Myanmar’s military, which seized power in a coup in 2021, has defended its execution of four pro-democracy activists, amid growing international condemnation over the killings.
Major General Zaw Min Tun, military spokesman for the self-styled State Administration Council (SAC), said the executions – the first to take place in the country in decades – were lawful and not “personal”.
“This was justice for the people. These criminals were given the chance to defend themselves,” Zaw Min Tun told a news conference in the capital, Naypyidaw, adding that the military knew the executions would draw criticism.
Among those executed were democracy campaigner Kyaw Min Yu, better known as ‘Ko Jimmy’, and former lawmaker and hip-hop artist Phyo Zeya Thaw, an ally of elected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been jailed by the military. The two others killed were Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw.
All four were sentenced to death in secretive trials in January and April after being accused of involvement in violent resistance against the military regime – charges which were denied by their defenders.
State media said on Monday “the punishment” had been “conducted”, but did not specify when, or by what method, the men had been killed. Previous executions in Myanmar have been by hanging.
International condemnation mounts
Earlier on Tuesday, the United Nations’ Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer and Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, denounced the killings as a “crime against humanity”.
Saifuddin told a joint news conference in Kuala Lumpur that the executions would be a focus of an upcoming meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which begins in Cambodia in a week.
The 10-member regional grouping, which includes Malaysia and Myanmar, agreed a five-point consensus (PDF) in April 2021 that was supposed to bring an end to the violence triggered by the military’s power grab.
But Saifuddin accused Myanmar’s rulers of “making a mockery” of the plan, which also called for dialogue among all concerned parties, and the provision of humanitarian assistance.
“We hope we have seen the last of the executions and we will try to use whatever channel that we can to try and ensure that this will not happen again,” he said, adding that Malaysia would seek to present a framework for the implementation of the peace plan at the upcoming ASEAN meeting.
Saifuddin repeated his call for ASEAN to engage with Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), established by politicians thrown out of office when the military seized power in February 2021 and others opposed to the coup.
ASEAN is currently chaired by Cambodia, which earlier released a statement saying that it was “extremely troubled” by the executions.
The SAC announced in June it planned to resume executing prisoners.
Some 113 other people have been sentenced to death, 41 of them convicted in absentia, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-governmental organisation that has been tracking killings and arrests since the coup.
‘Great concern’ over potential for more executions
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, who has reported extensively on Myanmar, said there was a “great concern” that further executions may take place in the near future.
“There’s been no statement [confirming this], but again there was no warning that these executions were going to take place,” Cheng said.
“In fact, the families of the four men weren’t informed beforehand either … it took everybody by surprise,” he added. “So there is a great concern that if this is the direction Myanmar’s military has turned in then there could be more [executions to come].”
Cheng also warned the killings could lead to an “even bloodier” period of resistance against Myanmar’s military rulers, noting there had been calls for “revenge” over the executions.
The military’s seizure of power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government triggered peaceful protests that soon escalated to armed resistance and then to widespread fighting that some UN experts have characterised as a civil war.
AAPP says 14,820 people have been arrested since the coup. During the same period, 2,120 people have been killed by military forces, according to the group.
Meanwhile, some resistance groups have engaged in assassinations, drive-by shootings and bombings in urban areas. Mainstream opposition organisations generally disavow such activities while supporting armed resistance in rural areas that are more often subject to brutal military attacks.