Myanmar’s military junta has executed four pro-democracy activists, carrying out its first death sentences in more than three decades and defying international appeals for restraint. The deaths of the activists, including two of the most prominent leaders of the resistance, sent shock waves through the country Monday and were seen as the junta’s latest attempt to instill terror since violently seizing power last year.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Moe Zaw Oo, deputy foreign minister for the National Unity Government (NUG) — a shadow administration that has been operating in exile since the coup. “These were political prisoners. … They killed them without any of the right procedures, without any due process.”
Kyaw Min Yu, 51, also known as Ko Jimmy, rose to prominence in student uprisings in 1988 and had spent years in and out of prison for his activism. Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, was a hip-hop artist turned member of parliament who was widely admired among Myanmar’s youths. They were convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to death in closed-door trials last fall.
Human rights organizations and several Western countries, including the United States, condemned their death sentences. Last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, urged Myanmar’s military leader not to enforce the sentences. Nonetheless, the military vowed in June to follow through.
On Friday, prison officials told relatives of the four men that they would be able to speak to them over Zoom, marking the first such contact in months. Prison officials did not say at the time whether or when the men would be executed. Then on Monday morning, state-run news outlets announced that the death sentences of Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zeya Thaw “had been conducted.” Two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, also were executed after being convicted of killing a military informant, state media reported.
The four men were probably hanged, which is the procedure at Yangon’s notorious Insein prison, where they were held. Family members traveled to Insein on Monday asking to see their bodies but were denied by prison officials, advocates said.
The junta canceled a regularly scheduled news conference Monday, saying instead that it would address the media Tuesday.
Myanmar’s military first seized power in 1962 but gradually loosened its grip over decades. In general elections in 2015, opposition politicians from the National League for Democracy rose to power, though their rule was short-lived.
At least 117 people have been sentenced to death in Myanmar in the past year, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nonprofit organization that tracks and attempts to verify the status of those detained by the junta. Thousands more have been jailed since the coup, including Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Many of these political prisoners and their family members live in fear of what the military might do, said Manny Maung, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on Myanmar.
“Everyone is reeling,” Maung said from the Thailand-Myanmar border, where activists and exiled dissidents woke up Monday morning to the news of the executions. “If [the military] is prepared to go ahead with this, it just shows they’re going to operate with total impunity.”
More than a thousand people have reportedly been killed since the coup, and the executions of Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zeya Thaw are likely to provoke intense backlash, experts say, especially among the array of ethnic militias and armed groups actively fighting the junta.
“There will be some sort of retaliation or response to these unbelievable acts,” Moe Zaw Oo said. “This will create more violence across the country. … It’s not good even for the military.”
Aung Myo Min, another NUG minister and a human rights activist, wrote on Twitter that he was “extremely saddened” by the news. “What else do we need to prove how cruel the murderous Myanmar’s military is?” he wrote.
The top diplomats of the European Union, the United States and seven other countries issued a joint statement Monday decrying the executions as “reprehensible acts of violence that further exemplify the regime’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law.”
“We support the people of Myanmar in their aspirations for freedom and democracy and call on the regime to end the use of violence,” the statement added.
Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur for Myanmar, said in a statement that he was “outraged and devastated” by the news. “These depraved acts must be a turning point for the international community,” he said.
But Maung, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said the military’s actions on Monday show that the international community has to go beyond condemnations if it wants the junta to meaningfully change course. Her advocacy group is among many pushing for powerful countries to coordinate targeted sanctions that hurt the military’s bottom line and access to weapons.
“At the end of the day, what [the military] has shown us is that they really don’t care what anybody says,” she said. “Words are not enough.”
Cape Diamond in Yangon contributed to this report.