For a macabre military that has extra-judicial executions in what passes for its soul, Myanmar’s military regime, also known as the State Administration Council (SAC), has added the first ‘judicial’ executions in over 30 years to its post-coup killing spree, with the state murders of anti-coup activists Ko Jimmy, Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, Ko Aung Thura Zaw and Ko Hla Myo Aung.
Why has the hanging of four regime opponents evinced such shock and outrage, when the junta has killed at least 2,120 people, likely many more, since the military takeover? By some estimates, a third of those killed were murdered in custody, dying due to ill-treatment and torture. Now consider that 11,782 people remain in detention, including youth protestors, members of parliament, former chief ministers, journalists and others. Not all of them face charges that carry a death sentence. But what is certain anymore in Myanmar? Increasingly, it must be seen that the country’s 54 million-odd people could potentially be facing a death sentence.
One possible answer why the executions were so shocking, and not just because of the high profile of Ko Jimmy and Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, was that it was a form of torture, of suspense over whether the death sentence would be carried out since their arrest last year and sentencing in January. This is beyond cruel and unusual punishment: it is mental cruelty on a serial killer level.
It shouldn’t have taken the execution of four dissidents to think of coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s regime now in the same category as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or a 1980s Latin American dictatorship. That should have been evident since the day of the coup, given his decade-long killing spree during the so called ‘transition. But Min Aung Hlaing’s Myanmar is a new category of repressive military junta: a murder republic.
Why does a hanging seem more appalling than an airstrike? It shouldn’t, and killing at a distance isn’t as impersonal as people may believe. It’s actually extremely personal because it says ‘I want to kill all of you in that place and any strike, barrage or stray shell is equal when I don’t care about any of you’. Landmines and booby traps also seem impersonal, but when you’re the one laying them you know exactly what it will do to the person who trips it, and there is an enforced intimacy in that even if you never see the person you kill or maim.
The shoot on sight policies in ethnic conflict zones for many years and the use of thousands of convict porters left a trail of dead in the jungles across the eastern borderlands of Myanmar. The neo-medieval post-coup killing across the country, as the coup has sparked a wave of violence, now appears impossible to contain. The setting on fire of more than 30 unarmed civilians in vehicles last Christmas Eve in Kayah State. Torching a house with a learning-challenged teenage girl inside. The use of military snipers to kill unarmed protesters in Mandalay. The raising of death squads with the name ‘Blood Drinkers Group’. Hoarding corpses and extorting family members to buy them back. All of these atrocities and more are part of the same approach to repression as hanging four men at Yangon’s Insein Prison.
Speculation has swirled in recent weeks predicting the demise of the Myanmar military, known locally as the sit-tat, and the looming victory of the People’s Defense Forces of the National Unity Government, adding to a growing canon of aspirational analysis that has often misread the dynamics of a complex conflict. Some observers may see the hangings as an expression of the regime’s desperation, setting an example for resistance cells to cease urban operations, or to intimidate the population to ensure no more support for the armed resistance movement. It could be seen not as strength but weakness.
Or is it simply that Min Aung Hlaing and his senior colleagues have just expanded their killers repertoire? The symbolism of the executions is intended for the domestic audience. Perhaps the message of the executions is simply, “we are willing to kill our way out of this, by any means”.
The murders of the four men also underscore that the architecture of international engagement is no longer fit for purpose. By executing them, Min Aung Hlaing has told the international community exactly what he thinks of it. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can stick it, that one-eyed killer Hun Sen’s entreaty to spare the condemned was simply sneered at. In Min Aung Hlaing’s twisted mind, Cambodia’s Prime Minister and dictator is retiring soon so that loser doesn’t need any favors. Coming so soon after ASEAN Envoy Prak Sokhonn’s visit after which he expressed guarded optimism to Channel News Asia, it was clear that his pandering to the SAC achieved nothing. His plan to use Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during his next trip in September to help quell the violence was and is delusional: it is not impossible for her to end up on the gallows in the murder republic.
For ASEAN, which has been unusually unsuccessful, even for them, the executions sparked a garble of messages between shock and whimper, a Chairman’s statement claiming it “denounces and is strongly disappointed by the execution of four opposition activists… (t)his is an issue that ASEAN takes seriously… (w)hile the complexity of the crisis is well recognized and the extreme bellicose mood can be felt from all corners of Myanmar… (t)he implementation of the death sentences, just a week before the 55th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting is highly reprehensible as it created a setback to and present a gross lack of will to support the efforts [of ASEAN mediation].” What will the regional grouping do now? Likely more of the same tired commitment to the failed peace plan that is the Five-Point Consensus. But they should seriously consider expelling Myanmar from ASEAN, if they don’t want to continue to be humiliated by the junta.
