The Myanmar junta’s execution of four political prisoners, two of them well-known in Myanmar and abroad as pro-democracy activists, signals the military rulers’ defiance of appeals by the international community not to carry out the death sentences and to free political prisoners arrested since the February 2021 coup. The executions, likely to have taken place on Saturday in the infamous Insein prison in Yangon, may have also been intended to spread fear among those in the resistance.
When Myanmar announced its intention in June, the United Nations, the United States and France, and international human rights organisations had condemned the decision, but the junta had dismissed the criticism as “reckless”. It did not consider an appeal from a friend either. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, said to be close to the junta, wrote to Gen Min Aung Hliang, the military ruler who goes by the designation of chairman of the State Administration Council, on June 12. “I would like to earnestly request you [to] refrain from carrying out the death sentences,” he wrote on June 11, saying he was motivated by “deep concern and sincere desire to help Myanmar achieve peace and national reconciliation”, he wrote, according to a report in the Frontier Myanmar at the time.
“At least 50 innocent civilians, excluding security forces, died because of them,” spokesman Zaw Min Tun is reported to have said. “… Required actions are needed to be done in the required moments.”
The last known executions in Myanmar were in 1988, according to Amnesty International. While death sentences were handed down even after that, it is certain that there were no executions at least in the last 10 years, when the junta began to put in place a controlled transition to democracy.
The February 2021 military coup, following an election sweep by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), reversed the transition, taking Myanmar back three decades to 1990, when the military cancelled Suu Kyi’s first election victory and jailed her for the next 20 years. The executions have confirmed that the regression is complete.
Thousands have been arrested in the 18 months since the coup. The news site Myanmar Now, quoting the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, reported that 117 people have been sentenced to death by military tribunals, including 41 in absentia.
Soon after grabbing power last year, the junta added 23 penal offences to crimes that attract the death penalty. In March 2021, it imposed martial law in many areas, handing over both executive and judicial functions to the military. Proceedings in the military tribunals take place behind closed doors and have been condemned as unfair trials.
The four executed were Phyo Zeya Thaw, Ko Jimmy, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw. The last two were convicted of torturing and killing a woman in March 2021 who they allegedly believed was a military informer.
According to Myanmar Now, Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zayar Thaw were accused of leading and planning guerrilla attacks against the junta’s forces and allied militias last year. They were tried under terrorism charges as the junta has labelled all resistance as terrorism. These two were well-known, had a high social media profile, and could mobilise people for protests.
Ko Jimmy, also known as Kyaw Min You, was arrested last October. Days after taking over, the junta had issued an arrest warrant for him, accusing him of inciting unrest and threatening “public tranquillity” with social media posts critical of the coup. For the next eight months, he had moved locations frequently while participating in demonstrations.
In 1988, Ko Jimmy was jailed for his role in the student uprising against General Ne Win following the military ruler’s demonetisation of several currency denominations rendering savings of students useless. The general had to resign at the end of July 1988, and August 8, 1988 (also known as 8888), was celebrated as victory day. Those who participated in the protest are known as 88 Generation.
Ko Jimmy spent nearly 20 years in jail, until his release in 2012. He is survived by his wife, Nilar Thein, also a well known 1988-generation activist, and a teenage daughter.
Phyo Zayar Thaw was arrested in November. He was Myanmar’s pioneer hip hop artiste who went by the state name Nitric. His band was known as Acid. He won elections as an NLD candidate in 2012 and 2015, and worked closely with Suu Kyi.
He had cut his political teeth during the 2007 anti-junta “saffron revolution”, so-called because of the participation of a large number of Buddhist monks.
The executions pose a dilemma for countries that have advocated engagement with the junta to persuade and encourage them to pick up the threads of the transition to democracy once more.
Given its security concerns in the Northeast states, and its concerns about China growing a bigger footprint in Myanmar, India has so far adopted a policy of engaging with the junta, but also pushing the generals to return to democracy.
Days after the coup, the US, UK, EU, Canada and Australia imposed sanctions on several generals, ranging from travel bans and freezing of assets to denial of financial, legal and medical services. With Russia and China opposing, the UN Security Council did not discuss a sanctions resolution against Myanmar, and instead called on the junta to desist from violence and release all political prisoners.
Earlier this year, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said India did not believe in imposing sanctions, and placed faith in ASEAN’s position on Myanmar and its efforts to engage it.
In March this year, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was invited to the virtually held BIMSTEC meeting hosted by Colombo, which India also attended. The US had criticised Myanmar’s participation.
In June, New Delhi’s decision to keep the junta out of an ASEAN meeting of foreign ministers was attributed to pressure from India’s Quad allies.
Amid the international condemnation of the executions, New Delhi will face another round of pressure to take a harder line on the junta than it has been prepared to take so far.