On June 3, Myanmar's military-controlled courts rejected appeals from former lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw and prominent democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu (aka Ko Jimmy) to reverse their death sentences.
Phyo Zeya Thaw was a member of former leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Ko Jimmy is a leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, which took part in a failed 1988 bid to end military rule in the country.
Executions in Myanmar typically occur within 45 days after a court rules to uphold a death sentence, a veteran lawyer told Radio Free Asia, a sister organization of the Voice of America, on condition of anonymity.
If carried out, the executions will be Myanmar’s first since the 1970s.
The U.S. Embassy in Myanmar issued a statement saying, “[T]he United States strongly condemns the Burmese military regime’s reported plans to execute pro-democracy and opposition leaders, exemplifying the regime's disregard for human rights and the rule of law.”
Other Western countries put out similar statements, prompting a rebuttal from Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry, which claimed the two men were “convicted of masterminding violence and instigating violence against innocent civilians.”
The ministry said the “irresponsible statements” of the United States, France and the European Union regarding the convictions “have escalated the violence” in Myanmar, adding that both men had been provided with a fair trial.
“Myanmar is an independent and sovereign country,” Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry said. “It has the full right to exercise its constitutional authority. Every citizen has the right to equal protection of the law and to the protection of his or her rights and fundamental freedoms. It reaffirms that the judiciary in Myanmar is independent and applies the same laws to all persons in the Union.”
In sum, that is false. In fact, the junta tried the men in a closed military court, with proceedings that were neither independent nor accessible to the public.
Furthermore, many observers say that the rule of law and judicial independence have ceased to exist in Myanmar since its military seized power in February 2021 following elections in which Suu Kyi's party won a strong parliamentary majority and expected to control the government.
Among those critical of the junta are the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a group of judges who advocate for the rule of law worldwide, multiple human rights groups and the United Nations' secretary-general.
After the death sentences for Phyo Zeya Thaw and Ko Jimmy were upheld, 199 international and local civil society and nongovernmental organizations released a statement condemning the execution orders.
Min Lwin Oo, a Myanmar legal expert based in Norway, said the men did not receive a fair trial.
“First of all, it’s not a fair trial because [they] lost their legal rights to defend at the military tribunal. [They] also lost their rights to legal counsel during the appeal process,” Min Lwin Oo, told the Voice of America’s Burmese Service.
“Normally, the appeals process for death sentence takes up to three to five years through different courts and takes at least four to five years to go through state leaders. But such a fast-track process is unprecedented.”
The fates of Phyo Zeya Thaw and Ko Jimmy fit into a broader pattern.
On the same day their death sentences were upheld, two other men were convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly killing a junta informer in Yangon.
Amnesty International said in a report released on May 24 that there has been “[a]n alarming increase in the resort to the death penalty” in Myanmar since martial law was imposed on March 15, 2021.
Under martial law, civilians, including peaceful protesters and journalists, are being tried in military courts.
According to the London-based human rights group, nearly 90 people were “arbitrarily sentenced to death” in Myanmar in 2021, “several without the defendants being present, in what was widely perceived as a way to target political opponents and protestors.”
Voice of America’s Burmese service reported that 113 people have received death sentences since the coup d’etat for allegedly playing a role in the armed resistance against the military regime.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented “the long and troubling history” of military trials in Myanmar. HRW said “the rules of evidence and procedure applicable in civilian courts did not apply” to past trials, which were “conducted behind closed doors.”
“Those on trial in military tribunals face almost certain conviction regardless of the validity of the charges against them, and the trials are held outside the scrutiny of the public or the international community,” HRW wrote, adding that military tribunals routinely dish out “higher penalties” than civilian courts.
HRW further noted that Myanmar’s military leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, “who has been sanctioned by the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, and others for his involvement in serious human rights abuses,” has the final say on carrying out death sentences.
In February, the ICJ said there was “no rule of law or judicial independence” in post-coup Myanmar.
“Based on the ICJ’s close monitoring of the situation from inside and outside Myanmar, it is now clear that there is no credible legal recourse available to thousands of people in Myanmar who have been subject to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment, unlawful killings, and forceful displacement,” the ICJ said.
It added that the “judiciary is overwhelmingly subservient to the military.”
The ICJ documented various abuses, including the “comprehensive suspension of habeas corpus and other legal protections of human rights,” and the “misuse of military tribunals, including to try civilians.” Those trials frequently result in “the imposition of the death penalty or lengthy prison sentences with hard labor.”
The United Nations also weighed in on the appeals ruling against Phyo Zeya Thaw and Ko Jimmy.
“We are deeply troubled by the Myanmar military's decision to proceed with the execution of two pro-democracy activists after they received death sentences. This is a blatant violation of the right to life, liberty and security of person as per Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
The Myanmar nonprofit Assistance Association of Political Prisoners says 1,909 people have been killed by the military since the coup. The group estimates 14,046 people have been arrested in that time, with 10,989 still detained.
Myanmar is currently embroiled in a civil war, with the military regime fighting numerous ethnic armed groups and The People's Defence Force – the armed wing of the National Unity Government or government in exile.
Despite seizing power from the democratically-elected government, the State Administration Council or military junta insists on its legitimacy, going so far as to deny it is a “military administration,” despite being chaired by coup-maker Min Aung Hlaing.
The military junta, which justified its power grab through unfounded allegations of voter fraud in the fall 2020 parliamentary election, presents itself as a force of stability engaged in a fight against terrorists.
The junta says elections will take place when peace and stability are return to the country.
However, it was the military’s decision to use force to crush peaceful, nationwide protests against the coup that led people to take up arms.