Myanmar: Why has Burma re-introduced state executions? Who were Kyaw Min Yu and Phyo Zeya Thawa?

The announcement by the Myanmar government that it has carried out its first state executions in more than 30 years marks a new era of concern over the country’s human rights record.

"Myanmar is a nation ruled by murderers,” said local independent English-language website Myanmar Now in an opinion piece on Monday.

“There is no other way to describe a regime that uses snipers to shoot protesters in the head and airstrikes and ground attacks to wipe out entire villages, that tortures prisoners to death and kills at will as it rampages through resistance strongholds. This is a regime willing to spill any amount of blood to stay in power.”

Since independence from the UK in 1948, Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has oscillated between a constitutional government and a series of military coups – the last of which saw the military seize power by detaining the president in February last year.

Aung San Suu Kyi pictured before the military coup of February 2021.

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One of the vice-presidents, a former military officer, immediately became acting president and invoked articles 417 and 418 of the constitution – the former allowing him to declare a one-year state of emergency and the latter allowing him to transfer power to the commander in chief of the armed forces.

On Sunday, the military government, known as the junta, announced the executions of four men – two of them prominent pro-democracy campaigners.

One, a pro-democracy activist and writer called Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Jimmy, was arrested in an overnight raid in October. He was a prominent leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, which led pro-democracy uprisings against the military, and was imprisoned in 1988 for his role in protests. He was released in 2005, but jailed again from 2007 until 2012.

Another, Phyo Zeya Thawa, was a rapper and former lawmaker from the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest for 15 out of 21 years during her political career.

The two other executed men – Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw – were accused of killing a woman the authorities suspected was a military informer in the Myanmar capital, Yangon. Family members of the victims were reportedly told by prison authorities that none of the four bodies would be returned to them.

State news outlet Global News Light of Myanmar said the four men were executed because they "gave directives, made arrangements and committed conspiracies for brutal and inhumane terror acts".

The United Nations said the executions were the first since 1988.

"I am outraged and devastated at the news of the junta's execution of Myanmar patriots and champions of human rights and democracy," said UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar Tom Andrews. "These depraved acts must be a turning point for the international community."

Myanmar has been mainly under military law since 1962. In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years, following widespread demonstrations. The NLD won that election, but the military junta refused to cede power.

In 2011, Ms Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and a series of reforms began, including the introduction of new labour laws that permitted unions and strikes, a relaxation of press censorship, and the regulation of currency practices.

However, the period of calm came to an end after the NLD again won a general election and the military staged another coup last year, following claims by the military the election was rigged – an accusation election commission officials have denied, saying there was no evidence of fraud. State Counselor Ms Suu Kyi was placed under arrest again.

A report by the United States Institute of Peace, published earlier this year, said the junta had since introduced “Draconian new laws”.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a total of 14,847 people have been arrested since the coup, including demonstrators and journalists, with an estimated 2,114 having been killed by military forces.

A further 117 people have been sentenced to death by military tribunals since last year’s coup, including 41 who were sentenced in absentia and two who are children under age 18.

The AAPP said: "Draconian new laws have been introduced to jail and prosecute senior NLD government officials and punish political protesters, striking civil servants, and civil society activists.

"Ethnic activists and faith leaders, especially in Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and northern Shan States, have also been targeted. Journalists have been jailed and the majority of free media outlets have been banned, even as coup authorities use government media and social media platforms liberally to spread falsehoods about their achievements and to promote hate speech.”

The association warned the international community had so far done little to tackle the growing concerns in Myanmar.

Following reports of the executions, a banner has been reportedly hung on a bridge in Yangon bearing a warning the junta should “be ready to pay for the blood debt”. Text underneath read: “RIP Zeyar Thaw, Jimmy, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura.”

In its opinion piece, the writers at Myanmar Now warned the move – and any subsequent international action – could cause further problems for the country’s people, who are already facing economic problems.

"The regime has only deepened Myanmar’s isolation at a time when its people are struggling to emerge from mounting social and economic hardships,” the news service said. “This, too, will cost countless lives. With its announcement that it has crossed a new threshold in its steady advance toward total barbarism, it has signalled that Myanmar’s descent into the darkness is far from over.”

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