Executing prisoners may seem like just another day at the office for Myanmar’s murderous junta but it would be a deeply provocative act that will worsen the country’s deadly political crisis.
On June 3, junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun revealed that the regime planned to execute four men on death row, including two high-profile political prisoners: former National League for Democracy parliamentarian Phyo Zayar Thaw and democracy activist Ko Jimmy. Both have been accused of leading armed resistance against the military.
At first blush, the promise to execute political prisoners may seem unremarkable given the military’s other heinous crimes. Dozens – possibly hundreds – have died while in military custody, often bearing signs of brutal torture. Homes in hundreds of villages have been razed to the ground across the countryside, where marauding soldiers also summarily execute civilians. There is credible evidence that multiple victims have been burned alive. Even children have not been spared – according to data from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 147 children under 18 have been killed by the military since the coup.
But in all of these cases, the junta has either completely denied committing the crimes, blamed them on the resistance, or sought to justify their actions as self-defense. By pursuing judicial executions, the regime would be openly and proudly killing in public view. This would indicate a new level of disregard for how it is perceived, both at home and abroad.
Four deaths may seem like just a drop in the junta’s bucket of blood but let us not forget there are over 70 people on death row, including two under the age of 18, and thousands in custody. If the military were to go through with four executions there would be nothing stopping it from killing the rest, or from doling out death sentences to other political prisoners.
Using the death penalty is also symbolically provocative on a number of levels. For starters, it’s a violation of Buddhism’s first precept to refrain from killing. Of the seven majority Buddhist countries, Cambodia, Bhutan and Mongolia have banned capital punishment, while Sri Lanka and Laos have it on the books but haven’t used it in decades. Myanmar also belongs to this latter category, with the last confirmed judicial execution taking place in 1977, although it is believed others were carried out in the 1980s. Resuming capital punishment would violate what has essentially become a national taboo, showing a disregard for both the religion and the culture the military purports to protect.
(Among Buddhist countries, the exception is Thailand, which carried out its most recent execution in 2018.)
More importantly, judicial executions would worsen the already spiralling cycle of violence. The military’s decision to snatch power has sparked vigilante justice campaigns, including assassinations by both resistance groups and pro-military groups. Analysts have warned this could give way to communal violence motivated by personal revenge, which would be more difficult to control than traditional armed conflict. Already, the Myanmar Defence Force (Sagaing) has pledged to respond with “an eye for an eye” if the military goes through with its planned executions.
Executing prominent activists in captivity would also make future negotiations – as unlikely as they seem now – much more difficult. For this reason Lieutenant-General Gun Maw, vice chair ofthe Kachin Independence Organisation, has warned the junta not to make an “unforgivable mistake”. Organisations with close ties to the two activists on death row, like the NLD and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, along with their supporters, are indeed likely to find the executions “unforgivable”.
Following through with the executions would almost certainly reflect the junta’s desperation. Desperation to give its most macabre supporters something to celebrate, and desperation to show that it’s in control – not by solving the healthcare collapse, fuel shortage or electricity crisis, but by doing the only thing the military is really any good at: killing.