Myanmar’s military junta, which has already turned back the clock on the country’s nascent democracy, is about to carry out the first judicial executions in more than 30 years. In a country that has seen so much death and destruction since the coup of February 1, 2021, the execution of a four prisoners may not sound like big news. However, the identity of two of the prisoners, and the junta’s readiness to go beyond what previous military regimes in Myanmar dared to do, means that the executions, if they go ahead, will further entrench the country in a cycle of violence and tyranny from which it may not be able to recover.
For the first time in over 30 years, Myanmar’s regime is set to execute four inmates on death row. Death sentences were handed down repeatedly since the last execution in the late 1980s but were never carried out. With civil war raging across the country and the SAC unable to consolidate power in the face of locally operating armed opposition forces and the absence of support from the wider population, the junta is doing everything to scare its opponents into submission. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson of the State Administration Council (SAC) that took control in last year’s coup d’état and has since waged a war against its own people, announced on June 3 that the appeal by Phyo Zayar Thaw, Ko Jimmy, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw was rejected . Past military regimes had taken up the practice of delaying the decision over the appeal, which became an established code for a reduced sentence, from death row to life in prison. While it is unclear when the death sentence will be carried out, it might be only a matter of time.
Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, sentenced for the alleged murder of a schoolteacher they believed to be an informer for the SAC, are largely unknown in Myanmar, but Jimmy and Zayar Thaw are prominent figures of the opposition to the military regime. They were charged under the anti-terrorism act for allegedly planning urban guerrilla attacks in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. In addition to the individual suffering that the executions would inflict on the friends and families of those convicted without fair trials, the executions would set a dreadful precedent. Alongside Jimmy, Zayar Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw, 114 people have been sentenced to death by the SAC, including two minors, but their appeals have not been rejected yet and 41 of them remain on the run or have sought refuge in other countries.
The SAC is known for the wanton killing of civilians and members of the opposition. Bringing back the execution of political prisoners would be the final brick in the wall of returning Myanmar to a state that existed before the 1988 uprising and the fight for democracy that has raged over the past three decades. It would be the final signal that the SAC is hell-bent on undoing the work of people like Jimmy and Zayar Thaw.
Although a committed revolutionary and a former politician, Phyo Zayar Thaw first came to fame as a rapper. When the hip-hop group Acid published their first album “Beginning” in 2000, a tidal wave swept over the Myanmar music scene. The group that brought hip-hop to Myanmar stood for a whole new style of music and a new kind of society, and everybody was talking about them. Back in those days, when the country was closed off and everything seemed static, becoming a celebrity was one of the very few paths to the elite circles that enjoyed the kind of worldly pleasures nobody else in the country could afford.
Hand in hand with Acid’s success came the gossip, and people wondered how this first generation of rappers would enjoy the fruits of their fame. Would they become small tycoons, have affairs with the daughters of junta generals, and become addicted to drugs and die of an overdose? Or would they get banned from TV for having too long hair or for using “culturally unfit” expressions in their creations? Zayar Thaw, one of the four group members, found a different means of self-destruction: criticizing the junta and going to prison.
Zayar Thaw’s transformation from rapper to activist and activist to politician was gradual, picking up pace along the way. He began criticizing the junta in his rap songs and during the 2007 Saffron Revolution he co-founded the activist group Generation Wave, which campaigned against the military regime. When petrol prices hit an all-time high in 2007 and compressed natural gas, or CNG, became a popular means of dodging the high petrol prices Generation Wave distributed bumper stickers with the slogan “Change New Government.” Zayar Thaw was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to six years in prison but was released three years later alongside hundreds of political prisoners following renewed dialogue between representatives of the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party government and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Now, two decades of rapping, activism, and politics later, Zayar Thaw is one of four people set to be executed by the junta.
Zayar Thaw’s political activism was a response to the political realities in Myanmar. He had grown up in front of the Rangoon General Hospital, an important focal point of the 1988 protests: It was the location of Aung San Suu Kyi’s first public speech, and the site of indiscriminate killings of nurses who wanted to treat protestors wounded at the hands of soldiers. Zayar Thaw was only 8 years old at the time, but the scenes he witnessed then stayed with him. His political convictions were founded on the work others had done before him and the example they had set.
One of the people that paved the way was Jimmy, a prominent student activist in the 1988 protests. Jimmy was imprisoned from 1988 to 1996. Yet, the harsh realities of prison did not deter him from his fight against the military regime. When a wave of protests led by monks swept over Myanmar in 2007, Jimmy and his wife Nilar Thein, another prominent activist, mobilized activists and protestors from 1988. Jimmy was arrested the same year, five months after the birth of his daughter. Nilar Thein was arrested the following year. Their courage was a source of inspiration for the next generation of activists.
