On July 25, junta-controlled media announced that four pro-democracy activists had been executed, Myanmar’s first judicial executions in decades. The victims included 41-year-old Ko Phyo Zayar Thaw, a hip-hop pioneer turned parliamentarian for the National League for Democracy. The executions stunned the nation, plunging it into a state of rage and mourning. On the day the news broke, Frontier Myanmar spoke to Phyo Zayar Thaw’s wife Ma Thazin Nyunt Aung about his death, his life and what this means for the revolution.
Ko Phyo Zayar Thaw was a famous rapper who became a politician. Then after the coup he became an activist and fought the army until he was sentenced to death. How do you feel about his life story?
He was a brave leader. He walked the path he believed. He did what he believes. This is the path he chose. That way is the right way. He was a brave young leader. That’s why I’m proud of what he did until the end.
Ko Phyo Zayar Thaw served in parliament from 2012-2021. Why didn’t he seek re-election in the 2020 election?
He wanted to take a break from his parliamentary job because he wanted to do things for his life. He aimed to re-enter the music industry. So, Ko Zayar Thaw didn’t compete, and the party replaced him. They allowed him to rest. In his life, he had to balance music and politics. If the coup had not happened, he would have gone back to his musical career.
After the coup, how did Ko Phyo Zayar Thaw respond?
We were together since the military coup until his arrest in November of last year. The military coup was an injustice. Ko Zayar Thaw and I also protested peacefully. We participated in the anti-military coup movement in Yangon. The public protested peacefully. They were brutally shot down by the terrorist army. When we could no longer protest peacefully, we chose to defend ourselves within our right to self-defense.
Did the right to self-defense include conducting guerrilla attacks in Yangon?
I don’t want to talk about that yet. All of the people who participated in the anti-military movement have the right to defend themselves, not just us. The whole country does. The public understands what we had to do.
You were with Ko Phyo Zayar Thaw on November 18 when he was arrested in Yangon. Can you please tell us how it happened?
Around May last year, the military issued an arrest warrant for Ko Zayar Thaw. On November 18th, military troops entered and arrested us at the Yadana Rose house where we live. A large army came into the housing area. I went downstairs to find out what was going on. When I went down, military troops checked all the rooms in our building. And then they arrested Ko Zayar Thaw violently like he was a bird or chicken.
After he was arrested, did he have the right to defend himself in court?
We did not have any contact with him. His family did not have contact since he was arrested. No-one was allowed to contact or see him until July 18. Our lawyers also couldn’t get in touch. In May, Ko Zayar Thaw was sentenced to death by military court. After that, the news spread that he would actually be executed. Regarding the charges brought against him by the military, he never had the opportunity to defend himself with lawyers in court. We don’t know how the cases were investigated. Ko Zayar Thaw’s mother often went to Insein Prison to ask where he was and what happened, but prison officers said he was not in prison. Last Friday [July 22], they contacted Ko Zayar Thaw’s mother to come and see him.
When the family members went to see him on Friday, did prison authorities say it was a final goodbye before his execution?
They didn’t say anything. Never. They said to his mother, you have a chance to meet him, come and see him. So they went. Ko Zayar Thaw was a little thin. Ko Jimmy’s relatives also came that day. And then they prepared to send parcels and letters to Ko Zayar Thaw today [July 25] in accordance with prison procedures. From our side, we did everything according to the rules and procedures. Authorities didn’t say anything about the execution.
So how did you hear that the death sentence has been carried out this morning?
Just today, his mother went to visit the prison. I also heard the message that they had been killed. The prison authorities said it was as it was reported in the military’s newspaper. We said, if you killed him, please return the body. But they will not return the body. They need to be transparent about how they killed him. Please tell us if he was killed by soldiers or not? How did they judge the case?
That’s what we want to know now. His mother requested to receive the body. The prison authorities said they do not have the right to give it. They did not give the body; they did not show the evidence. Insein Prison refused to do as his family requested. According to the news we heard, there were many military vehicles in front of the prison last night. The whole city was cut off from electricity. So we think, what happened last night? His mother went and asked for information. But they responded that it was the same as in the newspaper. What that means is that they have been killed. I am very upset and sad.
How did you feel when you heard about the execution?
I am very sad and in pain. I don’t even want to feel better. I am very hurt. The officer said simply that he is not here anymore. That’s murder. They are committing open murder. The military has been killing people in Myanmar since the military coup. But they always denied these crimes. Now, they killed publicly. They show now that they kill people, and they don’t care who. If they want to kill, they can kill. They don’t care about our human rights. This incident is the very worst. According to the prison manual, if a death sentence is imposed, the body must be returned. He must be buried in the municipal cemetery. Now, they do nothing. They did whatever they wanted to do. This issue has become the worst human rights violation. Regarding this issue, I want the international community – ASEAN and the whole world – to put pressure on the military. It’s not just the people in the country. All Burmese people all over the world have been subjected to human rights violations. This is the action of a terrorist army.
Myanmar has not used the death penalty for decades. Now the junta has brought it back to use against politicians and activists. What do you think of this?
As long as the military rules, these death sentences will happen again. Those who have been killed are our respected leaders. Ko Hla Myo Aung and Ko Aung Thura Zaw, who were sentenced to death with Ko Zayar Thaw and Ko Jimmy, are heroes who came from the people. This is absolutely the most inhumane act. If they impose a death sentence on our people, we want to see the judgment in front of our eyes. They can’t do it silently like that. These are the leaders who were trying to defend democracy and human rights. The world is responsible for the military’s killing of our young leaders.
Now, what are you doing about Phyo Zayar Thaw being sentenced to death?
Since this Spring Revolution, both of us have worked, both mentally and physically. Our close comrades did as much as they could for the downfall of the military dictatorship in our country. Now he is not here. But I will continue the revolution. The army is brutal. They must pay for their brutal act. They have to pay for the truth.
What did Ko Zayar Thaw expect from the Spring Revolution?
We can see from his speech on social media. We must win this revolution. He didn’t even say that we had to win. He said we already won. Because if we go in with the mindset of having won, we will be successful. This is what he said when he was allowed to speak during a protest.
What will happen if the Spring Revolution does not succeed?
I don’t want to hear any question about what if the Spring Revolution fails. We will succeed. Because we can’t go back. All of us have given up our normal lives to fight the military. Lives are not given up for free. This revolution will succeed, but if the people are not united it will take time.
Since the beginning of this Spring Revolution, the international community has been calling for negotiations between the military and resistance groups. After these executions, is there any possibility of engagement?
We are not engaged with anyone. We will not negotiate with the military. This terrorist army cannot continue to exist in our country. We cannot live with this terrorist army. If people who are fighting for democracy are condemned like this, then the fire will burn. I believe we will reach our goals faster because of this action.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The military has reached the bottom of doing what it shouldn’t do. If they continue to rule the country, there will be many such executions in the future. We don’t accept these judgements. The whole country doesn’t accept this judgment. We wanted to see justice done. In this regard, I will revolt against the army until the end.