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Myanmar junta puts four democracy activists to death in first executions in decades

By Erin Handley with wires
Posted , updated 
A man adjusting his headwear
Former rapper turned politician Phyo Zeya Thaw, pictured in 2012, has been executed in Myanmar.(Reuters: Soe Zeya Tun )

Myanmar's military junta has executed four democracy activists accused of helping carry out "terror acts", the South-East Asian nation's first executions in decades.

Among those executed was former hip-hop artist and ousted MP Phyo Zeya Thaw, who has close ties to Australia and whose death has sent a ripple of shock through the diaspora community here. 

Thazin Nyunt Aung, the wife of Phyo Zeyar Thaw, said she had not been told of her husband's execution. 

Prominent democracy figure Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Jimmy, was also executed. The other two men put to death were Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.

Sentenced to death in closed-door trials in January and April, the four men had been accused of helping militias fight the army that seized power in a coup last year and unleashed a bloody crackdown on its opponents.

A man smiling surrounded by people.
Kyaw Min Yu, known as Jimmy, pictured in 2012, was among those executed.(AFP: Soe Than Win)

Kyaw Min Yu, 53, and Phyo Zeya Thaw, a 41-year-old ally of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, lost their appeals against the sentences in June.

The four had been charged under the counter-terrorism law and the penal code, and the punishment was carried out according to prison procedure, the paper said, without elaborating.

Previous executions in Myanmar have been by hanging.

Sydney-based activist Sophia Sarkis said Phyo Zeya Thaw was a close friend and he came to Australia for a charity event she organised in 2019.

"I didn't know that would be the last time I was going to see him," she told the ABC.

A woman in a pale yellow outfit and large flower in her hair speaks into a microphone.
Sophia Sarkis says her friend will be remembered as a role model. (Supplied)

She said while he was a famous rapper in Myanmar, he chose to get into politics because he believed in justice. 

She said the charges were unfounded and he had been used as a scapegoat, and she knew many in Myanmar "who are living in fear of who is going to be next". 

A man hugging a girl at the departure gate
Phyo Zeya Thaw embraces the daughter of Sophia Sarkis.(Supplied: Sophia Sarkis)

She said his life was cut short and he was a role model for the younger generation whose legacy will live on. 

"He lives in our hearts forever and we will remember him as a hero," she said. 

Myanmar's state media reported the executions on Monday and junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun later confirmed the executions to the Voice of Myanmar. Neither gave details of timing.

"My heart goes out to their families, friends and loved ones and indeed all the people in Myanmar who are victims of the junta's escalating atrocities," the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said in a statement. 

Former rapper had political training in Australia

Phyo Zeya Thaw's connection to Australia stretches back to 2012, according to Peter Yates, a policy adviser to the Minister for International Development in the former Labor government. 


After his election but before he was sworn in, he was brought to Australia on AusAid funds for a political advisers' course, and he met then-prime minister Julia Gillard during the trip. 

"It's symbolic of the situation in Myanmar at the moment, where not only are the extrajudicial killings going on by the junta, but obviously now, judicial killings going on too," he said, adding the military had crushed a decade of hope for a democratic future. 

Two men posing for a photo
Peter Yates says Phyo Zeya Thaw was a hardworking MP who received training in Australia.(Supplied: Peter Yates)

He added Australia could do more to support Myanmar's people, including sanctions, which have been flagged as a possibility by Foreign Minister Penny Wong

In a statement on Tuesday, Senator Wong said Australia opposed the death penalty in all circumstances and called on the regime in Myanmar to cease violence and release all those who were unjustly detained. 

"Sanctions against members of Myanmar's military regime are under active consideration.

"We extend sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives since the coup."

A couple smiling for a photo.
Professor Sean Turnell, pictured with his wife Ha Vu, faces trial under the Official Secrets Act.(Supplied)

Australia has imposed no new sanctions on Myanmar's military generals since the coup, despite steps from the US, the UK and Canada. 

The new government has been repeatedly urged to take a stronger stance due to the ongoing detention of Australian economist Sean Turnell. Senator Wong has previously said Professor Turnell is Australia's top priority

Mr Yates said Phyo Zeya Thaw had also met with Barack Obama and was a hard-working MP for his constituents in Nay Pyi Taw.

"It's definitely shocking. I think we'd all hoped that the death sentence was a political act by the junta, rather than something they were going to follow through with … [I'm] so deeply saddened and shocked by this horrible decision," he said.

Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow administration outlawed by the ruling military junta, condemned the executions.

"This is the signal and trigger to international community," NUG's Australian representative Dr Tun Aung Shwe. 

"Under the military regime, there is no law … the Myanmar judicial system under military regime is just for show.

More than 2,000 extrajudicial killings since coup

The sentences drew international condemnation, with two UN experts calling them a "vile attempt at instilling fear" among the people.

The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP) said Myanmar's last judicial executions were in the late 1980s.

A view of a burnt church with charred walls and no roof.
Myanmar's military has been accused of human rights abuses.(AP: Amnesty International)

A military spokesman did not immediately respond to telephone calls to seek comment.

Last month military spokesman Zaw Min Tun defended the death penalty, saying it was used in many countries.

"At least 50 innocent civilians, excluding security forces, died because of them," he told a televised news conference.

"How can you say this is not justice? Required actions are needed to be done in the required moments."

A group of young people in camo holding weapons and smiling
Many young people became guerilla fighters after the coup on February 1 last year.(Reuters)

Myanmar has been in chaos since last year's coup, with conflict spreading nationwide after the army crushed mostly peaceful protests in cities.

The AAPP says more than 2,100 people have been killed by the security forces since the coup, but the junta says the figure is exaggerated.

The true picture of violence has been hard to assess as clashes have spread to more remote areas where ethnic minority insurgent groups are also fighting the military.

The latest executions close off any chance of ending the unrest, said Myanmar analyst Richard Horsey, of the International CRISIS group.

"Any possibility of dialogue to end the crisis created by the coup has now been removed," Mr Horsey told Reuters.

"This is the regime demonstrating that it will do what it wants and listen to no one. It sees this as a demonstration of strength, but it may be a serious miscalculation."

Four people standing and smiling at Sydney departure gate
Sophia Sarkis (right) says she was in shock after hearing her friend Phyo Zeya Thaw (second from right) had been executed. (Supplied: Sophia Sarkis)

Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the "junta's barbarity and callous disregard for human life aims to chill the anti-coup protest movement". 

"The Myanmar junta's execution of four men was an act of utter cruelty," she said.

"These executions … followed grossly unjust and politically motivated military trials. This horrific news was compounded by the junta's failure to notify the men's families, who learned about the executions through the junta's media reports."

Amnesty International regional director Erwin van der Borght called for an immediate moratorium on executions. 

"The international community must act immediately as more than 100 people are believed to be on death row after being convicted in similar proceedings," he said.

"For more than a year now, Myanmar's military authorities have engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture and a whole gamut of human rights violations. The military will only continue to trample on people's lives if they are not held accountable."


Posted , updated