SAC renews threat to execute democracy figures after rumors of imminent hangings spread panic

SAC renews threat to execute democracy figures after rumors of imminent hangings spread panic

As the international community vocally urges Burma’s military regime not to proceed with the promised executions of two of the country’s best known pro-democracy figures — an event that rumors last night suggested was imminent — DVB has confirmed from former inmates of Yangon’s Insein Prison that authorities have recently refurbished gallows within the prison compound.

Rumors that 88 Generation leader, Ko Jimmy, former NLD representative, Phyo Zeya Thaw, and two other men would today (June 16) become the first people executed in Burma since June 1976 proliferated across both pro-military and revolutionary social media accounts over the past week. 

Last night, this chatter came to a head when a viral post by the Red News Agency, one of many domestic Facebook-hosted outlets that have grown to prominence since the coup, claimed that the hanging of the men was imminent, sending shockwaves across Burma.

After a nervous night for many citizens, Insein Prison representatives have told local news outlets that the executions will not go ahead — for today, at least. 

Other outlets claim prison sources have since presented a list which proves the men were indeed due to be hanged in the early hours, something unconfirmed by DVB.

At a press conference in Naypyidaw today, the SAC’s deputy information minister, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, again addressed the case, reasserting the military’s intent to resume the practice of capital punishment.

“In these cases, the rule of law has been transparently applied by the judiciary. Who can say that this is unfair? At least 50 innocent people have been killed by the leaders [Ko Jimmy and Zeya Thaw], therefore, the enactment of the sentence aims to prevent similar events occurring in the future,” he said. 

Ko Jimmy and Zeya Thaw were sentenced to death in January after being detained during raids in Yangon. They stand accused of leading the NUG’s Yangon Region Military Command, masterminding a number of high profile attacks in the commercial capital towards the end of 2021.

The SAC’s threat to resume the practice has brought international condemnation as nation states and INGOs urge the military to defer the sentences.

ASEAN chair and driver of the bloc’s current peace effort for Burma, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, this week intervened by sending a personal letter to Min Aung Hlaing requesting he reconsider the sentence, something harshly rebuked by the junta chief, raising fears that the SAC will ultimately fail to show restraint.

Cambodia and the Philippines are the only ASEAN nations to have comprehensively abolished the death penalty, yet Thailand is the only majority Buddhist nation in the bloc to make recent use of the punishment. Malaysia last week also voted to remove the section of its penal code which facilitated mandatory death sentences, instead giving judges the discretion to choose whether certain convicts should face capital punishment.

In late January, sources across the country sent photographic and verbal testimony to DVB which showed gallows in Burma’s prison yards, long fallen into disrepair, were being refurbished in preparation for the resumption of capital punishment. 

The location of refurbished gallows and “Death Row” cell block in Yangon’s Insein Prison.

A young man recently released from Insein Prison and now training with the PDF, who spoke to DVB on condition of anonymity, pointed out the location of Insein Prison’s newly rebuilt gallows based on his recollections of seeing the structure — a location corroborated by former inmates.

According to a former political prisoner of Insein Prison, convicts sentenced to death would formally petition military authorities to be pardoned by the president, a lengthy process which became a formality after 1977.

Before the military’s attempted power grab in Feb. 2021,  capital punishment had not been handed down by a Burmese court since March 1989.  The Voice of America has claimed that, since then, 113 people have been sentenced to death for political activity.

Former political prisoner and rights advocate, Tun Kyi, described his time in Insein Prison to DVB and corroborated the location of the notorious prison’s “Death Row” cell block and gallows.

“For once, the junta is facing both a political and military disadvantage — they are trapped and that’s why they are trying to get noticed, both locally and internationally,” he told DVB. 

“As a way out of their troubles, they decided to enforce the death penalty against Ko Jimmy and Ko Zeya Thaw. It could be both a threat or a means of intimidation — and a way of testing the nerve of those who are against the military… They want to gauge the response of people at home and abroad, and will use this time to predict the consequences of going through with executions,” Tun Kyi speculated, attributing the recent refurbishment of prison gallows to “psywar” on behalf of the junta.

He added, however, that one should not underestimate the military, an institution which, he says, operates beyond morality.

“Directly before the coup, the generals said that there was nothing the military didn’t dare to do — and then the coup came. Zaw Min Tun himself has now said that we have no right to criticize the military for what they are about to do. We cannot underestimate the enemy, and fool ourselves into thinking the death penalty cannot return,” he warned.

“But, if the military does make [capital punishment] a new reality, the retaliation towards it will be far worse.” 

Insein Prison’s gallows in the northernmost point of the prison’s compound, as confirmed to DVB by former inmates.

In Tun Kyi’s opinion, the details surrounding the rumors of the men’s imminent execution were likely false.

“As someone who spent ten years in Insein Prison, I’d say the short time frame and the details emerging in regards to a death penalty case mean that the rumors were likely untrue.” Regarding rumors that the men had been seen dressed in orange death row jumpsuites, he said: “It’s very common for those on death row to switch between uniforms.”

Despite the arbitrary killing of thousands of Burmese civilians — and the burning down of hundreds of villages, the aerial bombing of towns and cities the length of breadth of Burma, and the imprisonment of over two thirds of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee – the executions of the two men would represent a major escalation in the military’s purge of Burma’s democrats — something that will undoubtedly work to raise tensions in a nation currently experiencing the most violent and tumultuous civil unrest in its troubled modern history.