The military junta that rules Myanmar has again confirmed its brutality by executing four democracy activists.
Cloaked in opaque legal procedures, hidden not only from the public but also from the families of the accused, these are state-sanctioned murders. They prove once again the regime’s utter disregard for human rights and the rule of law. They underscore the need for a united international response to these atrocities. The Myanmar government must be ostracized, isolated and sanctioned until it reverses course, releases its political prisoners and hands power to a duly elected government.
Since seizing power in a coup on Feb. 1, 2021, rejecting the results of the November 2020 election that handed its political proxies a crushing defeat, Myanmar’s military has waged a bloody war against democratic forces and a variety of militia groups. In February, the United Nations human rights office said that it had documented 1,500 people known to have been killed in protests against the coup, a death toll that does not include thousands more who have died as a result of ethnic violence. The U.N. spokesperson said that 200 of those deaths were “due to torture in military custody.”
Nearly 12,000 others have been detained, of which 8,792 remain in custody. These arrests resulted from “voicing their opposition to the military, whether in peaceful protests or through online activities even.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nonprofit organization that tracks and attempts to verify the status of individuals detained by the junta, 117 people have been sentenced to death in Myanmar in the past year as well and as many as 40 face imminent execution.
The four killed last weekend included Phyo Zeyar Thaw, a National League for Democracy lawmaker and hip-hop artist who had a strong following among the country’s youth, and Kyaw Min Yu, a prominent pro-democracy activist known as Ko Jimmy. They were convicted of terrorism charges last year. The other two men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, were alleged to have been involved in the killing of a police informant.
All the men were tried and sentenced to death in secret trials closed to the public and international observers. As yet more proof of the junta’s inhumanity, the prisoners were allowed to speak to relatives last weekend for the first time in months but no one was told if or when the executions would occur. After the murders were announced, family members were not allowed to see or reclaim the bodies.
The killings have rightly received international condemnation. A joint statement released by Japan, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, the United States and the high representative of the European Union called the executions “reprehensible acts of violence that further exemplify the regime’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law.” The signatories went on to “urge the regime to release all those unjustly detained, grant full and independent access to prisons” and to “end the use of violence, respect the will of the people and restore the country’s path toward democracy.”
Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hiyashi said that Japan “deeply deplores” the actions by the military, expressed the nation’s “deepest condolences” to the families of those who lost their lives following the coup and warned that the killings will “lead to deeper conflict due to the hardening of public sentiment and further isolation of Myanmar from the international community.”
Even Southeast Asian nations, known for their reluctance to interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring states, have spoken out. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), last month sent a letter to military leader Min Aung Hlaing asking him not to carry out the executions.
ASEAN’s foundational principle of noninterference assumes that instability can be contained. Yet even Hun Sen, who rules his country with an iron fist, knows that the junta’s policies will only further destabilize Myanmar. Already more than 275 militias operate across the country under the command of democratic forces; when combined with ethnic armies fighting for their rights, they control about half the country. The risk of violence spilling over borders is real.
The disregard for those pleas, the disdain for the rule of law and the denial of any humanity to the victims or their families are proof that Myanmar’s junta understands only brute force. Condemnation is not enough. It is well past time for the community of nations to impose sanctions against the military government, its members and key supporters. These should bear the imprimatur of the United Nations to give them authority and legitimacy.
Thus far, Japan has not adopted that hard line. Talk about a “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific is empty in this case, as the Japanese government ignores the blatant illegality that sustains military rule. Tokyo has tempered criticism of the junta, fearful that tough words would push it closer to China. There has been no pressure from Japan on the military regime or its enablers and no support for the shadow National Unity Government that is composed of the democratic forces opposed to the junta. This prevarication must stop.
Japan must join the chorus of condemnation. Then it should impose penalties on the government, its leaders and their top supporters. Myanmar should be denied arms and businesses tied to the rogue government should be sanctioned. Executions must be stopped and the junta compelled to hand power back to the rightfully elected stewards of the nation.