Explained: Why has the Myanmar junta executed four dissidents?

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News Desk

Myanmar’s military junta has executed four pro-democracy activists, it was announced on Monday (July 25), marking a new low in the situation in the country since the February 2021 coup.

The four political prisoners had been arrested last year on charges of terrorism and arming people to fight the junta. They were sentenced to death in January this year in closed door trials. They appealed against their sentences and lost earlier this year.

Among the four executed were two important political personalities in the pro-democracy protests that swept Myanmar in the immediate aftermath of the coup.

Phyo Zayar Thaw was a rapper and hip-hop artiste, and a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD). He had been a parliamentarian since 2012, and worked closely with party leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ko Jimmy was a veteran democracy activist who was part of the “88 Movement”, a student-led uprising against the rule of General Ne Win, who led the military junta at the time. The protests had led to the elections of 1990, which were won by Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD. Those elections were cancelled by the junta, leading to a long period of repression in Myanmar, the jailing of hundreds including Aung San, until the military began a transition towards a controlled democracy in 2012.

Phyo and Ko were arrested in November last year. They were both leaders of the anti-junta protests and called for a people’s mobilisation for a mass uprising against the junta. When they were arrested, state television showed them handcuffed and kneeling before a cache of arms purportedly recovered from them. They were accused of procuring weapons for the armed resistance, which goes by the name of People’s Defence Force, against the military rulers.

The identity of the other two prisoners is not certain yet. More than a hundred other prisoners have been sentenced to death since the 2021 coup.

Is the death penalty common in Myanmar?
This is the first time in 25 years that judicial executions have taken place in Myanmar. Except for the last 10 years, the military has directly ruled Myanmar for decades, sentencing many of its opponents to death. The last time the sentence was implemented was in the later 1990s. Many of the death sentences were commuted.

When the Myanmar junta announced in June that it was going to execute some prisoners, the junta’s close friend, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, wrote to Gen Min Aung Hliang, the military ruler who goes by the designation of chairman of the State Administration Council.

“I would like to earnestly request you [to] refrain from carrying out the death sentences,” Hun Sen wrote on June 11, saying he was motivated by “deep concern and sincere desire to help Myanmar achieve peace and national reconciliation”, according to a report in the Frontier Myanmar at the time.

Cambodia and Philippines are the only two South East Asian countries to have abolished the death sentence. The junta spokesman defended the intention to carry out the death sentence by pointing out that it exists in several countries, including in the United States.

“At least 50 innocent civilians, excluding security forces, died because of them,” spokesman Zaw Min Tun is reported to have said. “How can you say this is not justice?” he asked. “Required actions are needed to be done in the required moments.”

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