International outrage over Myanmar’s execution of four political prisoners escalated on Tuesday with popular protests and strong condemnation from world governments, along with fears that the hangings could derail fledgling attempts to end violence and unrest that have beset the Southeast Asian nation since the military took power last year.
Myanmar’s military-led government that seized power from elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 has been accused of thousands of extrajudicial executions since then, but the hangings announced on Monday were the country’s first official executions since. decades.
“We consider this to be a crime against humanity,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said, speaking alongside UN special envoy for Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer at the meeting. a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.
He said the executions would be a focus of the upcoming meetings of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which will start in Cambodia in a week.
Myanmar is a member of the influential ASEAN group, which is striving to implement a five-point consensus it reached last year on Myanmar, calling for dialogue among all parties concerned, provision of humanitarian aid, the immediate cessation of violence and the visit of a special envoy to meet with all parties.
With the executions, he said, “we view this as the junta mocking the five-point process.”
Heyzer said the UN considers the executions a “gross violation” of a person’s “right to life, liberty and security”.
In Bangkok, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters demonstrated outside the nearby Myanmar Embassy, waving flags and chanting slogans amid a heavy downpour.
“The dictators used their power arbitrarily,” a young man shouted through a megaphone to the crowd, some of whom held up pictures of Suu Kyi or the four executed men. “We can no longer tolerate this.
Myanmar government spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun strongly rejected the criticism, saying the executions were carried out in accordance with Myanmar law and not for “personal” reasons.
“We knew there could be criticism when death sentences were handed down and carried out in accordance with national law,” he told reporters. “However, we did it for reasons of internal stability, respect for public order and security.”
He said the executed men had been convicted of crimes supporting “terrorists” and violent acts – allegations denied by their defenders – and said their punishment was “appropriate”.
“If we had considered leniency for those who committed such crimes, it would have been cruel and without sympathy for the victims,” he said.
Among the four executed were Phyo Zeya Thaw, a 41-year-old former lawmaker from Suu Kyi’s party, and Kyaw Min Yu, a 53-year-old democracy activist better known as Ko Jimmy. All were tried, found guilty and sentenced by a military tribunal without the possibility of appeal.
The executions took place over the weekend and surprised even family members.
Phyo Zeya Thaw’s mother, Khin Win May, told The Associated Press that she just spoke with her son via video conference on Friday and he asked her for reading glasses, books and money from poached.
“I was a bit shocked when I heard about the execution, I think it will take time,” she said.
She said she hoped her son and the others would be considered martyrs for their cause.
“I’m proud of all of them because they sacrificed their lives for the country,” she said.
The execution of the four activists sparked immediate calls from around the world for a moratorium on the carrying out of any new sentences and condemnation of what was widely seen as a politically motivated decision.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, announced in June that it would resume executing prisoners and has 113 others on death row, although 41 of them were sentenced in absentia, according to the Association. Assistance to Political Prisoners, a non-governmental organization that tracks murders and arrests. Meanwhile, 2,120 civilians have been killed by security forces since the military coup.
“This is a barbaric act by the military regime in Myanmar,” New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said of the four executions. “New Zealand condemns these actions in the strongest possible terms.”
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said she was “appalled” by the executions.
“Australia opposes the death penalty in all circumstances for everyone,” she said.
Earlier, Australia and New Zealand joined the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Norway and South Korea in a joint statement condemning the executions.
ASEAN denounced the executions as “highly reprehensible”.
He said the move represented a setback for the group’s efforts to facilitate a dialogue between military leaders and opponents.
“We strongly and urgently call on all parties concerned to refrain from taking measures which would only further aggravate the crisis, hinder peaceful dialogue between all parties concerned and endanger peace, security and stability, not just in Myanmar, but across the region,” the group said in a statement.
The military takeover of the elected government of Suu Kyi sparked peaceful protests that quickly escalated into armed resistance and then widespread fighting that some UN experts are calling a civil war.
Some resistance groups have engaged in assassinations, drive-by shootings and bombings in urban areas. The main opposition organizations generally disavow such activities, while supporting armed resistance in rural areas which are more often subjected to brutal military attacks.
News of the executions sparked a flash protest on Monday in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, where a dozen protesters took to the streets marching behind a banner saying ‘we are never afraid’ and then quickly slipped away before the authorities can deal with them.
Similar protests erupted in more rural areas of Myanmar on Monday and Tuesday.
The last judicial execution to take place in Myanmar is widely believed to have been that of another political offender, student leader Salai Tin Maung Oo, in 1976 under a previous military government led by dictator Ne Win.
Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul in Bangkok contributed to this report.