The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Myanmar junta vows to execute pro-democracy activists

Military set to use death penalty for first time in 30 years, defying international condemnation

Military handout photos show pro-democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, left, and former lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw, both sentenced to death in closed-door trials last fall. (Myanmar's Military Information Team/AFP/Getty Images)
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Myanmar’s military junta has doubled down on threats to carry out its first executions since seizing power, defying repeated appeals from the international community and outraging pro-democracy activists who have spent more than a year under siege.

Myanmar’s military has not used the death penalty for more than 30 years, but amid a violent — and so far unsuccessful — campaign to stamp out resistance, officials are turning to new forms of intimidation, experts say.

At least 14,000 people have been arrested — and at least 114 of them sentenced to death — in the past year, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Myanmar nonprofit that tracks and attempts to verify the status of those detained by the junta. In early June, military officials vowed to follow through on the executions of four individuals on death row, including two high-profile activists: Kyaw Min Yu, also known as “Ko Jimmy,” who rose to prominence in a series of student uprisings in 1988; and Phyo Zeya Thaw, a hip-hop artist turned member of parliament widely admired among Myanmar’s youth.

“If they really execute, this is murder,” Ko Bo Kyi, an AAPP co-founder, said in a phone interview. A pro-democracy activist himself, Ko Bo Kyi spent seven years in prison before fleeing Myanmar, and asked that his exact location not be identified for security reasons. He participated in the 1988 student demonstrations and has known Ko Jimmy for decades.

“He’s a really kind man who loves his family,” Ko Bo Kyi said of his friend, who has been arrested and imprisoned more than once since the 1980s. While the military thinks his execution will instill fear among residents and help it solidify control, Ko Bo Kyi added, “that’s an illusion."

“It will give many people determination to do whatever they can against the junta," he predicted.

Myanmar’s rebellion, divided, outgunned and outnumbered, fights on

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who studies Southeast Asian security issues, said the threat to execute renowned activists is part of a wider strategy the junta hopes will terrorize people into submission. Its tactics have been honed over years spent crushing ethnic insurgencies, and include razing villages and targeting civilians.

“The military leadership is truly frustrated,” Abuza said. “And they’re trying to send a clear signal that they are in charge.”

Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, and Ko Jimmy, 53, have not been seen since they were convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to death in closed-door trials last fall. Ko Jimmy was tortured in custody, his family said.

Late Wednesday, rumors began to circulate that the two men would be hanged imminently at Insein prison in Yangon, spreading panic among family members and local human rights advocates, who scrambled to reach international groups and foreign representatives in a last-minute push for help. A spokesman for the prison department told a local news outlet that the rumors were untrue, though junta officials reiterated in a televised news conference Thursday afternoon that the prisoners would be executed soon.

The junta says it will also execute two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, who were convicted of killing an alleged military informant.

Myanmar’s military has spent the year since the coup searching for international legitimacy. It has not found it.

“We have to do it for the sake of rule of law,” said military spokesman Zaw Min Tun.

Myanmar’s military first seized power in 1962 but gradually loosened its grip in 2010, allowing for democratic elections and an influx of international companies, which introduced the country to digital technology and social media. Led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, opposition politicians from the National League for Democracy rose to power in 2015, but their rule was short-lived. The military violently reclaimed control in February 2021.

Since then, the junta has been fighting a growing insurgency led in part by the People’s Defense Force, a civilian militia that has joined forces with ethnic armies to prevent the military from capturing key areas.

The threats of execution serve as a form of “blackmail," said Manny Maung, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on Myanmar.

“The military is trying to gauge the temperature of both the international and domestic community to see how far they can push the Myanmar population into being obedient,” she said.

The United States and France have condemned the planned executions, as has Thomas Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar. On Friday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, sent a letter to Myanmar’s military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, urging him not to enforce the death sentences. A junta representative rejected Hun Sen’s appeal this week.

The key question now is whether ASEAN or other countries will impose meaningful sanctions on Myanmar for defying their requests. In April 2021, ASEAN released a “five-point consensus" asking that the junta, among other things, immediately cease violence and enter into mediations. Since then, the military has only intensified its attacks, according to rights groups.

Thursday’s events, Maung said, show the precariousness of the situation facing Myanmar’s activists on death row and highlight the need for “urgent” action.