Why Myanmar’s military turned to the death penalty after a decades-long pause

When unverified photos of timeworn prison gallows in Myanmar started circulating on social media in January last year, there was a wave of apprehension and shock, but also disbelief.

The coup in Myanmar was almost a year old, and the military’s widening crackdown was making headlines weekly. Police and military forces had already killed more than 1,000 people, including a 19-year-old nicknamed Angel at a demonstration in Mandalay, one of dozens gunned down in one day across the country in March 2021; they had arbitrarily arrested and tortured peaceful protesters; and they had killed dozens of civilians in eastern Myanmar on Christmas Eve.

But Myanmar had not judicially executed anyone in decades. Though the death penalty remained on the books and sentences were handed down, they had not been carried out.  

There was an ominous sense that resorting to executions would send a nightmarish signal from the military that no option was off the table when it came to asserting control after the coup: you could be shot in the streets and you could be bombed in your village, but you could also be hanged in a notorious prison after sham court proceedings.

And that is exactly what they did.  

At the end of July that year, Myanmar’s military authorities hanged activist Phyo Zayar Thaw, the former hip-hop star turned parliamentarian; renowned democracy champion and former political prisoner Kyaw Min Yu (also known as Ko Jimmy); and two other opponents of the coup, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw. “Our worst fears have come true,” wrote Ko Jimmy’s widow, pro-democracy activist Nilar Thein, in the New York Times.

With this despicable act, Myanmar’s military slipped even further away from the rest of the world by becoming one of five countries across the globe to resume executions in 2022 after a pause of a year or more, according to Amnesty International’s annual state of the death penalty report, which was released today. The others are Afghanistan, Kuwait, the State of Palestine, and Myanmar’s fellow ASEAN member Singapore.  

A total of 883 people were known to have been executed across 20 countries last year, a 53% increase from 2021. This spike in executions—which does not include the thousands believed to have been carried out in China during the period—was led by countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where recorded figures rose from 520 in 2021 to 825 in 2022. Saudi Arabia executed a staggering 81 people in a single day. Iran also executed peaceful protesters who took part in the mass uprising that gripped the country over the past year. Drug-related executions fueled the spikes in both countries.

Myanmar’s executions were carried out following secretive and grossly unfair trials in military tribunals. This use of secrecy, closed-door tactics, and limited data was also documented across Asia, in China, North Korea and Viet Nam—countries that are known to use the death penalty extensively—meaning that the true global figure is far higher. While the number of those executed in China is unknown, based on our monitoring, we believe that the country remained the world’s most prolific executioner, ahead of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United States.

Since the coup on February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military has sentenced more than 100 people to death, including students. Although the number of recorded death sentences in 2022 in Myanmar decreased by 57% compared to 2021 (86), and an announcement in state media this month said that 38 death sentences had been commuted to life imprisonment, we should not be fooled. Myanmar’s military shows no sign of dropping this cruel punishment from its arsenal of tools to instill fear in millions of people. This is an institution that, outside of prison walls, has relentlessly committed human rights violations against critics, sowing chaos across the country through increased airstrikes, massacres and out-of-control militias.

The death penalty is becoming a thing of the past, as more countries are coming around to what Amnesty International and many others have been arguing for years: states should not kill people. Not only have most of the world’s countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes, but very few countries actually carry out executions now. For 2022, Amnesty recorded executions in just 20 countries, including Myanmar, representing only 10% of UN member states.

In 2022, six countries abolished the death penalty either fully or partially. Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Equatorial Guinea and Zambia abolished the death penalty for a range of crimes in the penal code, including murder.

This year has also ushered in hopeful news in Southeast Asia.

In a landmark move that will affect more than 1,300 people on death row, Malaysia’s parliament recently adopted two bills to abolish the mandatory death penalty and imprisonment until natural death. It also established re-sentencing processes for all individuals sentenced to these punishments and repealed the death penalty in full for seven offences.  

In 1977, when Amnesty International started its global campaign for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. At the end of 2022, 112 countries were abolitionist for all crimes and 9 were abolitionist on a number of specific crimes only.

As the Myanmar military continues its contemptuous disregard for human rights, it is of the utmost urgency that the international community step up and demand a moratorium on executions, as well as an immediate end to all other human rights violations. While pushing for this outcome may seem implausible given the scale of the crisis in Myanmar and the remorselessness of the perpetrators, we should constantly remind the military that we are actively working to enact change, and that we stand in solidarity with its victims and those still on death row, who should never be forgotten or abandoned.

Ming Yu Hah is Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns.

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