As for the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy, if that droning non-entity Noeleen Heyzer wants to make a positive impact rather than issue formulaic statements of concern she should resign immediately and call on the UN Secretary General to construct a more robust campaign of pressure on the SAC. Continuing the same ineffectual approach is tantamount to endorsing the executions. It tells the SAC that they can indeed get away with murders across the land and not have them raised in anything other than general and dehumanized terms, lest they upset the sensibilities of the coup leader. Would she honestly go and shake hands with Min Aung Hlaing now, even if the regime gave her a visa? Just resign, and do so in a manner attuned to Myanmar public sentiment. It’s the only good thing she could possibly do now.
The statement issued by the UN Security Council days after the executions indicated absolute business as usual, by endorsing the role of the Special Envoy and, most galling to the point of an insult to the Myanmar people, “reiterated their strong support to ASEAN and the efforts of the ASEAN Chair and echoed ASEAN’s call for concrete actions to effectively and fully implement the Five-Point Consensus.” For activists calling for stronger Security Council action, the answer is a firm no.
International human rights groups are just as irrelevant at times like this, bound to stagnant language exhorting the international community to act, articulating shock but expressing resigned helplessness. The international media just went through its tired motions. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet was “dismayed”, while two UN Special Rapporteurs stated that: “These depraved acts must be a turning point for the international community. What more must the junta do before the international community is willing to take strong action?” Fine words, but will that actually happen? Nothing the UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews has said since the coup has been in any measurable way effective.
The UN and international aid agencies inside Myanmar have become accessories to the murder republic: profiting from ‘danger pay’, but loving the freedom of long, lavish weekends partying in Bangkok and braying it all over social media like salt on a wound. The international community remaining in Yangon pretending things are ‘stable’ or ‘normal’ is dancing on the graves of dead Myanmar people. They are putting at risk, daily, routinely, with nonchalance, their Myanmar colleagues, especially the neo-colonial racist UN who pay national staff less to take more risk and shield overpaid ignorant foreign factotums to curry favor with the SAC. All of those UN officials schlepping up to Naypyitaw to fist-bump the SAC are defiling the very principles of neutrality they espouse.
None of this connivance is in any way new, and I can just picture the pompous UN and international NGO mandarins around the office water cooler, or the Lotte Hotel lunch buffet, dismissing this criticism as just another well-worn rant. Well, that’s because you’re still committing a crime of complicity and you know you’re still getting away with it. After the hangings, what are you still doing there?
For all these covens and conclaves of international organizations and slimy ‘advisors’ seeking solutions to ‘reboot the peace process’ or seeing some slim chance of working with the SAC on the 2023 ‘elections’ or maybe some technical fixes on a census here or there, you have crossed the line into active collaboration. You’re dealing with Min Aung Hlaing and his killer clique, your ‘off ramps’ and ‘exit lanes’ and ‘entry points’ and incentivizing and inducement to mediation won’t work.
The executions may well spur urban resistance, in non-violent demonstrations and escalated targeted killings and bombings which have already risen in recent weeks. If Min Aung Hlaing’s vision is of a society tearing itself apart through increasing political violence, divided by class and comfort, or ‘the green people’ [the military] and those starving and desperate, some driven to crime, riven by sectarian and ethnic animus, with the military atop the carnage, stoking it, eventually refulgent as the lords of the wasteland, he might be right.
This is another feature of Min Aung Hlaing’ murder republic, turning a younger generation into killers themselves who see nothing wrong with gunning down members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a local official suspected of being dalan [a junta informant], or celebrating war criminals such as Ner Dah Mya for executing 25 unarmed men in Kayin State in 2021. The military would welcome a dystopian death culture of vengeance killings.
But there is another permutation of that calculus of chaos. That the descent into unrestricted warfare on multiple fronts renders an eventual defeat of the military more likely. The more the disparate forces of anti-SAC resistance can work in their own ways to weaken the military and make their position untenable, their use of extreme atrocity no longer intimidating and their supplies of heavy weaponry exhausted, they will crumble. But as Milton wrote, “long is the way and hard, that leads out of hell into the light.”
But there is one certainty to that victory scenario. Min Aung Hlaing and his inner circle will face justice eventually. It should ideally prove more humanistic than what the murderers of the SAC have meted out to the people of Myanmar. Which could be up against a wall facing a firing squad. That’s what tyrants should fear.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human right issues.
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