On June 10, the Myanmar military junta, known as the SAC, received a letter from the leader of a neighboring Southeast Asian nation, pleading with it to refrain from carrying out death sentences against four regime opponents. “With great concern and in an honest attempt to help Myanmar to achieve peace and national reconciliation, I frankly request that Your Excellency and the SAC reconsider this sentence and avoid the use of the death penalty for all SAC antagonists,” Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia wrote. He warned the Myanmar authorities that they risked an international backlash otherwise.
The plea was especially noteworthy coming from Hun Sen: Cambodia chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Hun Sen is no critic or enemy of the junta, having visited the country in January — the first head of government to make such a legitimacy-conferring gesture since the generals seized power in a February 2021 coup. In addition, Hun Sen is not exactly known for indulging dissent in his own country, which he has ruled with an iron fist for 37 years.
And yet, so determined is the junta to crush all opposition that it brushed aside this fellow dictator’s counsel and vowed to follow through on the death sentences, which were carried out, probably over the weekend — an announcement Monday did not specify timing. Compounding the inherent cruelty is the fact that relatives of the four men had been told Friday that they would be able to speak to them over Zoom for the first time in months — only to hear three days later that they had been killed without any such conversations having taken place. Among those executed, the two most prominent were Phyo Zeya Thaw, a hip-hop artist long active in the democracy movement — he served in parliament as a member of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy — and longtime regime opponent Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy. They were charged and tried by a military court under an anti-terrorism law. The other two put to death were Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, accused of murdering a woman they believed to be an informant for the regime. None of the four received a fair, public trial.
These are the first executions of any kind in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for more than 30 years. And the junta may only be getting started. Since the coup, 117 people have been sentenced to death, 76 of whom were in custody and 41 at large, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar nongovernmental organization. The military regime has faced a national uprising, both armed and civil, since the coup and has not hesitated to kill as part of its counterinsurgency campaign. Still, the latest executions add to the already high level of terror. With Hun Sen having been rebuffed, ASEAN members face a special responsibility to respond — with sanctions they have previously hesitated to impose. The United States and other democracies rightly condemned the executions; they have sanctions in place, but those can be toughened. Friendly persuasion, even from fellow autocrats, obviously does not work.