The story so far: On July 25, Myanmar’s junta executed four pro-democracy activists. The junta spokesperson called the executions "lawful" and said it was "justice for the people."
What has happened in Myanmar since the coup in 2021?
The military (Tatmadaw) seized power from the democratically elected National League of Democracy (NLD) party in February 2021. The junta led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing formed the State Administrative Council (SAC). Following the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi and several other leaders of the NLD were detained immediately and are still in detention.
As mass protests, called the ‘spring revolution’, against the regime began, a parallel government — the National Unity Government (NUG) — was formed. It has an armed division known as the People’s Defence Force (PDF), which is supported and trained by several armed ethnic groups.
However, they have not been able to make a dent against the junta’s repressive measures.
Who were the executed activists?
Two of the executed activists have been identified — Ko Jimmy was a 53-year-old veteran of the “88 Movement” student uprising and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw was a rapper, hip-hop artist and a member of the NLD party. They were arrested in November 2021, and sentenced to death in January 2022 by the military tribunal. They were convicted for devising and participating in anti-regime activities. Since the coup in 2021, the tribunal, according to Irrawady, has sentenced 113 people to death for their role in the armed resistance against the regime.
What led to the latest executions?
On July 22, when the two activists were allowed to meet their families, there was speculation about their execution. Quoting a UN spokesperson, Reuters reported atleast 1500 people killed and 11,787 detained by the junta. These repressive measures have failed to suppress the public hostility towards the regime. Perhaps there is growing restlessness within the junta for failing to establish control and legitimacy despite being in power since February 2021, which has led to these executions.
The second reason could be to boost the morale of the military leadership. A section within the Tatmadaw has questioned Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s leadership capabilities, compared to his predecessors Ne Win and Than Shwe. Some military and police officials have even joined the pro-democracy movement. The government is grappling with a resistance movement, ethnic conflicts, terror attacks and a failing economy. According to the World Bank, there had been an 18% economic contraction in the country by the end of September 2021. His promises of an election in two years, forming a caretaker government and declaring himself as a Prime Minister in August 2021 have failed to appease the people.
Third, perhaps the regime sees the global focus on Ukraine (and Sri Lanka) as an opportunity to carry out something in its own backyard.
Will the executions reduce hostility or lead to a flare up?
The opposition led by the PDF is likely to increase. Calling the executions unforgivable, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the NUG said: “the junta will have to pay the price legally. The executions have made us more determined to topple the regime.” Both the activists were youth icons and prominent leaders of the pro-democracy movement. If Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom is a hope that helps the pro-democracy movement to sustain, these executions will act as a catalyst. In the coming days, the junta might face probable retribution.
Will the executions impact the ethnic conflict between the groups? Unlikely. The equation between the ethnic groups and the junta is likely to remain unstable; however, the equation between the ethnic groups is less likely to be impacted because of the executions.
Is the international response adequate?
The execution has been condemned by individual countries and international organisations. Regionally, the strongest voice has been from Cambodia, the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member. He had requested the Senior General ‘to reconsider” and “refrain” from such action as it was causing “great concern among the ASEAN members and its external partners.” Neither these condemnations nor the earlier sanctions levied by countries and organisations, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., the European Union and others, have made an impact on the regime.
Sanctions are not new to Min Aung Hlaing and his Ministers. Successive military regimes have resisted external pressure — both from within the region and the rest of the world. The Senior General did not budge to honour ASEAN’s five-point consensus for the peace and stability of Myanmar, although he agreed to implement them in a regional meeting in April 2021. Besides, there is support for the regime from its allies. Russia has strongly supported the junta since the coup. The friendship has been well displayed by political and economic collaborations. China, the junta’s oldest ally, was one of the first to give it de facto recognition after the coup. The support from Russia and China was also projected by the United Nations Security Council. China has a high stake in Myanmar due to its infrastructural projects and investments. It also wishes to avoid conflict within its borders. Among ASEAN members, Thailand’s proximity to the junta is a known fact.
While there are regional and international sanctions on the regime, there is also support from crucial actors. The latter sustains the regime against the former.
So, what do these executions mean for democracy?
Democracy will remain a far-fetched dream for Myanmar. Although Min Aung Hlaing promised an election by 2023, it is unlikely to happen.
If the opposition continues despite executions, the junta will conduct a general election which will be a repeat of 2011. The Tatmadaw’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) may come back to power through a rigged election.
The author is a PhD scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at NIAS, Bengaluru.