Myanmar’s military caused outcry at home and abroad on Monday as it announced it had hanged four political prisoners, among them two prominent pro-democracy activists, in the first known executions in the country since the late 1980s.
The men, sentenced to death in closed-door trials in January and April, were convicted for engaging in resistance efforts against the junta, which has launched a bloody crackdown on political opponents since seizing control in a February 2021 coup.
In a small, unassuming article inside Monday’s edition of the Global New Light of Myanmar, the military mouthpiece said the men had comitted “brutal and inhumane terror acts”, and had been executed under the country’s Counter Terrorism Law and Penal Code.
“According to the relevant department, the punishment has been conducted under the prison’s procedures,” the article stated.
The deaths were confirmed on Monday by military spokesman Zaw Min Tun in local outlet Voice of Myanmar. "It is as stated in the newspaper. I will not mention about this in the news conference. This is according to the law and no need to explain," he said.
Among the executed was Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy—a celebrated veteran pro-democracy activist who rose to prominence during Myanmar’s 1988 student uprisings. He was arrested in a late-night raid in October last year, with the junta sentencing him to death for allegedly inciting unrest through his social media posts.
Also executed was Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former hip-hop artist and legislator for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which was ousted in the February coup. He stood accused of orchestrating assaults on Myanmar's military, most notably an August attack on a Yangon commuter train that killed five police officers. No civilians were hurt.
The two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, were convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly killing a woman they believed was a military informant in Yangon.
The executions are believed to have been carried out on Saturday, with the prisoners’ families invited to Insein Prison on Friday, where they were allowed to speak via video link. Local press reported that the junta refused family requests to have the mens’ bodies returned for burial.
The country has sentenced 117 political opponents to death since the coup, including two children, but had not carried out any executions until this weekend. According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, an activist group that supports political prisoners in Myanmar, the country’s last judicial executions occurred in the late 1980s.
The move has been condemned at home and abroad, with Myanmar’s National Unity Government, an opposition group of ousted lawmakers, calling for the “global community” to “punish their cruelty." Regional advocacy group the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights labelled the executions “judicial barbarism,” while Amnesty International called the act an “atrocious escalation in state repression.”
Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said the executions would only serve to increase Myanmar’s growing isolation in the international community. His comments come, however, only days after Japan faced criticism for effectively inviting junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to the state funeral of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated this month.
The killings prompted new calls for urgent international action against the junta, including for it to be hit with further international sanctions. Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, said the “depraved acts must be a turning point for the international community.”
Last week, Australia faced criticism after it emerged the country’s embassy has spent more than $520,000 at a five-star military-linked hotel in Yangon since the coup, including a six-month stay in a lake view room and $46 slice of chocolate cake.
"Ultimately, the money does flow back to the military. And our recommendations were very specific that we need to cut the cash flow," said Chris Sidoti, a human rights law expert who was part of the UN’s independent fact-finding mission on Myanmar.
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