Former NLD chief minister testifies against Suu Kyi in corruption case 

Former Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein on Friday testified against detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a corruption case filed by the junta that could see her hit with a 15-year prison sentence. 

Phyo Min Thein served under Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government and was once even rumoured to be her potential successor. 

His testimony came as Suu Kyi began her first day of court hearings for four corruption charges–originally filed against her at the Mandalay Region High Court–at a court in Naypyitaw, according to her defence team. 

Phyo Min Thein appeared at the hearing as a main witness for one of the charges submitted by the junta’s anti-corruption commission, said lead defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw.

The junta accused Suu Kyi in March of accepting a total of $600,000 and seven viss, or roughly 11.4kg, of gold in bribes from the former chief minister on three separate occasions in exchange for supporting and protecting his businesses. 

The junta released a video at the time of Phyo Min Thein making the accusations against Suu Kyi. 

Khin Maung Zaw said that judge Myint San from the Mandalay Region High Court presided over the corruption cases against Suu Kyi and that the plaintiff, who is a member of the anti-graft commission, also testified at the hearing. 

Phyo Min Thein, the lawyer said, “didn’t even look Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in the face. He just kept his head down and went straight to the witness corner. We even had to tell him to speak louder because his voice was so soft.”

“He testified the same thing as in the video released by the military council,” he added.

The judge tried to have the defence team question the former chief minister to save him travelling from Yangon to Naypyitaw at a future hearing, according to Khin Maung Zaw.

Phyo Min Thein told the court that someone else arranged his travel to Naypyitaw. He added that he has been suffering from a chronic heart condition and was infected with coronavirus twice in recent months, the lawyer told Myanmar Now.

Suu Kyi’s lawyers refused the judge’s request to question him on the grounds that she hadn’t consulted with them about the cases and they had not been able to see the case files until just before the hearing. 

The judge scheduled the next hearing for October 8 and summoned Phyo Min Thein to attend again, Khin Maung Zaw said.

Thein Oo, the justice minister for the underground National Unity Government, said he was unable to say what pressure Phyo Min Thein has been facing to make him testify against his own party leader. His testimonies will be crucial in Suu Kyi’s case, he added. 

“It is important to know whether he is in a situation where he is able to testify freely and independently,” he said. “There are a lot of false witnesses in judiciary affairs and it will be more apparent during such a time.”

“There will be cases where the junta tortures and threatens people to testify falsely,” he added. 

Phyo Min Thein talks with the National League for Democracy (NLD) party members during a meeting between NLD and government members in Yangon in 2019 (EPA)

Phyo Min Thein participated in the 1988 democratic uprising as a university student and became active in politics as a founding member of the Democratic Party for a New Society. 

He was arrested in 1991 for his political activities and sentenced to seven years in prison. The military government added more prison time when he was in jail and he was eventually released in 2005.

Before becoming an NLD member in 2012, he was involved in two other smaller political parties. He ran in the 2012 by-election as an NLD party representative for Yangon’s Hlegu Township. He won that election and became an MP at the Lower House.

He became a central executive committee member at the party and was appointed Yangon’s chief minister by Suu Kyi after he won the 2015 election representing the same township at the Yangon region parliament. 

During his tenure, he faced several controversies involving criticism from within the party as well as from the business community and the general public.

He participated in a 2019 public event in Yangon supporting Suu Kyi when she went to the Hague to defend the country against charges of committing genocide against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice.

“All of the public need to stand together with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who is trying to resolve something that is a Myanmar affair,” Phyo Min Thein said at the event.

He did not run in the 2020 election. When the military seized power from the NLD government on February 1, Phyo Min Thein was among the party leaders arrested.

A month later, the military announced that its anti-graft commission was investigating Suu Kyi for corruption and that Phyo Min Thein had admitted to giving her the bribes. 

Suu Kyi faces five corruption charges in total. Two concern Suu Kyi alone, another involves two ministers from her government, and the fourth involves two members of the Naypyitaw council who served under the NLD.

Her defence lawyers said other charges are related to land ownership issues at the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a charity Suu Kyi founded in the name of her mother.

The military has also filed a separate corruption case against Suu Kyi at the Yangon Regional High Court, but no detailed information on that case has been revealed and lawyers think it may also be transferred to Naypyitaw. 

Suu Kyi has also been accused of illegally importing walkie talkies, of breaking Covid-19 regulations, and of incitement, among other things. She faces a potential decades-long sentence. One charge of breaching the Official Secrets Act carries a 14-year prison sentence alone. 

Suu Kyi’s Australian economic advisor, Sean Turnell, has also been named in that case, as have Kyaw Win, who served as the NLD’s finance minister, his successor, Soe Win, and deputy minister Set Aung. 

Their hearings began on September 23 at a court in Naypyitaw. 

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