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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Myanmar widens arrests and slaps Suu Kyi with more prison time

Protesters shout at security forces from behind a makeshift barrier in the Thaketa Township of Yangon, Myanmar, on March 28, 2021.

By Richard C. Paddock

Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is kept by herself in a prison cell measuring about 200 square feet. Daytime temperatures can surpass 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but there is no air conditioning. When it rains, which is often, water splashes in through windows that have no coverings, according to two people with knowledge of her situation.

For the foreseeable future, this is the life of the 77-year-old Nobel Peace laureate and onetime democracy icon. On Monday, a special court appointed by the military regime that detained her last year convicted Suu Kyi on four corruption counts and added six years to her sentence, according to one of the people.

She was already serving 11 years on half a dozen counts.

Suu Kyi, who held the post of state counselor, was forced from office by the military and placed under house arrest in February 2021. In June, she was sent to a prison in Naypyitaw, the capital, after a courtroom was built there for her trials.

Allies bring her food and white-and-brown clothing so she doesn’t have to wear the louse-infested uniforms given to prisoners. Female staff come to her cell and taste her prison food to show her it isn’t poisoned, according to the two people with knowledge of her situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Suu Kyi is one of more than 15,000 people arrested for opposing military rule, and of these, 12,000 remain in detention, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Many have been tortured in interrogation centers and sentenced by military courts after brief trials at which defense attorneys and the public are barred. Convicted prisoners are often transferred to remote prisons, creating additional hardship for them and their families, said Aung Myo Kyaw, spokesman for the political prisoners group.

He likened Myanmar to the closed, repressive society of North Korea under its dictator, Kim Jong Un. “Anyone in Myanmar can be arrested at any time even for doing nothing related to politics,” he said.

After hanging four pro-democracy activists last month, including popular activist Kyaw Min Yu and former hip-hop artist and elected member of Parliament Phyo Zeya Thaw, the regime has promised more executions. Since the coup, more than 70 political prisoners have been sentenced to die.

“If the death sentence was imposed according to the law, then, of course, the death sentence will be carried out,” the junta’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, said after the first executions.

Journalists have also come under intensified scrutiny. At least 55 journalists are now imprisoned, according to rights group Detained Journalist Information Myanmar. Last month, reporter Ko Maung Maung Myo with the independent Mekong News Agency was convicted of violating the counterterrorism law and sentenced to six years for possessing photos and interviews with a local guerrilla group.

And Japanese documentary filmmaker Turo Kubota, 26, traveling on a tourist visa, was arrested after covering a protest. He faces seven years for inciting public unrest and violating immigration rules.

The junta recently began cracking down on behavior it deems inappropriate, arresting two well-known models for posting explicit videos on subscription website OnlyFans and a similar site, Exantria.

The junta said the videos could harm Myanmar’s “culture and dignity” and were “without the modesty that should be maintained by Myanmar women,” state media reported. The models face up to 15 years in prison.

One of the models was Nang Mwe San, a former doctor whose medical license was revoked before the coup for posting photos of herself in bikinis and lingerie on Facebook. More recently, she criticized the junta for confiscating her passport — along with those of other celebrities — as she prepared to take her father to Bangkok for medical treatment. He died soon after.

Thinzar Wint Kyaw, a popular model, actress and singer with 1.6 million Instagram followers, was also arrested. The regime said it would continue hunting online for others who offend the modesty the regime now demands of citizens.

Human rights lawyer Kyi Myint said the regime was casting itself as safeguarding traditional morality in the deeply Buddhist country even as soldiers massacre civilians and rape women. “All dictators use religion and culture as a weapon to arrest people, so this is not a surprise,” he said.

At the prison in Naypyitaw, Suu Kyi is kept isolated from other inmates when she is not attending her trials. Before court, she has 30 minutes to meet with her lawyers and co-defendants. Her trials are closed to the public, and the court has barred her lawyers from talking about her publicly.

She is reported to be in good health overall but has gotten scabies and lost weight since entering prison. Mosquitoes plague her in her cell. But she is said to be taking her situation calmly.

She also gets special treatment.

Prison officials, apparently afraid that something might happen to her on their watch, have gone to unusual lengths to look after her.

Her cell is unusually large for just one prisoner, especially in Myanmar’s overcrowded prison system.

Three female staff members are assigned to attend to her and provide security. In addition to tasting her food, they are on standby to assist her at any time. While many inmates go without medical care even when facing life-threatening illnesses, a doctor visits her weekly.

The four corruption counts against her decided Monday centered on land and construction deals tied to the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, an organization Suu Kyi founded in her mother’s name and which she headed until her arrest.

The court found that she negotiated reduced payments to the government from the foundation worth more than $13 million. The court also ruled she violated the law when the foundation raised nearly $8 million from foreign donors and spent it on projects not originally advertised.

Defenders say the charges against her are trumped up to silence her.

Suu Kyi is accustomed to spending long periods in isolation. Of the last 33 years, she has spent 17 in detention, mainly under house arrest. Now she confronts the possibility of spending her remaining years in custody.

With Monday’s guilty verdicts, she has been convicted on 10 counts and sentenced to a total of 17 years in prison. Still ahead are trials on nine more charges with a potential maximum sentence totaling 122 years.

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