A former MP was among four democracy activists to be executed in Myanmar for the first time in 50 years.
Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former MP from ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, was convicted in January by a closed military court of offences involving possession of explosives, bombings and financing terrorism.
The four prisoners were accused of a targeted killing after the country's military takeover last year.
Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, also known as Maung Kyaw was arrested last November based on information from people detained for shooting security personnel, state media said at the time. He was also accused of being a key figure in a network that carried out what the military described as terrorist attacks in the country’s biggest city, Yangon.
He had been a hip-hop musician before becoming a member of the Generation Wave political movement, which was formed in 2007. He had been jailed in 2008 under a previous military government after being accused of illegal association and possession of foreign currency.
Also hanged was Kyaw Min Yu, a 53-year-old democracy activist better known as Ko Jimmy, for violating the counterterrorism law. He was one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, veterans of a failed 1988 popular uprising against military rule.
He had already spent more than a dozen years behind bars for political activism before his arrest in Yangon last October. He had been put on a wanted list for social media postings that allegedly incited unrest, and state media said he was accused of terrorist acts including mine attacks and of heading a group called Moon Light Operation to carry out urban guerrilla attacks.
The other two, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, were convicted of torturing and killing a woman in March 2021 who they allegedly believed was a military informer.
The executions were condemned by human rights groups and the international community.
Aung Myo Min, human rights minister for the National Unity Government, a shadow civilian administration established outside Myanmar after the military seized power in February 2021, rejected the allegations the men were involved in violence.
“Punishing them with death is a way to rule the public through fear,” he told The Associated Press.
Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the legal proceedings against the four had been “grossly unjust and politically motivated military trials.”
“The junta's barbarity and callous disregard for human life aims to chill the anti-coup protest movement," she said following the announcement of the executions.
Thomas Andrews, an independent UN-appointed expert on human rights who had condemned the decision to go ahead with the executions when they were announced in June, called for a strong international response.
"I am outraged and devastated at the news of the junta's execution of Myanmar patriots and champions of human rights and decency," he said in a statement. “These individuals were tried, convicted and sentenced by a military tribunal without the right of appeal and reportedly without legal counsel, in violation of international human rights law.”
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Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry had rejected the wave of criticism that followed its announcement in June, declaring that its judicial system is fair and that Phyo Zeya Thaw and Kyaw Min Yu were “proven to be masterminds of orchestrating full-scale terrorist attacks against innocent civilians to instill fear and disrupt peace and stability.”
“They killed at least 50 people,” military spokesperson Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said at a televised news conference last month. He said the decision to hang the prisoners conformed with the rule of law and the purpose was to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The military's seizure of power from Suu Kyi’s elected government triggered peaceful protests that soon escalated to armed resistance and then to widespread fighting that some UN experts say is heading towards civil war.
Some resistance groups have engaged in assassinations, drive-by shootings and bombings in urban areas. Mainstream opposition organisations generally disavow such activities, while supporting armed resistance in rural areas that are more often subject to brutal military attacks.
The last judicial execution to be carried out in Myanmar is generally believed to have been of another political offender, student leader Salai Tin Maung Oo, in 1976 under a previous military government led by dictator Ne Win.
In 2014, the sentences of prisoners on death row were commuted to life imprisonment, but several dozen convicts received death sentences between then and last year’s takeover.