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International outrage as junta says it will hang leading pro-democracy figures

The junta on June 3 told media outlets that appeals of death sentences handed down to two of Burma’s most prominent pro-democracy figures had been rejected by military courts, and that the pair are to be hanged. 

The military’s announcement has raised fierce international condemnation and is driving fears that the SAC will enact capital punishment in the country for the first time in decades.

The two activists, Kyaw Min Yu (aka Ko Jimmy) and Phyo Zeya Thaw, had been sentenced to death by a military tribunal under Sec. 49(a), 50(i), and 50(j) of the Anti-Terrorism Law on January 21.

The pair stand accused of being leaders of the NUG’s Yangon Region Military Command, a guerrilla group which is alleged to have led scores of high profile attacks across Yangon between September and December, including the mass killing of security forces aboard the Yangon Circular Train.

Junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun this week told  media outlets that appeals against the sentences had been denied, and that the two would be hanged.

“Previously, the sentence could be appealed and if it was accepted, the sentences would be suspended. However, the appeals for the two were rejected and the death penalty will be carried out,” Zaw Min Tun told BBC Burmese.

Zaw Min Tun resolutely stated that the SAC will “continue to follow the legal procedures under the Penal Code” without specifying a date for the execution. 

If the military regime goes ahead with the executions, they will be the first incidences of capital punishment within Burma for decades. A retired prison department official said it would take a civilian court three to five years to approve a death sentence, but the process could be streamlined under a military tribunal.

DVB this January reported that gallows had been seen being erected in prison compounds across Burma, including Yangon where the men are believed to be being held.

According to an Irrawaddy news article written in 2014 by a former political prisoner in Insein Prison, convicts sentenced to death were usually hanged prior to 1988. However, prisoners could petition an appeal, but had to appeal to the president for a final decision. If the president rejected the appeal, the death sentence would be enacted.

In Burma, the death penalty was last handed down as a sentence in March 1989 yet has not been used since, according to BBC Burmese. No political activist has been executed in the country since the state’s killing of Chin student leader Salai Tin Maung Oo on June 26, 1976.

Leading the international outcry against the SAC’s announcement, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the junta’s decision to execute the pair, calling the decision an “explicit violation of human rights”.

The French Embassy in Burma also released a statement on June 4 condemning the junta’s decision to uphold the death sentences of four people, including Jimmy and Zeyar Thaw. “This is an abject decision that targets once again defenders of freedom”, the embassy said. The French statement also said that the usage of the death penalty was a major setback as there had been a de-facto moratorium of its usage for more than 30 years.

199 international and domestic human rights organizations and civil society organizations wrote an open letter condemning the announcement, including Justice for Myanmar, Burma Campaign UK, and Human Rights Watch.

The Sagaing-based Myanmar Defense Force (MDF) resistance group warned on June 4 that it would retaliate if the junta followed through on its threats to hang the pair. “If they are going to carry out the executions, we will take revenge starting from Sagaing Region,” the resistance group warned.

Ko Jimmy rose to prominence as a student activist during the 8888 Uprising. The previous military regime sentenced him to 20 years imprisonment for his participation in the 1988 demonstrations. Arrest warrants were issued for Ko Jimmy under Sec. 505(b) of the Penal Code in the aftermath of the military coup on 1 Feb. 2021, for allegedly inciting unrest and threatening “public tranquility” via social media posts. He was arrested at his home in North Dagon township on Oct. 23, 2021 and was charged with treason and terrorism offences. He is married to fellow activist Nilar Thein, and the couple has a 13-year-old daughter.

Zeya Thaw was twice elected as an NLD MP to the Pyithu Hluttaw, the lower house of Burma’s parliament, and, as one of Burma’s most promising young politicians, is said to be close to imprisoned leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He is renowned and extremely well loved in the country for being a pioneer of Burmese hip-hop as part of the infamous rap crew, Acid, and was also one of the four founding members of the youth group Generation Wave, an activist group opposed to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the formal name of the previous military regime. 

Generation Wave was founded in 2007 shortly before the Saffron Revolution, and, in 2008, the SPDC subsequently sentenced Zeya Thaw to five years of imprisonment for alleged crimes under the Unlaw Association Act due to his participation in the uprising.

He was again arrested on 19 Nov. of last year when heavily armed security forces raided his hiding place in the Yadanar Hninsi housing estate, Dagon Seikan township, Yangon. A source close to those arrested in the raid told DVB English that his discovery was accidental, and that security forces, who led Zeya Thaw from the building with a bag covering his head, had instead been searching for other revolutionaries.

The pair’s location is currently unknown, but, as they were detained in Yangon, they are likely being held in the Insein Prison or the notorious and covert interrogation center recently established by the junta in highly militarized Mingalardon township.

In response, the junta’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a petulant statement on the night of June 6 objecting to the international community’s condemnation of the death sentences of four people, including Ko Jimmy and Zeya Thaw.

The statement claimed that the sentences of the prominent activists were upheld because it had been proven by a military tribunal that the pair had organized “full-scale terrorist attacks against innocent civilians to instil fear and disrupt peace and stability”. The military labeled statements made by the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs of the French Republic, the French Embassy in Burma, the Office of the Spokesperson of the United Nations, and the US State Department as “reckless”.

Nearly eight times as many people were sentenced to death in Burma in 2021 compared to previous years, with military tribunals handing the death penalty to nearly 90 people, according to Amnesty International’s 2021 report on death sentences and executions. The Voice of America outlet has claimed that 113 people have so far been sentenced to death for political activity since the coup.


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