By Jessie Yeung, CNN
Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi went on trial Monday, more than four months after the country’s military seized power in a coup.
The court, in the capital Naypyidaw, heard the first criminal cases against the deposed leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Suu Kyi’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said she appeared unwell throughout the hearing.
The trial addressed three charges, including that Suu Kyi, 75, violated a communications law by allegedly importing and using a number of walkie-talkie radios, and violated coronavirus restrictions during election campaigning last year.
The court also heard one case against deposed President U Win Myint over the alleged violation of the country’s disaster management laws.
Suu Kyi “seemed not very well,” her lawyer told CNN, adding that “throughout the hearing she seemed quite interested and paid keen attention.”
The trial will resume Tuesday for Suu Kyi on two other charges, while the most serious charges against her, of corruption and violations of the State Secrets Act have yet to be assigned a trial date.
Under the command of coup leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military seized power on February 1, sparking months of civilian protests and deadly clashes. Since then a number of democratically-elected leaders, including Suu Kyi, have been held in detention and charged with a litany of offenses.
Activists and legal experts have criticized the charges against Suu Kyi as politically motivated and part of a larger crackdown by the military to stifle dissent and consolidate power.
“This is exactly a show trial,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst based in Yangon. “This is a political spectacle in order to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic opposition.”
He added that despite the junta’s efforts to discredit Suu Kyi, she remains hugely popular among the public — and after experiencing some democratic reforms in the past decade, “the majority of 54 million people do not want the military to run the country anymore.”
“They don’t trust the military, they don’t trust the legal system,” Mathieson said. “What I think the military should really be worried about is less the residual influence and power and charismatic authority that Aung San Suu Kyi has, and more the fact that the coup has sparked nationwide resistance, all around the country against the military.”
Ahead of Suu Kyi’s trial Monday, nearly 100 supporters marched briefly in Yangon, chanting slogans and making the three-finger salute adopted from “The Hunger Games” that has become a symbol of defiance.
In total, Suu Kyi faces seven charges. She is also accused of violating the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. That case is due to resume later this month.
Last Thursday, she was slapped with an additional charge of “corruption using her rank,” with a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Suu Kyi’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw called the charge “absurd,” saying on Thursday that she is “honest and incorruptible.”
The military, known as the Tatmadaw, staged its coup after claiming widespread voter fraud during the November 2020 parliamentary elections. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) performed dismally, while Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a landslide and a second term in government.
It was only the second democratic vote since the previous junta began a series of reforms in 2011, following half a century of brutal military rule that plunged Myanmar into poverty and isolationism.
The military has not provided evidence for its claims of fraud, and the previous election commission denied any voting discrepancies had taken place.
In the four months since, the junta has cracked down on nationwide pro-democracy protests and a prolonged civil disobedience movement that at times saw tens of thousands of people on the streets.
These mass demonstrations have subsided since March and April, but there are still flash protests like the one on Monday, which appear and then dissipate quickly, said Mathieson.
There has also been the recent emergence of “people’s resistance” fighters who are taking up arms against junta forces. Many members of the disobedience movement have fled to areas controlled by ethnic armed groups that have been fighting the military, central government and each other for greater rights and autonomy, on and off for 70 years.
Fighting between these local militia groups and the Tatmadaw has spread across those remote, mountainous regions, especially in the western Chin state, with reports of whole villages forced to abandon their homes.
As of Monday, more than 860 people have been killed by junta-led security forces and 6,027 have been arrested since the coup, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Among them are protesters, activists, journalists, celebrities, government officials, as well as children and bystanders.
CNN’s Sarita Harilela, Sheena McKenzie and Helen Regan contributed to this report.