In many countries, people talk about trial by media. This type of non-legal trial occurs when an intense amount of media speculation on a case results in the public having certain foregone conclusions about the guilt or innocence of the accused person before he or she has heard the verdict of a judge.
In Burma, the military government has its own version of this concept, conviction by press conference. In conviction by press conference, the police chief, who is actually an army officer, gives an account of a plot against the state and the role of certain persons in it, all the while claiming that their guilt has been ascertained “legally”. The accused has not actually gone before a court of law, and may not even have been formally charged, but as the outcome of any trial is a foregone conclusion that matters little. The person has already been convicted.
The most recent conviction by press conference was on May 6, when the police chief, Brigadier General Khin Yi, announced that his force had arrested one of four persons involved in the April 15 water festival blasts in Rangoon that officially killed 10 and injured 168. The police chief said that the accused person, 30-year-old Phyo Wai Aung (alias Mohammad Sharvan) had confessed to being among those who had thrown grenades into the crowds. He gave the usual intricate details of the purported plot and how it related back to exiled groups based in Thailand.
The details of the conviction by press conference of Phyo Wai Aung may be different from those of U Myint Aye or Kyaw Zaw Lwin, on whose cases the Asian Human Rights Commission has previously issued appeals, but the template for his conviction was identical to theirs, and so too will have been his treatment.
Like them he supposedly confessed to his crimes. Both Myint Aye, the chairman of local group Human Rights Defenders and Promoters, and Kyaw Zaw Lwin (alias Nyi Nyi Aung) said that they were tortured during the interrogation that resulted in their “confessions”. Phyo Wai Aung too will also presumably have been tortured, although we cannot say for certain as at last reports obtained by the AHRC, the Special Branch police have so far denied access to a lawyer whom his family has authorized to represent him.
Like Myint Aye, Phyo Wai Aung can also expect a farcical trial in which he is sentenced to decades of imprisonment on multiple concocted charges. Kyaw Zaw Lwin, as an American citizen, was fortunate to obtain top-level assistance and interventions from abroad that secured his release and prompt departure from the country. Phyo Wai Aung, like Myint Aye, will not get this sort of help, and nor will his case attract widespread international attention.
As yet, no formal charges have been announced against Phyo Wai Aung, but whenever charges are laid and a case brought to court, the result of that process will simply be to reaffirm the conviction by press conference that has gone before. Unlike trial by media, where the result of a case in court may still be a subject of intense discussion and interest, there is no need for any uncertainty about the outcome of such a case in Burma’s courts. The police chief can make his press conference, safe in the knowledge that his conviction is all that really matters. Thus it is in press conferences of this sort that the government of Burma speaks loudest to its understanding of the “rule of law”, not as the supremacy of law, but the supremacy of its word as law.