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Myanmar sentences pro-democracy activists Phyo Zayar Thaw and Kyaw Min Yu to death

A composite image of two men in blue prison uniforms
Phyo Zeyar Thaw and Kyaw Min Yu are among the most prominent activists to be given death sentences in Myanmar.(AFP: Myanmar Military Information Team)

Two pro-democracy figures in military-ruled Myanmar have been sentenced to death for alleged involvement in terrorist activities, ramping up a crackdown on supporters of toppled leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Phyo Zayar Thaw, a member of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) arrested in November, was sentenced to death for offences under the anti-terrorism act, a statement from the junta said.

Prominent democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, better known as "Jimmy", received the same sentence from the military tribunal, the statement added, carrying pictures of both men.

They were found guilty of offences involving explosives, bombings and financing terrorism.

Their sentences were also read out on state media's nightly news.

Myanmar-born, Sydney-based activist Sophia Sarkis, who brought Phyo Zayar Thaw to Australia in 2019 to play a charity concert for members of the Myanmar diaspora, told the ABC that the sentences were intended to intimidate supporters of Myanmar's democratic "revolution".

A woman speaks into a microphone with her arm raised
Sophia Sarkis is calling on Australia to do more to pressure Myanmar.(ABC News: Greg Biglow)

Phyo Zayar Thaw "wouldn't be so stupid" as to be in possession of weapons, she said.

"If we don't speak up and get international pressure, he's most likely going to die. He didn't get any right to appeal," Ms Sarkis said.

Both Phyo Zayar Thaw and Kyaw Min Yu have been detained since their arrests, unable to comment on the allegations, and no lawyer ever emerged to comment on their behalf.

Details of their trials were unavailable because the proceedings were carried out in a closed military court.

It was unclear if their two cases were linked.

The two are among the most prominent activists to be given death sentences since the military in February last year seized power from Ms Suu Kyi's government.

The junta has sentenced dozens of anti-coup activists to death as part of its crackdown on dissent but Myanmar has not carried out an execution for decades.

The military takeover sparked wide-scale popular protests, which have since turned into a low-level insurgency after nonviolent demonstrations were met with deadly force by the security forces.

Almost 1,500 civilians are estimated to have been killed, and more than 11,000 arrests have been made for political offences.

Fears detained Australian citizen Sean Turnell could 'be next'

Phyo Zayar Thaw, whose real name is Maung Kyaw, was arrested at an apartment in the commercial hub Yangon following a "tip-off and cooperation from dutiful citizens", according to the junta.

A man stands pointing to the departures sign at Sydney airport
Phyo Zeyar Thaw played a charity concert for Burmese Australians in 2019.(Supplied)

The former MP was arrested while in possession of two pistols, ammunition and an M-16 rifle, the military claimed at the time.

He had been accused of orchestrating several attacks on regime forces, including the brazen shooting on a commuter train in Yangon in August that killed five policemen.

A hip-hop pioneer in Myanmar whose subversive rhymes irked the previous junta, Phyo Zayar Thaw was jailed in 2008 for membership in an illegal organisation and possession of foreign currency.

Phyo Zayar Thaw was elected to parliament from Ms Suu Kyi's NLD in the 2015 elections that ushered in a transition to civilian rule.

Ms Sarkis said the new death sentences also raised concerns about the safety of detained Australian economist Sean Turnell, who was the first foreigner to be arrested in February 2021 shortly after the military took power.

Professor Turnell had been based in Myanmar for several years as an advisor to Ms Suu Kyi.

"How do we know that Sean Turnell's not going to be next?" Ms Sarkis said.

Sean Turnell (R) with his wife Ha Vu
Australian economist Sean Turnell with his wife Ha Vu.(Supplied)

Ms Sarkis said Australia needed to impose economic sanctions against the junta and not engage with Myanmar's embassy in Canberra.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been contacted for comment.

Kyaw Min Yu is one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, veterans of the popular uprising that failed to unseat a previous military government.

He has been active politically ever since then, and has spent more than a dozen years behind bars.

His October 23 arrest in Yangon was originally reported by his wife, an activist who also has been jailed in the past.

Both went into hiding after the February takeover and she is believed to still be in hiding.

Two weeks after his arrest, a statement from the military-installed government accused Kyaw Min Yu of "conducting terrorism acts including mine attacks to undermine the state stability".

He had already been on the wanted list for social media postings that allegedly incited unrest.

Demonstrators protest against the military junta's arrest of Myanmar politicians
Myanmar's military has responded violently to protests.(AP/File)

Some resistance factions have engaged in assassinations, drive-by shootings and bombings in urban areas.

But mainstream opposition organisations generally disavow such activities, while supporting armed resistance in rural areas, which are more often subject to brutal military attacks.

Ms Suu Kyi, meanwhile, is facing a raft of criminal and corruption charges — including violating the country's official secrets laws — and if convicted of all of them could face sentences tallying more than 100 years of prison.

She has already been sentenced to six years for illegally importing and possessing walkie-talkies, flouting COVID rules and incitement against the military.

Before the coup, she was on the cusp of beginning another five-year term as the country's de facto leader after the NLD won a landslide in November 2020 polls.