The Myanmar military government recently rejected appeals against the death sentencing of two prominent democracy activists in an effort to repress the anti-coup resistance. Former lawmaker Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw and veteran democracy activist Ko Jimmy will be executed for their anti-regime ventures, implementing Myanmar’s death penalty for the first time in decades. The pending judicial executions have added fuel to the fire in the ongoing political pollution of Myanmar.
It has been over a year since the Myanmar military seized control of the government after the National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide in the general election. This was a major setback to democratic reforms in Myanmar and exacerbated its democratic decline. The country has been veering towards autocratic consolidation with the coup remaining in absolute power. The military coup has since spawned civil unrest as protesters continue to fight against the authoritarian rule of the junta, attempting to salvage the possibility of a democracy in Myanmar. Mass participation in civil resistance through strikes and protests is a fortifying sign in democratic perseverance, however; the violent responses from the junta weakens the confidence that democracy is truly obtainable. They mean to scare the opposition into submission with live fire, burning down villages, and imprisonment. Rather than beating them into submission, it has induced an escalation in violence with the anti-junta People’s Defense Forces (PDF) launching an armed uprising across the nation. Escalated violence between the junta and anti-regime activists has devastated the country with hostility from both sides. The military prevails in their brutal crackdown on opposition members, imprisoning thousands against the coup. Coincidingly, the PDF has retaliated with attacks on military convoys and assassinating coup-supportive officials. Civil disobedience has now transformed into essentially a civil war in Myanmar. Any hope of restoring democratic means to the country is clouded by the grave political violence. The crisis in Myanmar must cease to exist before it can even begin to think about instilling a democracy again.
Two opposition political activists Ko Phyo Zew Thaw and Ko Jimmy were convicted of terrorism and treason by a miltary tribunal in January. Though the date of these executions is unknown, former lawmaker Ko Phyo Zew Thaw and veteran democracy activist Ko Jimmy could potentially be hanged within 45 days. The return of the death penalty is just one of the many confirmations in Myanmar’s democratic erosion and overall backsliding as an established nation. Although the junta has implemented extrajudicial executions against activists and critics, the judicial death penalty has not been used in Myanmar for decades. The last judicial execution was held in 1988 and has not been enacted since. Death sentences have been handed down before; however, they were commuted before the start of the coup. That being the case, the recent decision to implement the death penalty on two prominent opposition activists will reinstate it entirely. The military has already sentenced anti-coup activists to death since the coup, estimating 86 convictions in 2021 according to Amnesty. With approval of the recent judicial executions, it is almost certain more death sentences will be carried out against anti-coup activists. Leniency is not in the agenda for the Myanmar military.
The revival of the death penalty is just another awful addition to the military’s attempt to instill fear into opposition. The United Nations has spoken out about the decision, stating it was “deeply troubled” by the decision. They deeply insist the military drop the charges among the arrested because they are “related to the exercise of their fundamental freedoms and rights.” These convictions and death sentences thus cause deep concern for free speech and free press in Myanmar. With judicial death awaiting those who defy the junta, there is no longer any room for freedom of speech and press to exist. It then further drives Myanmar away from a state of reconciliation and democratic transition. The more restrictions the military imposes on the people of Myanmar, the more Myanmar veers toward autocratic consolidation. Democratization seems less and less of a possibility with the silencing of anti-coup activists through judicial means.
In addition to the coup’s part in aggravated democratic erosion is the erosion of Myanmar itself. Myanmar has been on the brink of a state collapse since the launch of the coup in 2021. The country is currently struggling to survive with the escalation of political violence and economic disorder from COVID-19 related challenges. According to the UN, around 25 million people have been driven into poverty. People are experiencing food insecurities and displacement from conflict-ridden areas. The International Labor Organization reports high unemployment rates with 1.6 million people losing their jobs. High Inflation rates also cause greater challenges for the well-being of the people as the pricing of basic commodities are now out of reach. Myanmar needs humanitarian assistance, but the military has cut off access with the fight against anti-coup forces. Violence in combination with economic distress means an unstable state on the verge of collapsing. Though that possibility is absolutely extreme, it may become a reality if Myanmar continues in this trajectory.
The country is in a major crisis with the coup entering its second year. The extent of the military’s coercive rule across the country is reflected in the death toll, which exceeds well into the thousands. The Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar documented at least 5,646 civilian deaths between February 1, 2021 and May 10, 2022. A researcher at ISP Myanmar has deemed the death toll as “unprecedented” in Myanmar history and causes great concern for the future of Myanmar. Rising death rates will not slow down, especially with the death penalty being reinstated. The two activists being sentenced to death puts the grave danger Myanmar is in into perspective. Judicial execution will become more common as more convictions emerge from arresting anti-coup activists. Remnants of a state of democracy in Myanmar are disappearing before our eyes. Democratic backsliding seems like a trivial issue compared to the ongoing struggle to stop from collapsing, yet it is at the center of the crisis. What the end is to this mess remains uncertain, but Myanmar will be left in shambles for a while nonetheless.