Upon doing away with the death penalty in 1981, France’s Minister of Justice M. Robert Badinter rationalized that capital punishment had come to embody “a totalitarian concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state.” Ever since, European governments and the European Union (EU) have been stalwarts in trying to rid the world of state-mandated executions. The EU is the largest donor in the fight against the death penalty worldwide. All EU states have abolished it. Brussels regularly adopts resolutions and hosts debates condemning countries that still use capital punishment.
This makes it all the more surprising that the EU has, so far, been rather quiet over the announcement by Myanmar’s military junta on June 3 that it intends to carry out executions of four individuals sentenced to death. They include Phyo Zeyar Thaw, a lawmaker from the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, and Kyaw Min Yu (better known as Ko Jimmy), a veteran pro-democracy activist. Both are charged with violating the “counterterrorism” law. Two other individuals were also sentenced to die after being convicted of killing a woman who they believed was a military informant.
An estimated 110 other people have been sentenced to death, many in absentia, since the military instigated its brutal coup in February 2021. But this is the first time that the junta says it intends to carry out executions, which will be done by hanging.
Should they be carried out — the first time capital punishment has been meted out in the country for 34 years — we expect an escalation of violence within Myanmar. It would be an escalating provocation by the junta against pro-democracy forces. And it would go beyond the barbarism that some previous military regimes in Myanmar were prepared to engage in. Although Myanmar has retained the death penalty in law, it had been considered “abolitionist in practice” for decades. Badinter’s evocation of state-directed executions as “totalitarian” certainly fits with how Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader, treats the Myanmar people.
The Western response has, so far, been rather limp. Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general, called it a “blatant violation to the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Amnesty International has called on the junta to “immediately drop such plans and for the international community to step up its efforts to intervene.”
On June 10, seven days after the junta’s announcement, the EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali finally tweeted out the bloc’s position: “EU strongly condemns reported plans by the Military to carry out executions of pro-democracy activists and other prisoners. EU calls on the Military to refrain from carrying out these executions. [The EU] opposes #deathpenalty: an inhumane, cruel and irreversible punishment.”
In a statement on June 4, the day after the junta’s announcement, the French government said it “utterly condemns the decision.” It added: “It is a despicable decision once again targeting the defenders of freedom… It reiterates its steadfast opposition to the death penalty, everywhere and in all circumstances.” The junta reacted badly to the part of the statement that deplored the “policy of terror the illegitimate military regime is implementing.”
Yet there has been little response from other European powers, including Germany and the U.K. London imposed sanctions on more Myanmar companies on June 16, but there appears to be no mention of the planned executions as a motivating factor for them.
Activists have sent letters to several European governments, which may result in tougher responses. But, so far, it’s far from the sort of opprobrium one would expect from Brussels and certain regional capitals. What explains all this?
We understand that some lobbying went on to convince the ASEAN states — namely Cambodia, the ASEAN chair this year — to take a stance on the issue first. Since the EU backs the ASEAN-led response to the Myanmar crisis, and criticism of the junta’s planned executions would be more resonant coming from its neighbors, this was a rather sensible response. It also comes as the special ASEAN envoy to Myanmar, Prak Sokhonn, who is also Cambodia’s foreign minister, is scheduled to visit Naypyidaw for the second time on June 29. That said, only three Southeast Asian states — Cambodia, Timor-Leste, and the Philippines — have formally done away with capital punishment, so it was rather unrealistic to have expected criticism from the regional governments that also have the death penalty.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen eventually did respond. In a letter to junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, which was leaked to the press, Hun Sen wrote: “With deep concern and sincere desire to help Myanmar achieve peace and national reconciliation, I would like to earnestly request you and the State Administrative Council (SAC) to reconsider the sentences and refrain from carrying out the death sentences given to those anti-SAC individuals.” (The junta formally refers to itself as the SAC.)
However, Hun Sen’s letter was reportedly sent on June 11, eight days after the junta’s announcement and the day after the EU made its statement. Presumably, the EU felt the ASEAN bloc was moving too slowly on this issue. Neither was it a public letter; it was leaked to the media. Phnom Penh, though, probably wasn’t unhappy with the leak; Hun Sen can claim he kept diplomatic protocol in writing privately to Min Aung Hlaing, yet, at the same time, he has earned some praise from the international community for opposing Myanmar’s planned executions.
But no other ASEAN state has come out to criticize the Myanmar junta, although it probably wasn’t a coincidence that Malaysia’s government announced on June 10 that it has agreed to end mandatory death sentencing for the 11 crimes that require the punishment. Instead, capital punishment will be left to the court’s discretion. (The EU’s ambassador to ASEAN, Igor Driesmans, met with the Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah on June 9.)
The BBC’s Burmese service reported this week that the junta has rejected Hun Sen’s plea and vowed to continue with the executions.
There may be another reason, too, for the EU’s quietude. If the EU was to respond with threats to the junta’s threat to carry out the hangings, it would face intense pressure to escalate its sanctions against the junta if those executions went ahead. Yet there isn’t too much more the European Commission can (or wants) to do over the Myanmar crisis. Neither is there much evidence that the junta alters its behavior because of European punitive threats.
Four tranches of sanctions have now been imposed, including on Myanmar’s important gas sector. It’s not clear how Brussels could ratchet up these sanctions. If it’s unable to escalate its punishment, any EU criticism of the planned executions would ring hollow if they went ahead and the EU didn’t respond. Additionally, each round of sanctions has taken weeks, if not months, for the EU states to agree to. If the executions are carried out soon, the EU would unlikely be able to agree on new sanctions to respond with. The EU might also force itself into a more intractable position that it doesn’t want to occupy.
An alternative punitive response would be for the EU to formally recognize the National Unity Government (NUG), the anti-junta shadow government, as punishment for the executions. This would find support within the European Parliament, which last October passed a motion calling the NUG the “only legitimate representatives of the democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar.” But no Western democracy is prepared to offer formal recognition to the NUG. It wouldn’t just come with a string of additional responsibilities that the European Commission doesn’t appear to want to make, especially as Brussels is sidetracked by the war in Ukraine. Recognition of the NUG would also mean the EU goes away from the ASEAN-led response, and Brussels is in no mood to annoy the regional bloc, considering the EU is keen on improving its contacts in the Indo-Pacific.
All this said, it is hard to imagine that Brussels wouldn’t increase its rhetoric and responses if the executions go ahead in Myanmar. It’s not known when they are planned for, but there are suggestions they could be soon.