Executions in Myanmar Disturbing News for the Region and the World
Prof Rajaram Panda

The execution of four democracy activists on 25 July 2022 by Myanmar’s military junta accused of helping to carry out “terrorist acts” sparked widespread condemnation and outrage. The four were sentenced to death in closed-door trials in January and April. Since seizing power in February 2021, the junta leader Min Aung-Hlaing has launched a series of repressive measures, killing over 2,100 people, detained 8,000 people and put in custody, displacing over 1 million people, and sentenced to death 140 persons. The reports that over 382 children have been either killed or maimed and 1,400 arrested are indeed chilling news. One feels tempted to compare the situation in Myanmar today to what the Pakistan military did to its own civilian people then in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1970-71 triggering the influx of over million refugees entering to India. What happened thereafter need not be told.

As a member of the ASEAN grouping, the junta has put the organisation into a crisis. At a time when promoting democracy world-over is the buzzword, the junta’s action is a setback to Myanmar’s experiment with its nascent democracy. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, chair of the organisation this year, appealed to the junta not to carry out the executions, thereby expressing the concern of other ASEAN members. As it transpired, such appeal fell on deaf ears of the junta.

Internally, Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow administration outlawed by the junta, condemned the executions. The NUG appealed the global community to punish the junta for its cruelty on its own people. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, was outraged and devastated at the junta’s escalating atrocities. [1] Andrews feared that there could be more executions as there are at least 140 people sentenced to death. The executions also triggered international outrage, with the US, Britain, Australia, the European Union and senior United Nations officials accusing the junta of cruelty.

First Execution since 1976

The last judicial execution to be carried out in Myanmar is generally believed to have been of another pro-democracy activist, student leader Salai Tin Maung Oo, in 1976 under a previous military government led by dictator Ne Win. In 2014, during the period of democratic reform, the sentences of prisoners on death row were commuted to life imprisonment, but several dozen convicts received death sentences between then and last year's takeover. The execution in 1976 was by hanging but this time there is no information how the four democracy activists were executed since there was no proper judicial process.

Prior to the executions, a military court had convicted them over "terrorist" acts. They lost appeals against their death sentences. The junta had also rejected the possibility of a pardon for the condemned men. That was not surprising as creating fear and terror seems to be the chosen strategy of the junta.

The junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun defended the death penalty, saying that it was justified and used in other countries. Lashing out against international condemnation of the executions, the junta condemned foreign statements as “reckless and interfering”, saying further that two of the four executed were prominent democracy fighters who “deserved many death sentences”.[2] Given the ground situation, the junta has chosen a dangerous gamble as the agitation has spread nationwide, despite the fact that the army has crushed mostly peaceful protests, thereby attracting global opprobrium. By executing four pro-democracy activists, the junta might be sending a stern and ruthless message to the people that more such killings could take place.

If the junta thinks that executions are demonstration of its strength, it would be a serious miscalculation as it would snowball sooner or later into a large-scale revolution, which the junta would find incapable to control. For all the excesses committed by the junta, there would be inevitable consequences.

The independent UN human rights expert for Myanmar, Michelle Bachelet, called for a strong international response as she saw blatant disregard for international rights law. If the military resorts to more killings, it will only deepen its entanglement in the crisis that it its own creation.

Earlier in June, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had appealed that the charge be dropped as the protestors were only exercising their fundamental freedoms and rights. He called for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Myanmar.[3]

ASEAN’s Stance

In a rare rebuke, ASEAN denounced the executions as “highly reprehensible” and destructive to regional efforts to de-escalate the crisis. Malaysia slammed the junta for making a mockery of regional bloc’s five-point consensus to restore democracy in Myanmar. The bloc was right in stating that the junta displayed “a gross lack of will” to return the member-state to normalcy. Terming it as a “crime against humanity”, Malaysia urged other members of the bloc not to allow any representative of the military regime to any meeting of the bloc. Malaysia was irked that Myanmar junta broke the spirit of consensus based on which the 55-year-old bloc operates. [4]

Other bloc members were too perturbed with the executions. The bloc’s distrust of the military regime has only increased. Indonesia, chair of the bloc in 2023, was worried that the bloc’s standing would be weakened by the junta’s actions. Indonesia indicated that it would not be business as usual. Cambodia, the 2022 holder of the ASEAN chair, was “strongly disappointed” that its appeals were ignored. Sensing that the global opprobrium and condemnation over the executions could escalate the situation further, Cambodia with its responsibility as chair chose to sooth the prevailing bellicose mood of concerned citizens and countries around the world. Thailand too was concerned about the developments and feared that these could foreclose all efforts towards achieving peace.

