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 non-profit organization in Myanmar which follows and tries to verify the status of people detained by the junta. In early June, military officials vowed to follow through on the executions of four death row inmates, including two prominent activists: Kyaw Min Yu, also known as “Ko Jimmy”, who rose to prominence during a series of student uprisings in 1988; and Phyo Zeya Thaw, a hip-hop artist turned MP widely admired among Myanmar’s youth.
“If they really execute, it’s murder,” AAPP co-founder Ko Bo Kyi said in a telephone interview from Thailand. 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 protests and has known Ko Jimmy for decades.
“He’s a really nice man who loves his family,” Ko Bo Kyi said of his friend, who has been arrested and imprisoned more than once since the 1980s. will sow fear among locals and help it to enforce control, Ko Bo Kyi added, “It’s an illusion.”
“It will give many people the determination to do whatever they can against the junta,” he predicted.
Myanmar’s rebellion, divided, outgunned and outnumbered, is fighting
Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who studies security issues in Southeast Asia, said the threat to execute high-profile militants was part of a larger strategy that the junta hopes will terrorize people to submit. Its tactics have been honed over years of crushing ethnic insurgencies, and include razing villages and targeting civilians.
“The military leadership is really frustrated,” Abuza said. “And they’re trying to send a clear signal that they’re in charge.”
Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, and Ko Jimmy, 53, have not been seen since being convicted of terrorism and sentenced to death in closed trials last fall. Ko Jimmy was tortured in police custody, his family said.
Late on Wednesday, rumors began to circulate that the two men were to be hanged imminently at Insein prison in Yangon, spreading panic among family members and local human rights activists, who are rushed to join international groups and foreign representatives in a last-minute request for assistance. A prison department spokesman told local media that the rumors were false, although junta officials reiterated in a televised press conference on Thursday afternoon that the prisoners would soon be executed.
The junta said it would also execute two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, who were convicted of murdering a suspected military informant.
Myanmar’s military has spent the year since the coup seeking international legitimacy. He didn’t find it.
“We must do this for the sake of the rule of law,” military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said.
Myanmar’s military first seized power in 1962, but gradually loosened its grip in 2010, enabling democratic elections and an influx of international businesses, 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 came to power in 2015, but their reign was short-lived. The military violently regained control in February 2021.
Since then, the junta has been fighting a growing insurgency led in part by the People’s Defense Forces, a civilian militia that has teamed up with ethnic armies to prevent the army from taking over key areas.
Execution threats are a form of “blackmail”, said Manny Maung, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on Myanmar.
“The military is trying to take the temperature of the international and domestic community to see how far they can push the people of Myanmar to be obedient,” she said.
The United States strongly condemns the Burmese military regime’s reported plans to execute pro-democracy and opposition leaders, illustrating the regime’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law. We urge the release of all those who are unjustly detained.
—Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) June 5, 2022
The United States and France condemned the planned executions, as did Thomas Andrews, the UN special rapporteur for Myanmar. On Friday, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, sent a letter to Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing urging him not to carry out 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 demands. In April 2021, ASEAN issued a “five-point consensus” asking the junta, among other things, to immediately cease violence and begin mediations. Since then, the army has only intensified its attacks, according to rights groups.
Thursday’s events, Maung said, show the precarious situation facing Myanmar’s death row activists and underscore the need for “urgent” action.