Myanmar executions reveal regime desperation

By Nicholas Coppel, Former Australian Ambassador to Myanmar

Nicholas Coppel examines the motive behind the execution this week of four pro-democracy activists by the military junta in Myanmar.

The announcement on 25 July that Myanmar’s military junta had executed four political activists reveals the desperation of the regime. Myanmar has endured decades of military rule and brutal oppression, but these were the first death sentences carried out in 34 years. They represent a new low point in Myanmar’s human rights record and beg the question, why now?

On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing mounted a coup detaining President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and numerous other National League for Democracy (NLD) politicians who were scheduled to convene later that day to elect a new President. A state of emergency was then declared and the right to exercise legislative, executive and judicial powers was transferred to the Commander-in-Chief.

Opposition to the coup was spontaneous and evident throughout the country and involved all age groups. International condemnation was swift. North American and European countries imposed sanctions targeted at senior military personnel and military-owned businesses.

Min Aung Hlaing miscalculated the mood of the nation. The people of Myanmar had made it clear at the ballot box they wanted to be governed by Aung San Su Kyi’s NLD and not by the military-affiliated political party. The peaceful protests, initially tolerated, did not subside and the military commenced a bloody crackdown. The people of Myanmar, addicted to their new limited form of democracy and enhanced freedoms, were not prepared to return to the dark old days of incompetent military rule.

Protest, Myanmar 2021
Peaceful protests sprung up across Myanmar in the immediate aftermath of the coup. Image credit: Htin Linn Aye, Wikimedia Commons. 

People’s Defence Forces (PDF) were formed and engaged in urban guerrilla warfare tactics using explosives and targeted assassinations in response to the disproportionate use of force deployed by the military. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners say more than 2,100 people have been killed by security forces since the coup. Four more names are now added to that toll.

The four men were sentenced to death in closed-door trials charged with helping militias fight the army. The four included Kyaw Min Yu (better known as Ko Jimmy), a veteran of the so-called 88 Generation that led the student uprising in 1988, and Phyo Zeya Thaw, a celebrated hip-hop singer, former member of parliament, and ally of Aung San Suu Kyi. Two other lesser-known activists — Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw — had received their death sentences over the killing a woman who was an alleged informer for the junta.

The deaths of the four have sent a chill throughout Myanmar and dampened hopes for a return to civilian rule.

Min Aung Hlaing abused the Constitution incorrectly claiming the elections were not free and fair, that this amounted to a wrongful and forcible means of taking power, and it was thus the military’s duty to declare a state of emergency. In another vain attempt at legitimation, he has announced that fresh elections would be held in mid-2023. If elections are held, and we can never assume the Commander will keep his word, they are likely to be boycotted by the NLD and will be held in an atmosphere of fear. That’s his cynical reason for carrying out the death penalty now. Brute force has failed to break the spirit of the people and the Commander is desperate for a victory. His generals and the cronies’ business interests are hurting, and they won’t be acquiescent forever.

The elections are also likely to be held under a changed voting system that will favour the military-aligned political party. The outlook, then, is for a continuation of military rule either directly or through a proxy political party.

Here the Commander miscalculates once again in thinking the people will resign themselves to accepting a reversion to the decades of post-independence military rule. The Myanmar of today is very different from the Myanmar of a decade ago. A digital transformation has opened society to the world that exists beyond hard borders. They have tasted freedoms, they have seen protest in other countries, and they know that tyranny can be overthrown through people power.

And they have had enough. The PDF have formed links with ethnic armed groups for training and access to safe havens. Increasingly, calls are being made for international assistance to move beyond the humanitarian and to include military equipment. If for Ukraine, they ask, why not for Myanmar? So far, there is no sign of military assistance being provided to the PDF but the calls for it indicate that the pro-democracy movement remains opposed to a negotiated settlement (as do the military) and no end to the conflict is in sight.

The international community has strongly supported ASEAN efforts to assist Myanmar find a peaceful solution that returns the country to democracy. This support and the ASEAN efforts have both been criticised for having faith in Min Aung Hlaing’s commitment to the ASEAN Five Point Consensus which says there shall be an immediate end to violence, constructive dialogue and humanitarian assistance. Well over a year since the Commander and all ASEAN leaders agreed the five points, there has been no sign of implementation. ASEAN has responded to this betrayal by inviting only non-political representatives from Myanmar to its meetings, effectively snubbing the military leadership.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, in his capacity as the current ASEAN Chair, had appealed to Min Aung Hlaing to reconsider the death sentences. Totally ignored, ASEAN has issued a statement denouncing the executions and called them highly reprehensible as they created a setback to advancing the Five Point Consensus. This is indeed strong language for an organisation famous for turning a blind eye by parroting a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.

All the international community’s statements of concern and condemnation and ASEAN efforts have failed to achieve an end to the violence let alone an end to the coup. European and North American sanctions and all the NGO advocacy have similarly failed. Myanmar’s military have once again shown they are impervious to international pressure and opprobrium. They will bunker down and resist both the people’s wishes and foreign pressure.

This does not mean the world should sit on its hands and watch Myanmar descend further into chaos. Statements and sanctions serve purposes other than regime change: they are a statement of a nation’s values, they express the international community’s expectations of acceptable conduct by governments, and they are a message of solidarity with the people of Myanmar. However, the harsh reality is that change will only come from within Myanmar and, given the strength of the military relative to its opposition, only from within the military itself.  This is all the more reason to increase pressure on Myanmar’s military leadership.

Nicholas Coppel is Adjunct Associate Professor (Practice) at Monash University. He was Australia’s Ambassador to Myanmar from 2015-2018. Contact email:

Banner image: Police forces monitor anti-coup protest, Yangon, Myanmar - February 6, 2021. Credit: Shutterstock.