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Death sentences on the rise in post-coup Myanmar while China executes in secret, new Amnesty International report says 

By Erin Handley
Posted , updated 
A man stands pointing to the departures sign at Sydney airport
Phyo Zayar Thaw, who played a charity concert in Australia in 2019, has been sentenced to death by Myanmar's junta.(Supplied)

Ye Yint Aung remembers listening to Myanmar's first hip-hop album almost every day after primary school.

"I was pretty obsessed," he said.

"Some of their songs definitely did tackle political issues, but it would have been real subtle.

"But at the time it was just Burmese rap, which was really cool for me."

The music of Phyo Zayar Thaw and his band Acid struck a chord with him in Australia.

But Zayar Thaw, who went from hip-hop artist to politician in Aung San Suu Kyi's party, was recently sentenced to death in Myanmar for offences under the anti-terrorism act.

Although a court-ordered execution hasn't taken place in the country since 1988, Zayar Thaw's death sentence is one of dozens handed down since the military junta overthrew the government and seized power in a coup in February last year.

A man smiling with glasses and black hair in a suit.
Ye Yint Aung has fond memories of listening to Zayar Thaw's Burmese rap in Australia. (Supplied)

Hearing that news was a "surreal moment" for Mr Aung and many others in Australia who connected with Zayar Thaw's music.

Myanmar has seen an "alarming" rise in the number of people sentenced to death, while China, North Korea and Vietnam continue to carry out executions in secret, according to a new global report from Amnesty International.

The numbers increased around eight-fold in Myanmar, "where the death penalty became a tool for the military in the ongoing and widespread persecution, intimidation and harassment" of protesters, the report said.

"The yearly total of 2021 (at least 86) represented an astonishing increase on the yearly average for the years 2017-2020, which had remained lower than 10," the report said.

Tun Aung Shwe, the Australian representative of the civilian alternative National Unity Government (NUG), said the situation in Myanmar went beyond what was handed down in a court, and many protesters had been killed in the streets.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 1,850 people have been killed since the coup.

Dr Shwe said he was also concerned for people given long jail sentences and languishing in Insein prison, where Australian economist Sean Turnell has been held.

He drew on his own experience in the case of his father, who was a political prisoner during the previous military regime and was sentenced to 18 years in jail.

U Tin Shwe, pictured with Aung San Suu Kyi in an old photograph.
Tun Aung Shwe's father, U Tin Shwe, pictured with Aung San Suu Kyi, died in prison in 1997.(Supplied: Tun Aung Shwe)

"My father was arrested in 1990 and he passed away in 1997 in the very notorious Insein prison … When he had heart failure, the military junta didn't [take] him to get proper treatment outside at a hospital," he said.

Mary Aung, a student activist in Australia, said many of the death sentences were given "unjustly and unfairly", often to young people fighting for democracy.

"We believe that they don't deserve the death penalty," she said.

"We don't believe in the justice system in Myanmar at all, we've already lost trust in it."

China, North Korea and Vietnam executing in secret

The global report on death sentences and executions in 2021 comes weeks after Singapore's hanging execution of Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, a Malaysian man with an intellectual disability who was convicted of drug offences.

Amnesty International campaigner Rose Kulak said that case sparked outrage. 

A woman wearing a face mask cries
Angelia Pranthaman, sister of Pannir Selvam Pranthaman — a Malaysian drug trafficker facing the death sentence — cries at a vigil for Nagaenthran Dharmalingam.(Reuters: Hasnoor Hussein)

"I really felt it in my heart, that whole situation right up until his last day with his mother … representing him without any legal assistance, basically pleading for her son's life," she said.

"I don't know how people manage knowing that they're on death row and they can be executed at any time."

Ms Kulak said there were almost 30,000 people on death row globally.

"Australia needs to be doing more — we are living right next door to the highest executing region in the world," she said.

That was largely driven by China, which Amnesty believes is executing thousands of people, although the group does not have access to data as it is regarded as a state secret.

"Even though we don't have the statistics, we know from media records, from court documents … that China is the largest executor in the world," she said.

A young man in Chinese military dress stands to attention with a red flag blowing across his face
True numbers of death penalty executions in China are obscured by a veil of secrecy.(Reuters: Jason Lee)

However, she said a little glimmer of hope was that in the past decade she had seen a drop in the number of offences that carried the death penalty in China, from the mid-50s to 46.

The human rights group also had limited access to numbers from North Korea, saying it was impossible to independently verify reports, and Vietnam, which also classifies the data as a state secret.

She said while Asia had the highest number of executions, in contrast, the Pacific was on the verge of being "death penalty free".

The report said that the use of the death penalty in Asia "continued to violate international law and standards in many cases" in being deployed for drug offences or economic crimes.

After the executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia, the Australian government developed a strategy for the abolishment of the death penalty.

Small red pills on a china plate
Many drug-related offences carry the death penalty in Asia.(Reuters)

But Ms Kulak said Australia should be doing more to encourage countries to vote in an upcoming United Nations moratorium on the death penalty.

"Australia needs to be out there … getting countries on board [and] talking about ending the death penalty," she said.

"That's the first thing they can do in terms of something tangible … but [at] every diplomatic meeting, Australia needs to be raising the death penalty with those countries that still have it on the books."

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said Australia "strongly and consistently" advocated for the global abolition of the death penalty.

That advocacy took place through bilateral relations, including with countries that retained the death penalty, and in multilateral forums such as the UN, they said.

"Australia actively praises those that change their stance," the spokesperson said.

Myanmar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese embassy in Australia have also been contacted for comment. 

Human Rights Watch, which has also been tracking death sentences in Myanmar, said additional sentences handed down in 2022 in "bogus, closed-door tribunals" brought the number closer to 100.

A woman in traditional Kachin clothing walks during a protest.
Students in Australia have protested against the military regime in Myanmar.(Supplied: Julian Meehan)

"These cruel and irreversible sentences are intended to terrorise the opposition movement, which over a year on continues to resist the military's brutal regime," said HRW's Asia researcher Shayna Bauchner.

"Foreign governments should be supporting the people of Myanmar by ramping up efforts to cut the junta off from the money and arms fuelling its crimes."

Posted , updated