World outraged by execution of Burma's leading democracy activists

World outraged by execution of Burma's leading democracy activists

Burma’s military press today reported that prison authorities had overseen the execution of two of the country’s most esteemed democracy activists, Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zeya Thaw. The move has brought intense international condemnation and is likely to take tensions within Burma towards a deadlier new phase.

After months of uncertainty regarding the fate of democracy activists Ko Jimmy, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw, state media today reported that the group was executed on Saturday.

The victims had been allowed to see their respective families via video calls held on Friday, just hours before death sentences, handed down by a military tribunal in January this year, were enforced. Ko Jimmy and Zeya Thaw had been charged under Burma’s Anti-Terrorism Law after being detained in raids in Oct. and Nov., 2021. Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw had been found guilty by a military court of assassinating a military informant.

The regime charged the four, all of whom had been paraded on state television in possession of arms and explosives, with “terror acts” and claimed executions were conducted in accordance with judicial procedures — a line which the junta has repeatedly fallen back upon when criticized by those in the international community; including to ASEAN chair Hun Sen who had personally intervened by writing a letter calling for the junta to grant the pair clemency.

The executions — presumed to be by hanging — are the first examples of capital punishment to be enacted in Burma since 1988, and the first involving political prisoners since 1976. 

Although reiterating that executions were carried out in line with Burma’s judicial codes, junta officials remained tight-lipped regarding further details.

Despite this, a veteran lawyer told DVB that it was almost certain they were carried out: “Since it was announced in a state-owned newspaper, it almost certainly happened.” 

CPRH chairperson Aung Kyi Nyun shared this perspective, warning that the military would face consequences for its actions. “It was obvious they would take strong and brutal action. The world is only negotiating and talking with the regime, but has not taken real action against these injustices and brutal acts,” he said in a statement.

The National Unity Governmnet’s (NUG) Presidential Office Spokesperson, Kyaw Zaw, said that the four victims had been unable to defend themselves in the junta’s “kangaroo courts”, and that the executions were therefore tantamount to murder. 

“I want to say it is time for the UN and the international community to punish the junta’s leaders who committed these murders, instead of just issuing the statements,” the spokesperson urged.

One lawyer, who advocates for political prisoners and spoke to DVB, expressed reasonable doubt over state media’s claims, arguing that “there [was] still hope” to discredit the military’s reports as only vague statements had been issued. Furthermore, they said, nobody related to those executed has yet been given access to the bodies.

“The punishment has been carried out under the prison’s procedures according to state media. Also, he [a prison official] said that he did not know about the matter. There has not been any confirmation… It sounds like we can still hold hope,” the lawyer speculated.

The State Administration Council (SAC, the junta) again accused those executed of being involved with the NUG’s military wing, and with carrying out numerous killings and “terrorist attacks”. Military authorities had last year released images purporting to show that Ko Jimmy was procuring weaponry for the NUG, while Zeya Thaw had been accused of leading a number of high profile attacks in the commercial capital towards the end of 2021, including a shootout on the Yangon circular railway which caused the deaths of five police officers. 

Tensions rose dramatically across Burma’s major cities off the back of state media’s announcement, with military trucks fitted with machine guns seen patrolling streets in downtown Yangon. Khit Thit Media reported that two explosions occurred at the headquarters of broadcaster MRTV4 and one at the premises of Thai energy firm PTTEP (who recently become operator of the military’s Yadana gas field), while DVB received unconfirmed reports of other bombings in the city.

Ousted State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, an extremely close friend and confidant of NLD representative Zeya Thaw, was reportedly informed of the executions, saying she was “heartbroken”, according to sources.

The NUG condemned the killings in a statement presented by its President’s Office.

“Extremely shocked and saddened to read the news of the execution of four democracy activists including Jimmy and former MP Phyo Zayar Thaw. UN, ASEAN, the EU and international community must punish murderous Myanmar military junta for their cruelty and killings,” read a call to action posted to Twitter.

Rights groups and INGO representatives were also quick to issue statements condemning the military’s barbaric actions.

“These depraved acts must be a turning point for the international community,” argued UN Special Rapporteur for Burma Tom Andrews in a press release issued this morning.

Ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and People’s Defense Force factions had previously expressed they would retaliate if capital punishment was enforced against the group. The Arakan Army, itself on the cusp of all out warfare with the Burmese military, issued a statement denouncing the killings and expressed solidarity with the sorrow of the people of Burma. The EAO expressed hope that the executions would inspire more people to join Burma’s Spring Revolution.

Independent media outlet Myanmar Now cited unconfirmed prison sources who claimed the four were hanged in Yangon’s Insein Prison over the weekend, saying that prison officials had refused to return the victims’ bodies to their families.

Ko Jimmy rose to fame as a leading student activist during the 8888 Uprising and had spent numerous years in prison under previous military regimes. He had played a prominent role in the early phases of the 2021 protest movement.

Zeya Thaw was a well-loved NLD MP twice elected to Burma’s Hluttaw and is accredited with being one of the founders of Burmese hip hop with the group Acid, who released their debut album in 2000. In 2008, he was imprisoned in Yangon for his participation in the 2007 Saffron Revolution as a founder of the Generation Wave movement.

The executions are believed to have been carried out shortly after Ko Jimmy and Zeya Thaw were given the opportunity to meet, virtually, with family members. Those involved told BBC Burmese that the pair appeared to be in good health. It is unclear if any were aware the men were about to be murdered.

Following state media’s announcement of the executions, Nilar Thein, widow of Ko Jimmy and 88 Generation activist, called on the people of Burma to unite against the regime. The fiancé of Zeya Thaw, the rapper T-Zin, or Thazin Nyunt Aung, vowed on social media that there would be “payback” against the regime.

Countries including the United States and Japan also expressed outrage over the killings. The US Embassy condemned the executions of the four men and expressed condolences to their families. The Japanese government, which previously had remained silent over the junta’s use of capital punishment against activists, echoed these sentiments, adding that Japan “deplores the actions” of the Burmese military.

Notably, Thailand’s former foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, said that, in light of the executions, ASEAN should “seriously rethink their approach” to Burma and consider imposing “targeted sanctions and travel bans” on members of the regime. The ASEAN Parliamentarians For Human Rights, of whom Kasit Piromya is a member, called the killings an act of “judicial barbarism” in a statement issued today.

“The Myanmar junta’s execution of four men was an act of utter cruelty,” said Elaine Pearsan, the acting Asia director of Human Rights Watch. 

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which monitors arrests and murders of civilians in Burma, also deplored SAC’s decision to carry out the executions in a press release. “The AAPP is devastated by news today from the military-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar, that Ko Jimmy, Phyo Zayar Thaw, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw were executed over the weekend.”

Tens of thousands of Burmese netizens took to social media to express their dismay at the announcement, with many changing profile photos to solid red and black squares in response to the killings. Anti-regime banners were reportedly posted across Yangon, including one reading: “Prepare to pay the blood debt.” 

Sources say that, shortly before his execution, Ko Jimmy told someone close to him: “Don’t worry. Everyone has his own share of Karma.”

Military courts have sentenced at least 114 to death in Burma, according to a June report published by Human Rights Watch. It is currently unclear how many of these sentences the junta plans to carry out.