Guest Column

Myanmar Military’s Long History of Executing its Enemies

By Bertil Lintner 26 July 2022

The hangings of National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw, pro-democracy veteran Kyaw Min Yu, widely known as ‘Ko Jimmy’, Ko Hla Myo Aung and Ko Aung Thura Zaw have caused outrage around the world, and clearly show that it is a folly to believe that any kind of dialogue with the thugs in power in Naypyitaw is possible or would be the way forward.

The Association of Southeast East Asian Nations (ASEAN) who, along with others, has promoted that kind of engagement with the junta has a lot to answer for. After a visit to Myanmar earlier this month, ASEAN special envoy and Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn acknowledged the lack of progress, but went on to urge all concerned parties to show “patience in peace-building and openness…in working toward elections there.” But that statement should come as no surprise, because Prak Sokhonn represents a government that has also manipulated elections and crushed opposition to its rule.

It should also be remembered in this context that extrajudicial executions have been occurring for decades in Myanmar, especially in ethnic minority areas where the Myanmar military conducts its operations with impunity. Furthermore, many political dissidents have died after being tortured in Myanmar’s prisons, but death sentences resulting in hangings are rare.

The last time it is known to have happened was on April 6, 1985 when Zin Mo, a North Korean agent, was executed at Yangon’s Insein Prison. On October 9, 1983, he and two other North Koreans had placed a bomb in a monument in Yangon dedicated to Myanmar’s 1947 martyrs. It was intended for visiting South Korea President Chun Doo-hwan, who had planned to lay a wreath at the site. But the bomb detonated early, sparing its target, although 21 other people lost their lives, 17 of them visiting South Koreans, including Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok. One of the bombers, Kim Chi O, was shot during the chase for the culprits and died from his injuries shortly after his arrest. The life of the third bomber, Kang Min Chul, was spared because he cooperated with the prosecution. He died from liver cancer at Insein on May 18, 2008.

Ko Jimmy (Far Left), Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw (Second from Left), Ko Hla Myo Aung (Third from Left) and Ko Aung Thura Zaw (Far Right)

In the mid-1970s, two dissidents were hanged at Insein. One of them was Salai Tin Maung Oo, an ethnic Chin pro-democracy activist, who was executed on June 26, 1976. He had gone underground after taking part in protests that erupted after the body of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant had been returned to Burma from New York in December 1974. U Thant, a vocal critic of the then military dictator, General Ne Win, had died the previous month.

Following the crackdown on the protesters, Salai Tin Maung Oo was one of many activists who fled to the Thai border. There, he joined an underground resistance group. He returned secretly to Yangon in late March 1976 to take part in anti-government demonstrations to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, the father of the independence movement that emerged in the 1930s and included personalities like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San. Salai Tin Maung Oo was arrested on March 22, a day before the planned demonstrations, allegedly with a pistol in his possession. He was sentenced to death and hanged three months later. His last words before his executions are reported to have been: “I will never kneel down to your military boots.”

A year later, another execution was carried out at Insein, this time of a different kind of dissident. The suppression of the student-led movement for democracy combined with the failure of General Ne Win’s so-called “Burmese Way to Socialism”, which had ruined the economy, caused a rift within the junta’s leadership. A bright young captain called Ohn Kyaw Myint began plotting against Ne Win’s dictatorship. Ohn Kyaw Myint was a Yangon University graduate and had then completed Officer Training School, Batch 29, with the best cadet award. He went onto become the personal assistant to the then army chief, General Kyaw Htin. Ohn Kyaw Myint, though, saw what direction the nation was heading in politically as well as economically, and he and his comrades came to the realization that there was no other solution to Myanmar’s problems than to overthrow the Ne Win regime.

But when it became clear that Ne Win’s secret police, euphemistically called the ‘Military Intelligence Service’ (MIS), had become aware of the plot, Ohn Kyaw Myint went to the residence of the US ambassador in Yangon on July 2, 1976, told him about the abortive coup attempt and asked for political asylum. The young officer was turned away and arrested shortly afterwards.

The aftermath of the 1983 bombing of the Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Yangon by North Korean agents.

