Myanmar Junta Chief Motivated Only by Cruelty and Revenge

By Aung Zaw 27 July 2022

Two weeks ago, Myanmar’s murderer-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was in Russia with two high-profile Buddhist monks to consecrate a pagoda at the Ethnomir cultural center in Kaluga near Moscow. Since last year’s military coup, the general has spent much of his time trying to demonstrate that he is a ruler who will protect and preserve Buddhism. At home, his priorities include building a Buddha statue—touted as the world’s biggest sitting Buddha image—and hoisting Hti ornamental umbrellas at pagodas. But this flurry of religious activity has done little to hide the deepening turmoil sparked by his coup. Daily, the country descends deeper into its multiple crises, and Min Aung Hlaing’s soldiers continue to commit atrocities.

While he would have us believe he is a devout and good Buddhist, a week after the Russia visit he ordered the executions of four activists, including two prominent figures.

Prior to last weekend’s executions, physicians examined the four condemned convicts. Two of the inmates had for decades been high-profile figures in Myanmar’s nonviolent democracy struggle, but after the coup had been arrested and accused of terrorist acts including mine and urban guerrilla attacks. Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, 41, was a former member of Parliament for the National League for Democracy, and Ko Kyaw Min Yu, 53, better known as Ko Jimmy, was a well-known activist. Both had already spent time as political prisoners under the previous military regime.

The other two were little known: Ko Hla Myo Aung and Ko Aung Thura Zaw were accused of murdering a woman they believed to be an informant for the regime. Early this year, they were charged and tried by a military court under an anti-terrorism law and sentenced to death. None of the four received a fair and public trial.

Last week, the physicians who examined the prisoners reportedly concluded that they were not to fit to hang. Nevertheless, the executions went ahead. The order to proceed came from none other than Min Aung Hlaing.

The coup leader even sent trusted officers from Naypyitaw to oversee the executions to make sure they were carried out in secrecy. Lt Gen Soe Htut, minister for Home Affairs, reportedly supervised the execution.

With the executions, Min Aung Hlaing might have impressed his hardcore coup supporters in the military, but otherwise the act has shocked the entire nation and surprised governments in the region and beyond.

In a letter last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the current chairman of ASEAN, appealed to the junta leader not to execute Ko Kyaw Min Yu and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw.

Min Aung Hlaing and his officers ignored the appeal from Hun Sen—one of the few leaders in the region who seemed inclined to help him and his regime gain legitimacy—choosing instead to kill his hostages. What is going on in his mind that he thought he could achieve anything from this heinous act?

Far from being persuaded to show restraint, Min Aung Hlaing in fact hardened his stance.

Since the coup, the regime has deployed a strategy of annihilation, conducting clearance operations against both the armed opposition and the civilian population.

In June, the junta chief sent detained State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose elected government he ousted, from house arrest to solitary confinement in a prison in Naypyitaw. ( Ko Zeya Thaw was close to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and accompanied her on her first trip to China in 2015. She has learned about his execution, which is believed to have been intended in part as a message to her, an attempt to break her spirit. A regime-friendly social media post even celebrated that “Suu Kyi’s little husband” had been hanged.)

Min Aung Hlaing has also tightened his grip on the country, sending jet fighters and helicopters to attack resistance forces and civilian areas. He and his regime seem to have little interest in winning the hearts and minds of the population.

Or were the executions a desperate move by the junta to show strength?

Like psychopaths, Min Aung Hlaing and some of his commanders seem to believe that showing brute force and sowing terror are the only ways to deal with the people and regime opponents.

However, they will never win. The executions will backfire, as he has simply poured more fuel onto the fire of opposition to his regime.

The junta does not seem to worry or care much about consequences. Overnight, the four executed prisoners have become revolutionary heroes, and Min Aung Hlaing has gained zero. Perhaps he is motivated solely by personal hatred for the democratic opposition? If so, this is the revenge he has long been waiting for.

With the military having enjoyed legal impunity in Myanmar for decades, the regime, like its predecessors, feels free to commit mass atrocities, human rights violations, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests and detention.

The fear is that the weekend’s executions won’t be the last; dozens of Myanmar citizens have been sentenced to death since the coup.

The junta spokesman told a news conference in the capital, Naypyidaw, “We proceeded with the laws to keep the stability of the country in line with the rule of law.”

Striking a defiant note, he said the four were sentenced legally by the courts, adding: “I will repeat that their acts should be sentenced to death multiple times.”

Min Aung Hlaing knows he can get away with crimes. Before the coup, he famously said, “There is nothing I dare not do.”

He and his commanders know the outcry and condemnation from abroad will soon subside.

Last year, I encountered a mid-ranking military officer who scoffed at the international condemnation and protests in Myanmar against the coup.

Referring to the international condemnation and protests, he said that “they can shout and scream if they want, but they will get tired and exhausted; then they will quieten down.”

The US said there can be no “business as usual” with the junta following its execution of the four democracy activists, adding that all options were on the table as it considered further measures to punish the regime.

In reality, though, Min Aung Hlaing is feeling little pressure. If he did, he wouldn’t order such cruel and cowardly executions. As former US ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel put it, after Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the Myanmar regime is the worst Southeast Asia has known.

US sanctions might have been tightened, but Min Aung Hlaing still believes he has friends and allies he can count on, including Russia, China, India and Japan, as well as Thailand and some others in the Southeast Asia region. He knows the international community is full of hypocrites.

No doubt Min Aung Hlaing was glad to hear from his subordinates that the executions were carried out successfully. But what did Kyaw Min Yu and Zeya Thaw utter as their last words? Along with their goodbyes to their families, perhaps they also cursed Min Aung Hlaing and the failure of ASEAN and all the other hypocrites.

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