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Democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, also known as ‘Ko Jimmy’, rose to prominence during Myanmar’s 1988 student uprising and was arrested last year, after the junta’s coup. Undated photo: Handout via AFP

Myanmar junta’s ‘cold blooded assassination’: rights groups condemn decision to hang political prisoners

  • Two veteran pro-democracy activists among four men whose death penalty sentences have been approved by junta, which took control early last year
  • If the judicial executions go ahead they’ll be the first in decades and are aimed at frightening anyone opposing military rule, say campaigners

The decision to execute two prominent political leaders in Myanmar in what will be the first judicial executions in decades is an explosive move likely to have a devastating effect at home and further damage the military junta’s reputation abroad.

That is according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, after approval of the death penalty for four political prisoners, including the two democracy activists, was announced.

He said it was “equivalent to pouring fuel on the fire of popular antimilitary resistance in the country”, adding that such a commitment “will also lead to global condemnation and cement the junta’s reputation as among the worst of the worst human rights abusers in Asia”.

Other human rights groups and activists were also quick to condemn Friday’s announcement.

The United Nations expressed “deep concern” about a blatant violation of human rights and the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights referred to “cold blooded political assassination”.

Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41. Myanmar’s junta said it will execute the former member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party. Photo: undated handout via AFP.
The junta took control of Myanmar in February 2021. In January this year, two prominent democracy activists, rapper-turned-parliamentarian Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, and 1988 student leader Kyaw Min Yu, 53, also known as Ko Jimmy, were sentenced to death by the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC) under anti-terrorism laws.

The other two men sentenced to death, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, were convicted last year of murdering a woman who was an alleged military informant. Their ages were unclear.

On Friday, the death penalty for the four prisoners was approved by the SAC. The last person hanged in Myanmar is generally believed to have been student leader Salai Tin Maung Oo in 1976, under a previous military government.

“The court has rejected their appeal. The death penalty is approved to proceed,” military spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun told local media on Friday.

There was no date specified for the four executions but a veteran lawyer who spoke to Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity said executions typically take place within 45 days of a ruling upholding a death sentence.


Myanmar junta troops allegedly torch several villages during 3-day raid

Myanmar junta troops allegedly torch several villages during 3-day raid

In post-coup Myanmar, the Tatmadaw, as the military is known, overthrew the civilian government and seized power on February 1 last year after a general election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The military, which had backed the opposition, then claimed there had been widespread fraud and took control of the country, with more than 1800 protesters killed since then, including children.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International has also criticised the use of the death penalty during sentencing, saying it had recorded “an alarming increase” in the number of known death sentences in Myanmar, from at least one in 2020 to at least 86 in 2021.

Amnesty also said Tatmadaw has been referring civilian cases straight to military tribunals in six particular townships under martial law, where they are not being fully heard and death sentences are being upheld without appeal. Some cases in other townships are also referred to military tribunals.

Amnesty International accuses Myanmar’s junta of ‘a new wave of war crimes’

Most cases heard by military tribunals in Hlaing Thar Yar, Shwe Pyi Thar, North Okkalapa, North Dagon, South Dagon, and East Dagon Seikkan townships, among the areas where the military declared martial law after the coup, announced death sentences.

Amnesty said in a statement: “The death sentence has become one of many appalling ways the Myanmar military is attempting to sow fear among anyone who opposes its rule, and would add to the grave human rights violations, including lethal violence targeted at peaceful protesters and other civilians”.

Thaw was charged under a counterterrorism law for allegedly possessing 200 weapons, 6,000 bullets, 40 nuts (mechanical fasteners) and various mines and bombs in the city of Yangon.

Malaysia’s top diplomat meets Myanmar anti-junta counterpart in Washington

He was also charged with providing financial support to terrorists after the military accused him of sponsoring the People’s Defence Force (PDF) in attacks against the junta. (The PDF is the armed wing of the National Unity Government (NUG), a government created a few weeks after the coup and made up of ousted NLD politicians, activists and representatives from ethnic minority groups. The NUG is accepted by most citizens as the nation’s legitimate authority).

The PDF has undertaken increasingly effective strikes against the junta’s security forces and proxies since initiating a widespread armed revolt in September last year. The military has referred to the PDF and NUG as “terrorist” on many occasions.

The four men are the first of 114 people sentenced to death since the coup to have those sentences approved. Most of the 114, including students, anti-coup activists and two children, are in their 20s or 30s.

Police wait for protests against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar in February 2021. Photo: Reuters

The condemned prisoners faced unfair trials and were denied the legal right to counsel and to defend themselves, said human rights organisations. Their relatives were not given information about the military tribunals including locations or the specific nature of the trials, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

The association’s Ko Bo Kyi said the planned executions “openly mock the world’s efforts to abolish capital punishment. This calculated act uses political prisoners as hostages, to threaten a population resisting the military coup”.

He added that the executions were an unforgivable act, showing a disregard for the international community’s desire to return Myanmar to democracy and for Asean’s (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) desire to resolve the crisis since the coup through a five-point consensus.

The UN expressed “deep concern” about Friday’s announcement, which spokesman Stephane Dujarric described as a blatant violation of human rights.

Myanmar activists in Tokyo hold up placards calling for the release of their ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan last month. Photo: AFP

He said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had called for charges to be dropped “against those arrested on charges related to the exercise of their fundamental freedoms and rights, as well as the immediate release of all political prisoners in Myanmar”.

Family representatives for the two democracy activists could not be reached for comment and it was unclear whether the men, both detained since being arrested, had rejected the charges levelled against them.

The military made no statement on the activists’ pleadings and proceedings were held behind closed doors.

A refugee in Myanmar is carried on a stretcher, injured while fleeing from air strikes following 2021’s military coup. The junta has likely used air strikes and artillery barrages as “collective punishment” against civilians, Amnesty International has said. File photo: Handout via AFP

Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) was another organisation to express its alarm over the death sentences.

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian politician and chairman of APHR, said Asean and the international community “must use every means at their disposal to prevent these executions from taking place. If they are carried out they will be nothing less than cold blooded political assassination”.

He said the executions would further contribute to preventing “the already remote possibility of a sustainable political dialogue” agreed more than a year ago in a five-point consensus between Asean and the military junta.