone footage of the capital Naypyitaw. The trio was hit with violating the obscure import/export act for the drone, the same charge used to prosecute Suu Kyi this month after authorities claimed they found illegal walkie-talkies in her house. After being convicted, the journalists were later freed after two months in prison and international outcry.
“Although the charge is the same, it doesn’t matter. I do not look at the situation but the law,” Khin Maung Zaw told VICE World News. “In a court case, it might be the king versus the woodcutter. Everyone is the same from the legal point of view.”
While he may see it that way, the junta now running Myanmar again after a decade-long experiment with democracy clearly does not. They insist that the takeover was justified after complaining of fraud in November elections, a repeat landslide victory for Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD). International observers have dismissed the claims and called for the release of Suu Kyi and her top allies. Hundreds of people, mostly officials with the former civilian government, have been arrested.
“In a court case, it might be the king versus the woodcutter. Everyone is the same from the legal point of view.”
As daily protests sweep the nation, Khin Maung Zhaw is focused on trying to make contact with his famous client, who is once again under house arrest, this time in the sprawling, purpose-built capital not her lakeside villa in Yangon. He has not met with Suu Kyi yet, was not told about a previous hearing, and was only made aware of certain developments in the case through a leaked document on social media that has not been confirmed.
“It’s like the rights of the defendant and the lawyer were lost,” he said. “Since the beginning...there was no transparency.”
It is not even clear if Suu Kyi knows Khin Maung Zaw has been chosen by her party as her attorney. Her top ally Win Htein asked him to take the case, he said. But then Win Htein was arrested, whisked away from a government guest house in the capital. After that, another senior party representative told him to continue.
“That’s why I’ve said I am her lawyer. But I am not an official defense lawyer yet according to the court procedure,” he said, adding that there should be another hearing on March 1 in a legal proceeding that is virtually guaranteed to drag on for months or longer. Suu Kyi has also been charged with violating the natural disaster management act, as has the president Win Myint, who is representing himself. Rights groups have decried all charges as bogus.
But despite his background defending press freedom cases that Suu Kyi avoided speaking up about, he is a natural candidate for the job having known the Nobel laureate for years. He is a member of the Independent Lawyers Association of Myanmar, a group that was apparently created based on ideas by Suu Kyi. Two years before she came to power in 2015 elections, she let lawyers use her office in the capital to represent defendants accused in cases involving the military.
Khin Maung Zaw also worked closely with Suu Kyi when she came to parliament in a 2012 by-election, two years after being released from various periods of house arrest that lasted 15 years. She was in charge of a Rule of Law Committee and worked closely with Khin Maung Zaw’s Legal Assistance Group in Naypyitaw.
Though he has yet to speak with her, he is positive that she would like the same legal protections afforded to other citizens of a country. But that may be hard to achieve in a system that seems set up to make him fail.
“I am sure she’s also asking for rights too,” he said.