The executions coming a week before the 55th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting was a setback to Cambodia’s efforts to expedite progress on the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus (5PC), which meant building trust and confidence to engender a dialogue among all parties concerned, in order to end violence and alleviate the suffering of the innocent people. As per the Five-Point consensus agreed in April 2021, the junta had accepted to restore democracy in the country soon. Among other conditions the consensus contained were to end violence, engage in constructive dialogue among all parties, mediation of such talks by a special ASEAN envoy, to accept the ASEAN-coordinated humanitarian assistance and a visit to Myanmar by an ASEAN delegation to meet with all parties. The executions negated all such promises.

Singapore too was perturbed. Its Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan termed the executions as “grave setback” for ASEAN’s efforts to facilitate reconciliation in the country.[5]Reiterating the bloc’s call for the release of all political detainees, including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Balakrishnan observed that a peaceful resolution of the crisis can only be achieved through constructive dialogue among all parties concerned.

Position of China

Even for China seen as being soft towards the military regime, was taken aback over the executions. The military junta had spurned the sane advice of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for reconciliation and rational consultation. [6]China’s position stems from its concerns that the worsening of the situation in Myanmar would damage its economic interests in that country. Even without this, Beijing is expected to use its leverage for the larger interest of regional peace and stability. China’s position is such that even if it expresses displeasure over Myanmar’s decision to execute four democracy activists, it would not interfere in the internal affairs of Myanmar. Beijing may have been miffed that the military junta ignored Wang’s call to hold talks with the political opposition and went ahead to execute the four activists, knowing well that Beijing would not deviate from its official position of not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. But as one of Myanmar’s largest economic backers, China has the leverage to respond. The big question is: will China do it?

India’s Position

Because of the strategic location of Myanmar and India’s long history of engaging with the military leaders, India’s role seems limited. India’s Northeast shares a 1,642 km border with Myanmar. Historical links between the Northeast and Myanmar have existed for centuries. When the McMohan Line was drawn by the British, many families and communities were separated. There are many villages in either side where the people travel through the Indo-Burma Border freely on daily basis. The border is porous and a lot of informal trade takes place. In the event of any political turbulence, refugees crossing the border are inevitable. India cannot afford to remain shy and not respond pro-actively to both reaching out to the junta as well as handling the refugee issue which have strategic consequences. If India remains reticent, it would have yielded space to China to expand its influence. Such a situation would be detrimental to India’s strategic interests. It is in India’s interests to reinvigorate its foreign policy response and put its best efforts forward for the restoration of normalcy in Myanmar.

Endnotes :

[1] “Myanmar executes four democracy activists, drawing condemnation and outrage”, 25 July 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/myanmar-junta-executes-democracy-activist-2833101
[2] “Executed Myanmar prisoners deserved 'many death sentences': Junta spokesman”, 26 July 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/myanmar-junta-prisoners-activists-execution-2836106
[3] “Myanmar junta's execution of four democracy activists condemned by UN”, 25 July 2022, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/myanmar/2022/myanmar-220725-unnews01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3388%2eon0ao069c5%2e3577
[4]Muzliza Mustafa, Alvin Prasetyo, Subel Rai Bhandari, and Nontarat Phaicharoen, “In rare rebuke, ASEAN scorches Myanmar for 'highly reprehensible' executions”, 26 July 2022, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/myanmar/2022/myanmar-220726-rfa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3389%2eon0ao069c5%2e358u
[5]Ng Hong Siang, “Myanmar executions a 'grave setback' for ASEAN efforts to facilitate peace: Vivian Balakrishnan”, 26 July 2022, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/myanmar-junta-execution-grave-setback-asean-peace-efforts-vivian-balakrishnan-2836331
[6]Maria Siow, “Myanmar’s executions were a slap in the face for China. It’s time to ‘speak in one voice’ against the junta”, 29 July 2022, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3186872/myanmars-executions-were-slap-face-china-its-time-speak-one-voice?utm_medium=email&utm_source=cm&utm_campaign=e

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