Four political prisoners have been executed by the military junta of Myanmar, the first official executions by the state since 1976. This includes two political activists – writer Kyaw Min Yu and politician under the pre-coup civilian government Phyo Zeya Thaw – as well as Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, accused and convicted by the junta of killing a government informer. All four were tried and sentenced by a closed military court in June, with the government announcing on 25th July that the executions had taken place. Junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun claimed that the men executed were, “proven to be masterminds of orchestrating full-scale terrorist attacks against innocent civilians to instill fear and disrupt peace and stability.
Many within and beyond the borders of Myanmar have rejected the justifications. A human rights minister for the exiled civilian National Unity Government of Myanmar Aung Myo Min said the military’s accusations were false, and told the Associated Press, “punishing them with death is a way to rule the public through fear.”
The international community has offered its own stern slate of condemnations. Spokesperson for the Secretary-General of the UN, Farhan Haq, expressed the Secretary-General’s disapproval and “reiterate[d] his call for the immediate release of all arbitrarily detained prisoners,” while in a joint statement condemning the junta’s actions, the EU, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, UK, and US called the executions, “reprehensible acts of violence that further exemplify the regime’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law.”
Since the military of Myanmar seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government in February 2021 following an electoral victory of the leader’s party months before, a protracted conflict between those supporting the civilian government and the junta has evolved slowly from civil unrest to a situation closer to civil war. Armed groups and ethnic militias fight the junta with increasing sophistication, while the junta continues to bring the might of its armed forces to bear.
Whether this conflict is an insurrection, violent protest, or civil war, it is in no one’s interest. The events of this year have made clear that war does not bring solutions, it only creates problems, and after 18 months of protracted strife, the junta has shown itself to have no regard for the lives or rights of its people. If international actors are as dismayed by the executions as they say they are, they must use their influence to deprive the junta of the support they need to continue their oppressive campaigns. This can include trying to get local powers, namely China, who support the junta, to end their support.
China, the US, and other extra-regional powers can be relied on to act in their own interests, but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is uniquely positioned to be the truest advocate for the people of Myanmar. ASEAN is a beacon of hope for democracy, cooperation, and the proliferation of prosperity to all corners of the globe, borne from the dedication of hundreds of millions of people looking eagerly toward a better future. War, dictatorship, and political repression have long visited the region, but hard work has made them rarer with every passing year. Now, the military junta of Myanmar perpetuates all three against its own people, and it cannot continue to do so against such a wide swathe of its population without support from beyond its borders.
There is reason to hope that the bloc will step up. ASEAN issued a joint statement calling the executions “highly reprehensible,” which the bloc “denounces and is disappointed [by].” Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah described the junta’s actions as a violation of previously agreed-to peace accords and when speaking to the unreliability of the junta, said, “we looked at [the executions] as if the junta is making a mockery of the five-point consensus, and I think we really have to look at this very, very seriously.”
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