Images of Jimmy’s arrest while protesting on a Yangon street in 2007 were broadcast by Democratic Voice of Burma, a media organization founded by Myanmar exiles in Norway. Viewing DVB was illegal, but everyone saw the images. For the protestors and activists of Generation Z who have been an integral part of the resistance against the junta following the coup, Jimmy’s arrest was the moment that confronted them with the political realities of their country. Jimmy’s arrest was for thousands of young people what the scenes at the Rangoon General Hospital had been for Zayar Thaw in 1988: a wake-up call that came far too soon. The release of Jimmy and Nilar Thein in 2012 was widely publicized in the media and the images of the family being together with their daughter exemplified what sacrifice looked like in the fight against an oppressive regime.
As with Jimmy, Zayar Thaw’s time in prison did not squash his political convictions. Prison gave him “enough time to think about what I really wanted to do,” and when he was released from prison he went straight to the office of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, and began working for it. He became close to Aung San Suu Kyi and followed her on some of her first international visits. The party’s leadership subsequently made him a candidate in the 2012 by-elections. Zayar Thaw ran for the constituency of the military-backed vice president in Naypyidaw, the new capital that the military had carved from the scrub out of fear of a revolution some years earlier. He won and became one of the youngest MPs in parliament. He won again three years later in the 2015 general elections that brought the NLD to power in Myanmar for the first time since the party had been founded to end military rule in 1988.
We met Zayar Thaw at his one-bedroom house in the MP ward in Naypyidaw in 2019, when we spent weeks in the capital interviewing NLD lawmakers in order to try and understand the party better. Zayar Thaw stood out. He opened the door like a rockstar, half naked, showing his tattoos, clad only in a Kachin longyi. He asked us to wait a few minutes and when he came back the veteran rapper had transformed into a party politician, donning the Penni Taik Pon, the formal uniform of NLD lawmakers.
He was a part of a new generation of NLD leaders, close to the power center of the party and deeply loyal to it but also aware of the party’s shortcomings. He told us that “even our party is not fully democratic… but I used to fight for democracy and human rights on the streets and I did not manage to get the right results. Now I want to fight for democracy and human rights inside parliament.” He knew that there were often still misunderstandings of democracy inside and outside the party, explaining that “the thing is many Burmese people do not yet fully understand what democracy means and what human rights stand for. I am not trying to belittle anyone. I am not looking down on what people think, but what the people in Myanmar have felt for so long is fear. They felt fear and they wanted it to go away.”
During the time of political reform and limited liberalization in the 2010s, Jimmy also continued to fight this fear. After his release from prison in 2012, Jimmy led the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, a union of the multitude of different political groups that had been instrumental in the 1988 protests. The organization of veteran activists worked on a wide range of issues, from the labor rights to the peace process, and it also provided a safe harbor of advice for the next generation of student activists. Nilar Thein and Jimmy were the guardians of the Peacock Generation, a group of student union members who perform thangyat, a traditional art form that combines satirical word poetry, comedy, and dance, during the festivities surrounding Myanmar’s new year holiday.
When five members of the group were jailed in 2019 for criticizing former general Than Shwe, Nilar Thein was arrested too. One Generation Z activist recalled the close bonds of support that Jimmy and Nilar Thein formed with the younger generation, telling us, “We went to the ear-piercing ceremony of their daughter in Jimmy’s hometown together,” a ceremony that is the equivalent of a Christening ceremony for Buddhist girls. “Jimmy was comforting Nilar who cried during the ceremony recalling what they went through as a family and that their daughter was closer to her grandparents than to them.” The young activist told us how during his days as a student, the couple’s house was a place where you could always get a warm meal and feel welcome.
Following the 2021 coup d’état, the fear has come back in full force. This time, however, things are different. The opposition has shown that three decades of political activism cannot be killed with bullets. The opposition is multifaceted, comprising a committee representing the lawmakers elected in the 2020 general elections, a government formed on the basis of the election results, alliances of multitudes of civil society groups and grassroots organizations, partnerships with ethnic political parties and several ethnic armed groups that control territory in Myanmar where opposition members have found shelter from persecution.
Large protests like the ones that erupted directly after the coup are impossible now as the military comes down on protestors with brutal force, but protests do still occur across the country. Protestors are mobilizing not only against the SAC but for the new Myanmar that they want to build if their fight is successful. Many have taken up arms, defending themselves against an army equipped with helicopters and fighter jets from Russia.
In the SAC’s war against its own people, horrendous acts of violence have occurred constantly. Yet even within the stream of torched villages and the murder of civilians the SAC’s plan to execute imprisoned members of the opposition stands out. In the last 30 years political prisoners spent decades in Myanmar’s prisons. But they were not forgotten. Many of them returned to active roles in shaping their society after their release. The NLD’s elected government was made up in no small part of former political prisoners. The SAC is now determined to prevent a similar future, using the executions to eradicate the memory and the future of democracy in Myanmar.
It is therefore vital that governments and politicians around the world condemn the impending executions and lobby the SAC for the commutation of the sentences. Jimmy and Zayar Thaw did not hesitate one second after the coup. They did what they always did and fought the fear. Now they need all the help they can get.
Note from the authors: Jimmy was arrested by SAC forces in October 2021. Zayar Thaw was arrested one month later. Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw were arrested in March and April 2021, respectively. None received a fair trial, and all are now facing execution. Please write to representatives of your government requesting support for the commuting of their sentences.