Yangon, Myanmar – Myanmar’s junta has executed four prisoners including a former lawmaker from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and a prominent activist, state media said on Monday, in the country’s first use of capital punishment in decades.
The executions sparked widespread condemnation, heightened fears that more death sentences will be carried out and prompted calls for the international community to take sterner measures against the already isolated junta.
The four were executed for leading ‘brutal and inhumane terror acts’, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said, without saying when or how the men were killed.
The junta has sentenced dozens of anti-coup activists to death as part of its crackdown on dissent after seizing power last year, but Myanmar had not carried out an execution for decades.
Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former lawmaker from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) who was arrested in November, was sentenced to death in January for offences under anti-terrorism laws.
Democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu – better known as ‘Jimmy’ – received the same sentence from the military tribunal.
Family members of the two men gathered outside Yangon’s Insein prison after news of the executions was published, in the hope of retrieving their bodies, local media reported.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy – which won a landslide in 2020 elections before being ousted by the military months later – said it was ‘devastated’ by the news.
A junta spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Responding to media enquiries on reports of the executions, a junta statement said ‘it is as stated in the state media’.
The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews said he was ‘outraged and devastated by the news’.
“These depraved acts must be a turning point… what more must the junta do before the international community is willing to take strong action?”
The two other men were sentenced to death for killing a woman they alleged was an informer for the junta in Yangon.
Amnesty International said the executions were an ‘atrocious escalation in state repression’ and warned around 100 others were currently on death row after being convicted in junta courts.
The United States condemned the ‘execution of pro-democracy leaders and elected officials for exercising their fundamental freedoms’.
“We join the people of Myanmar in mourning,” its embassy in Yangon said in a statement posted to Twitter.
Japan’s government – a major provider of economic assistance to Myanmar – said in a statement it ‘seriously deplores’ the executions.
UN rights workers have said that under the junta’s martial law provisions, the death penalty could be given for 23 ‘vague and broadly defined offences’ – which in practice could include any criticism of the military.
Myanmar expert Richard Horsey of the International Crisis Group (ICG) said on Twitter that the executions were ‘an outrageous act. And one that will create political shockwaves, now and for a long time to come’.
Phyo Zeya Thaw had been accused of orchestrating several attacks on regime forces, including a gun attack on a commuter train in Yangon in August that killed five policemen.
A hip-hop pioneer whose subversive rhymes irked the previous junta, he was jailed in 2008 for membership of an illegal organisation and possession of foreign currency.
He was elected to parliament representing Suu Kyi’s NLD in the 2015 elections, which ushered in a transition to civilian rule.
Kyaw Min Yu, who rose to prominence during Myanmar’s 1988 student uprising against the country’s previous military regime, was arrested in an overnight raid in October.
The country’s military alleged voter fraud during te 2020 elections, as justification for its coup on February 1 last year.
Suu Kyi has been detained since then and faces a slew of charges in a junta court that could see her face a prison sentence of more than 150 years.
The Nobel laureate, 77, learned of the executions at her latest hearing on Monday, a source with knowledge of the matter said.
She did not comment on the news but ‘looked sad’ the source said.