The Myanmar regime’s announcement on Friday that it will go ahead with the execution of two prominent leaders accused of treason and terrorism was greeted over the weekend by a loud chorus of condemnation.
At a press conference on Friday, junta spokesperson General Zaw Min Tun said that appeals against the death sentences imposed on Ko Jimmy, a veteran of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and Phyo Zayar Thaw, a hip-hop artist and National League for Democracy (NLD) MP, had been rejected, paving the way for their execution.
The two men, who were sentenced to death in January for allegedly plotting to carry out attacks on regime targets, have been in military custody since their capture late last year. Two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, are also set to face execution for murdering military informants, Zaw Min Tun told reporters.
The announcement came as a surprise in a country where it has been decades since a death-row prisoner has actually been put to death.
In a joint statement signed by nearly 200 civil society organisations, Norway-based legal analyst Min Lwin Oo noted that the haste with which the appeals were rejected was “unprecedented”.
“Normally, the appeals process for death sentence takes up to three to five years through different courts and at least four to five years to go through state leaders. Such a fast-track process is unprecedented,” he was quoted as saying in the statement, which was released by the umbrella group Progressive Voice of Myanmar.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), one of the signatories of the statement, a total of 114 political prisoners, including two minors, have been handed death sentences by the regime.
Kyi Myint, another legal expert who is also a well-known political analyst, told Myanmar Now that the move would likely ignite a major backlash against the regime.
“There will be unimaginably big repercussions and serious acts of revenge,” he said. “They will be even more hated by the public.”
He also pointed out that because last year’s military coup violated Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, the current head of the regime, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, could also be accused of committing treason.
“This is all the more heartbreaking because the real traitors of the country are planning to execute innocent people for treachery,” he said.
Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) also warned that executing two of the country’s best-known political dissidents would only provoke outrage among activists and ordinary citizens alike.
“If they actually go ahead and hang them, the military will face even greater resistance. They need to understand that the more they try to instil fear in Myanmar’s people, the stronger the people’s movement becomes,” said Aung Myo Min, the NUG’s minister for human rights.
On Saturday, the Myanmar Defence Force, an armed resistance group based in Sagaing region, echoed this sentiment with a statement warning that it would take “appropriate action” if the executions are carried out.
There was also widespread international condemnation of the move.
At a press briefing on Friday, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, called the planned executions a “blatant violation to the right to life, liberty and security of person, as per Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Saying the UN chief was “deeply troubled” by the news, Dujarric also reiterated his calls for “the immediate release of all political prisoners in Myanmar.”
According to AAPP figures, 10,903 people arrested since last year’s coup remain behind bars.
France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also weighed in on what it called the regime’s “abject decision” to reinstitute the execution of convicted prisoners.
“The violation of the de facto moratorium regarding the death sentence that has existed for more than 30 years in the country represents a major setback,” it said in a statement released on Saturday.
Meanwhile, on Monday, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price tweeted that “The United States strongly condemns the Burmese military regime’s reported plans to execute pro-democracy and opposition leaders, exemplifying the regime’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law.”
Ko Jimmy and Phyo Zayar Thaw were both found guilty by junta-controlled courts of violating sections 49a, 50i and 50j of Myanmar’s Counterterrorism Law. The regime claims they were in possession of weapons at the time of their arrest and had also instructed others to carry out acts of terrorism.
The junta stepped up its use of the death penalty last year as part of its effort to crack down on anti-coup protests. However, judicial executions have rarely been carried out during Myanmar’s decades of military rule.