ASEAN Beat | Southeast Asia

Lawyer: Myanmar Ex-president Testifies He Refused to Resign

Former President Win Myint reportedly testified that he would “rather die” than resign as the Myanmar military had demanded. 

Lawyer: Myanmar Ex-president Testifies He Refused to Resign

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left, and President Win Myint, wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19, leave after a Central Executive Committee meeting at their National League for Democracy (NLD) party headquarters in Naypyitaw, Myanmar Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

Myanmar’s former President Win Myint, forced out of office eight months ago when the army seized power, testified Tuesday that he defied a demand from the military to resign, saying he would “rather die,” his lawyers said.

Win Myint was giving testimony at his trial on charges of incitement, in which the country’s ousted top leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, is his co-defendant. Incitement, defined as spreading false or inflammatory information that could disturb public order, is sometimes referred to as sedition and punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

The trial is being held at a special court in the capital Naypyidaw, whose former mayor, Myo Aung, is the third defendant. Aung San Suu Kyi and the ex-mayor are slated to testify later.

Win Myint and Suu Kyi have been detained by the military since its February 1 takeover ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which was about to start a second five-year term of office after a landslide election victory in November last year. The military claims it acted to protect democracy because the polls were tainted by massive voter fraud, a contention not backed by independent observers.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters and independent analysts say the charges against her are an attempt to discredit her and legitimize the military’s seizure of power.

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The trial is held in closed session with neither press nor public allowed. Win Myint’s testimony as related by lawyer Khin Maung Zaw is the first time his version of events has been made known.

According to the lawyer, Win Myint testified that in the early morning hours of February 1, two senior army officers entered his room and solicited his resignation as president on the grounds of ill health. He testified that he declined, saying his health was good, and the officers then warned that his refusal would cause him trouble.

Win Myint told the court that he responded he would rather die than consent to their proposition.

The military has insisted its takeover was legal. When Win Myint refused to step down, he was replaced by Vice President Myint Swe, an army ally, who declared a state of emergency, allowing the military to take power. The appointment of Myint Swe as acting president was made on the basis of Win Myint being arrested, an action that some legal scholars say was unlawful.

At stake in the incitement case are statements posted on a Facebook page of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, after she, Win Myint, and other party leaders had already been detained.

In previous legal proceedings, the lawyers for Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi have said they could not be held responsible for the statements — criticizing the takeover and suggesting in broad terms that it be resisted — because they were in detention.

Win Myint testified Tuesday that the accusations against him were groundless as he had been held incommunicado, so the alleged statements were made without his knowledge even though his name appeared on them.

During cross-examination, the public prosecutor questioned Win Myint about what he knew about various organizations that have been formed since the takeover to resist military rule. The government blames such groups for unrest and violence after security forces responded to peaceful protests with deadly force.

Defense lawyers responded that the groups were formed after Win Myint had already been detained and that he didn’t even have access to any information about them.

The special court is also trying Aung San Suu Kyi for illegally importing walkie-talkies and unlicensed use of the radios, as well as failing to observe pandemic restrictions during last year’s general election campaign.

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Aung San Suu Kyi also faces corruption charges in a separate trial recently begun, an offense that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. She is set to be tried soon for violating the Official Secrets Act, which carries a maximum term of 14 years.