The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Myanmar’s military must not hang those fighting for democracy

Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, and Phyo Zeya Thaw. (Myanmar Military Information Team/AFP)
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The unfolding horror in Myanmar has gotten even worse. First, the military staged a coup in February 2021 and overthrew the elected government of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom it shared power for several years, during which it carried out a shocking ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority. After the coup, the military responded to protests with a bloody crackdown, followed by relentless violence, burning down villages and imprisoning thousands while forcing Aung San Suu Kyi, 76, to face a series of secret, sham trials. Outside attempts to brake the conflict have largely failed to restrain the military leaders, who receive weapons from China and Russia, while a resistance movement attempts to fight back with popular support but limited means.

Myanmar’s troubled democratic experiment is in shambles and swallowed by civil war.

Now, the ruling junta threatens a new low. Since last year’s coup, the regime’s courts have delivered death sentences to 115 people for their roles in the armed resistance, but none have been carried out. On June 3, four men, including a prominent member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and a democracy activist, lost their appeals against death sentences, and the military said they would be executed by hanging. “The death penalty will be carried out,” announced the junta’s deputy minister of information, Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, according to Radio Free Asia. He did not say when, but a veteran lawyer suggested it could be within 45 days.

This barbarism would mark the first use of the death penalty in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1988 and represents yet another step by the military to frighten the resistance and the civilian population into submission. Two of the accused are well known. Phyo Zeya Thaw, a hip-hop pioneer who was jailed in 2008 for founding an anti-junta youth activist organization, was a member of parliament as part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which ushered in a transition to civilian rule. He was accused of orchestrating several attacks on regime forces, including a gun attack on a commuter train in Yangon last August that killed five police officers. The other is activist Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, who rose to prominence during Myanmar’s 1988 student uprising against a previous military regime and was arrested last October, based on a warrant alleging he had incited unrest with his social media posts. Both were charged under an antiterrorism law and sentenced to death by a military tribunal on Jan. 21. The other two, according to Radio Free Asia, are Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, sentenced to death in Yangon region’s Hlaing Tharyar township on charges of murder.

The Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners noted correctly that the military is using the death penalty to “threaten a population resisting the military coup.” If it sends these men to the gallows, Myanmar’s military throws the remaining possibility of restoring a democratic transition into the abyss.