When Thazin Nyunt Aung first learned that her husband had been executed by the Myanmar army, her feelings “could not be expressed in words”.
But as reality set in, a steely resolve set in.
“Now I have to do more to bring about this revolution,” she told Al Jazeera.
Her husband, Phyo Zeyar Thaw, 41, was arrested in November 2021. The last conversation she had with him before their separation was one they had had several times before.
“It was an understanding between us,” she said. “If something happens to one of us, whoever is left has to fight until the end.”
In 2012, rapper Phyo Zeyar Thaw swapped his microphone for a parliamentarian’s robe while the by-elections swept away Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s much-heralded transition to democracy. This month he was executed along with three other political prisoners, in the first application of the death penalty in the country in decades.
The four men, who also included prominent activist Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, were accused of organizing or participating in armed resistance against the military, which seized power in the coup of February 2021 after the NLD returned to power in a landslide.
Even when he was taking a break from music to work in the House of Representatives – the Pyithu Hluttaw – Phyo Zeyar Thaw never stopped listening to rappers like Eminem and Snoop Dogg. He decided not to seek re-election and to resume his musical career in 2020, believing that the country was on the right track.
Thazin Nyunt Aung said one of her fondest memories with her husband was the night of November 8, 2020, when the election results came in.
“Zeyar Thaw did not contest this election, but he campaigned for the NLD anyway,” she explained. “During the campaign, I went with Zeyar Thaw and met a lot of people who believed in his political views, liked him and trusted him.”
A member of the militant collective Rap Against Junta said the last time he saw Phyo Zeyar Thaw was the day before the coup, when they went out to eat grilled pork chops together in Yangon. Despite his decision not to seek re-election, he has not denied his time in politics.
“He told me that as an activist you can only push for the cause. As a politician you can literally bring about change,” he said.
He says that despite Phyo Zeyar Thaw’s fame, he was always down-to-earth and encouraged young people in the hip-hop scene. “He knew that the new generation was the one who [are] will shape the future of a country,” he said.
Fears more to come
The executions raised fears that other political prisoners were also in imminent danger.
More than 70 people are death corridor (others were convicted in absentia) for opposing the coup, including nine women, according to the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners (AAPP), which tracks the military crackdown. The AAPP says more than 2,100 civilians have been killed by the military since the coup, including dozens in military custody.
AAPP director Bo Kyi said it was “more dangerous” to be a political prisoner now than in any other anti-military “uprising” in Myanmar’s history. “The prison establishment is used as a weapon to oppress the people,” he said.
Asked if the military was likely to use the death penalty again, he said it was “difficult to predict a rational process” from the military government. But he says it’s clear that “the more desperate they are, the more brutal they become”.
Burmese-American journalist Nathan Maung, who spent three months in prison for reporting on the coup, says he fears more than 100 more people could be executed.
“I am deeply concerned for my colleagues and friends in the prisons,” he said, saying the executions will have sent a shiver of fear not just in the prisons but across the country.
Since the killing, unverified rumors have been circulating frantically on social networks. One claims that three other prisoners have already been secretly executed, another that 41 would be executed imminently. When prominent protest leader Wai Moe Naing, who was charged with murder with little evidence, was allowed to meet his mother this week, many feared it would be for a final goodbye.
Meanwhile, most of the top NLD leaders toppled – including the beloved State Councilor Aung San Suu KyiPresident Win Myint and Mandalay Chief Minister Zaw Myint Maung remain in military custody.
Political analyst Khin Zaw Win says “anything is possible” under the so-called State Board of Generals. “Last year, there were concerns about the safety and even the life of Aung San Suu Kyi,” he said.
He says the executions could represent the army’s desperation and desire to “avenge its own substantial losses in battle”.
Since the coup, resistance to the army has exploded across Myanmar, as anti-coup armed groups team up with ethnic armed groups who fought for political autonomy for decades. Their success on the battlefield surprised analysts and probably the army itself, which was unable to exercise administrative control over large swaths of the country.
“It’s like saying – ‘if you continue the attacks, we will kill the prisoners we have taken.’ The life of a prisoner of war has no value in the army’s scheme of things,” said Khin Zaw Win, adding that from the army’s “erroneous view” death row inmates are “the most dangerous”.
Call for international action
International condemnation was swift and severe.
As chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia penned an unusually harsh letter condemning the timing of the executions – just a week before an ASEAN summit – as “very reprehensible” and showing a “flagrant lack of will” to resolve the crisis.
The 15-member United Nations Security Council, which includes major arms suppliers to the military, China and Russia, has also condemned unanimously the move, just like the G7.
Bo Kyi says the international community must take action to prevent more violence.
“Our neighbors have a duty to stop these atrocities in Burma,” he said.
The executions took place just days after Cambodia’s foreign minister suggested improving military representation in the regional bloc.
Since October 2021, military leader Min Aung Hlaing and his foreign minister have been barred from high-level ASEAN summits, but lower-level ministers have been allowed to continue attending meetings. Today, Malaysia, which took the lead in pushing back against the regime, suggested excluding all military-appointed ministers. He also condemned the murders as a ‘crime against humanity‘.
But Nathan Maung says the international community has so far been all talk and no action.
“I believe that the Myanmar army understood that the international community would not do anything against them. … I would blame the international community, including ASEAN and Burma’s immediate neighbors China, India and Thailand,” he said.
As Cambodia pushes for negotiations between the army and its opponents, Khin Zaw Win says the executions have made this “impossible”.
“Anyone proposing that would be considered crazy,” he said.
Far from backing down, the military defended the executions, saying the men “deserved many death sentences”. In plain clothes freak gathered to throw stones at the houses of the relatives of the executed militants. The military has also refused to return the bodies or tell families when exactly they were killed, hampering Buddhist religious ceremonies for the dead.
“It shows the extreme cruelty of their nature and is an extreme violation of human rights also for the families,” said Thazin Nyunt Aung, adding that it could be a tactic to further scare other opponents of the government. military.
“It’s actually not a judicial execution, it’s just a murder. The military want everyone who fights against them dead, and they only want power and wealth in their own hands.