Suu Kyi has been held incommunicado since the military seized power in a coup on Feb. 1, detaining her, her chief ministers and her advisers. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won elections in a landslide in November for the second time, but the military claimed the vote was fraudulent, canceled the result and took over the government.
In the ensuing months, millions took to the streets in protest and worked to delegitimize the government through a campaign of civil disobedience. The military regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has responded with characteristic brutality, detaining almost 5,000 people. More than 800 have been killed in crackdowns on protests and in military operations since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).
The charges against Suu Kyi, however, have been especially punitive. Shortly after her detention, she was charged with possessing and importing walkie-talkies without a license, but the military steadily slapped on more severe charges, including corruption and violating the colonial-era secrets act. She faces a total of seven charges and penalties of up to 15 years — meaning she could spend the rest of her life in detention. Myanmar’s civilian president, Win Myint, who worked alongside Suu Kyi in running the government before the coup, has been held on similar charges.
Suu Kyi, who will turn 76 on Saturday, has been allowed to meet her attorneys only briefly on two occasions since being detained. Unlike her years under house arrest, she does not know where she is being held, according to her attorneys, as she was moved to an undisclosed location after her arrest. The trial is happening behind closed doors, with information released only through her attorneys or state media.
Khin Maung Zaw, head of Suu Kyi’s legal team, said the hearings began Monday about 10:30 a.m. and went on for roughly six hours. Several prosecution witnesses were brought forward to testify.
Suu Kyi, he added, “seemed not very well” but “paid keen attention” to the hearing. Two other cases will be heard before the court on Tuesday.
Human rights groups and foreign governments have condemned the treatment of Suu Kyi and that of other politicians, activists, protesters and journalists in Myanmar. In a statement ahead of the start of her trial, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, characterized the charges as “bogus and politically motivated.”
“With the restrictions on access to her lawyers and the case being heard in front of a court that is wholly beholden to the military junta, there is little likelihood she will receive a fair trial,” Robertson said.
Thousands of others who are detained by the military similarly face slim prospects of a just result. The state media broadcasts nightly lists of wanted and arrested people, many of them protesters described as rioters or terrorists. In published mug shots of those detained, some appear bruised or injured, suggesting torture while in custody.
In a stark example, local media outlet Myanmar Now reported last week that more than 30 young people, arrested for opposing the coup, were tortured and then sentenced to prison. Their trial, in the city of Myeik, was so hasty that it was held in a makeshift courtroom.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, warned Friday that further bloodshed is imminent in Myanmar, and she called for the international community to hold the junta to account.
“Rather than seeking dialogue, the military is branding its opponents as ‘terrorists’ and pursuing politically motivated charges against the democratic leadership,” Bachelet said. “In just over four months, Myanmar has gone from being a fragile democracy to a human rights catastrophe.”
Cape Diamond contributed to this report.