Government media made no mention of the attempted coup until July 20, when the Burma Broadcasting Service issued a bulletin stating that eleven captains and three majors had been arrested for plotting to assassinate Ne Win, his close companion General San Yu and other state leaders. Also arrested were two colonels who were charged with dereliction of duty. Several of those arrested were graduates of the Defense Services Academy (DSA) in Maymyo, now Pyin Oo Lwin, which shows the possible extent of the plot. Win Htein, an officer who had graduated top of his class in 1963 from the fifth intake of the DSA, was among those dismissed.

Their trial began in September and, to the surprise of many, former army chief General Tin Oo appeared in the prisoners’ dock. He was charged with having prior knowledge of the coup attempt but failing to inform the military authorities. On 11 January 1977, he was sentenced to seven years of hard labor and imprisonment according to the Crime Against the State and High Treasons Act. The actual reason for his arrest and punishment is believed to have been that those who demonstrated in March 1976 had shouted “Long live General Tin Oo!”

Tin Oo was released during a general amnesty in 1980 and, after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, became a leader of the NLD. Win Htein also joined the pro-democracy movement, spending 20 years in jail altogether under former dictator Senior General Than Shwe for his political activities. He was released from prison for the third time in 2010 and was elected as an NLD MP in the April 2012 by-elections. Win Htein was arrested again after last year’s coup and, on October 29, sentenced to 20 years in prison for criticizing the military takeover.

Two days before the arrest of Ohn Kyaw Myint was announced, a prominent army veteran had left Yangon, possibly to evade being apprehended: ex-Brigadier-General Kyaw Zaw, one of the legendary Thirty Comrades and the hero of the anti-Kuomintang campaigns in the mid-1950s. He had been dismissed in April 1957, allegedly for having contacts with the outlawed Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The actual reason could have been that Ne Win, who was then plotting to take over power, which he eventually did in a 1962 coup, saw Kyaw Zaw as a rival who had to be dealt with. Kyaw Zaw was definitely more popular than the playboy general Ne Win. On July 18, 1976, Kyaw Zaw traveled with his family across the border with China near Namkham in northern Shan State.

About a month later, Kyaw Zaw’s voice was heard on the CPB’s clandestine radio station, denouncing the Ne Win regime. This time, he had joined the CPB. The timing of Kyaw Zaw’s disappearance was hardly a coincidence, although no evidence was ever produced to link him — or Tin Oo — to the plot, but some of the arrested officers are reported to have mentioned those two as their preferences for state leaders instead of the universally despised Ne Win. Kyaw Zaw fled to China after the 1989 mutiny among the hill tribe rank-and-file of the CPB and died in Kunming on October 10, 2012 at the age of 92.

Ohn Kyaw Myint was found guilty of high treason and hanged on July 27, 1977. His coup attempt, and the number of officers who took part in it or may have been sympathetic to the plot, must have shaken Ne Win, who expected everyone in the armed forces to be loyal to him. More than 200 officers were taken in for questioning in the aftermath of the coup attempt, while over 50,000 members of the then ruling Burma Socialist Program Party were dismissed. Army officers in the field were shifted around and many of the professionals were transferred or forced to retire. Other less competent, but loyal, officers were promoted, among them General Saw Maung, junta leader from 1988 to 1992, and his successor, Than Shwe.

After the 1976-77 purges, Myanmar’s armed forces were also streamlined to the extent that if became impossible to distinguish interest groups among them, let alone factions or possible rivals to the top leaders. Challenging authority became out of the question. Ne Win also strengthened the MIS, whose duty was to track down and identity possible dissidents among the population at large but, more importantly, within the armed forces. And that is where we are today: a military that is not a professional force but works and functions in a way that can best be described as feudal and deeply rooted in traditional authoritarian values where the king was God. The supreme ruler demands and rewards loyalty and disowns and punishes those who dare to be different.

But can there, despite everything, be another Ohn Kyaw Myint? Only time will tell, but the most recent executions must have alarmed at least some army officers. After all, they knew even before the hangings that they were hated by the general public. Now they are despised even more.

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