From virtually the moment Myanmar’s military overthrew the country’s democratically elected government last year, the generals have faced a popular uprising that they met with escalating brutality. Even so, their decision last week to put to death — by hanging — four high-profile democracy advocates sparked shock and outrage at home and around the world. USIP’s Jason Tower, Priscilla Clapp and Billy Ford discuss what is behind the coup regime’s bloody move and its implications for Myanmar and international efforts to bring peace and democracy to the Southeast Asian country.

Protesters demonstrate after the military took power in a coup, Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 8, 2021. The regime announced Monday that it had executed four pro-democracy activists, the first executions in Myanmar in more than three decades. (The New York Times)
Protesters demonstrate after the military took power in a coup, Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 8, 2021. The regime announced Monday that it had executed four pro-democracy activists, the first executions in Myanmar in more than three decades. (The New York Times)

Who were the executed activists and why did the coup regime target them?

Phyoe Zeyar Thaw was a celebrity rapper-turned-lawmaker with the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and a close ally of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. An artistic pioneer and cultural icon, he became politically active during the 2007 Saffron Revolution and was elected to parliament in 2012. He was murdered by the junta alongside three other activists: Aung Thura Zaw, Ko Myo Wetgyi and Ko Jimmy. Ko Jimmy has been a constant high-profile figure in the pro-democracy movement since the 1988 Revolution. He spent more than 20 years in prison, where he met his wife, Nilar Thein, who is also one of Burma’s best-known activists. The other two are a citizen journalist and a protest leader.

The junta’s motivation for these executions is simply survival. The regime long ago abandoned any meaningful effort to demonstrate its value to the Myanmar people or engage in a process of de-escalation or dialogue. In defiance of international pressure and with few consequences, the generals employ fear and violence to try to beat the population into submission. Despite the junta’s daily atrocities and war crimes, the strength of the opposition has only grown. As the junta’s prospects worsen, its methods — as evidenced by these executions — have become even more barbaric.

The same day as the executions, a three-year-old boy in northeast Burma was killed by junta artillery shellstwo village elders were killed in southern Myanmar for supporting the resistance and an ex-NLD member was tortured to death in an interrogation camp. There are at least 115 others political prisoners who have received death sentences and reports are circulating that the junta intends to execute 41 more political prisoners in the coming days.

Why is the regime so insecure at this point?

The coup regime’s apparent disregard for outside opinion, even that of its strongest regional supporters, suggests the generals are becoming increasingly desperate over failing to gain control of the country in the 18 months since they grabbed power.

Despite the military’s unbridled brutality, armed rebellion against the coup regime has only grown fiercer month by month throughout the country, capturing more territory, stretching the military’s resources and spurring defections by rank-and-file members.

The longer the army must fight on so many fronts, the more attrition it suffers in manpower and materiel and the erosion is already serious. These executions illustrate the extent to which the junta has lost touch with reality, including on the battlefield. While the generals may have calculated that murdering well-known opposition figures would strike fear in the resistance, it has instead further emboldened the Myanmar people to scale up their efforts to end the military’s reign of terror.

Almost immediately after the military announced  the activists’ executions , the powerful Arakan Army – which had largely maintained a cease-fire negotiated with the military just before the coup — issued a statement condemning the killings and declared that peace is now “impossible.” Shortly afterwards, a coalition of pro-democracy resistance groups, including three major ethnic armed organizations, released an unprecedented joint statement declaring their intention to fight “unitedly and relentlessly to advance a people’s revolution to successfully eradicate the fascist military dictatorship as soon as possible.” These groups included the incumbent party toppled by the February 1, 2021 coup, the NLD, along with the Committee Representing Senate and House of Representatives for Myanmar and the National Unity Government. Armed groups joining the announcement included the Chin National Front, the Karen National Union, the Karenni National Progressive Party and the All-Burma Student’s Democratic Front.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Myanmar’s multitude of People’s Defense Forces have already launched numerous attacks against military targets in response to this provocative act. In Sagaing State, a series of joint attacks were launched on July 26 by the powerful Kachin Independence Army and local PDF groups, pushing the junta out of additional villages in the north. To the south of the country, resistance fighters released a video of PDF attacks on military posts in Mon State, while other PDF groups have already released statements indicating that armed resistance to the military will grow in the coming days.

The junta appears unmoved by the global outcry over the executions. With little regard for its international reputation, is there a way for outside actors to influence the situation?

While the population continues to show resolve in standing up to the military, deep divisions within the international community continue to render impotent actions of states committed to ending violence and restoring democracy. China, which has deep geo-strategic interests in Burma, and which maintains influence over a wide array of powerful ethnic armed organizations controlling significant territories along the China-Myanmar borderlands, has more influence over the trajectory of the conflict than any other state. Since the coup, it has been one of the staunchest supporters of the junta regime, signing a series of new business deals, and partnering with the junta to deepen regional partnerships such as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Forum (LMC), which seeks to enhance Chinese influence in mainland Southeast Asia. China’s convening of the LMC Foreign Minister’s meeting in Myanmar clearly emboldened the junta in the weeks leading up to the executions, and likely played a role in the junta’s ultimate decision to move forward with them. While other states quickly condemned the executions, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs parroted the junta’s own defense of its actions as tied to fighting "terrorism." At a press conference in Beijing hours after news of the executions broke, a spokesperson washed China's hands of the matter, saying that China “always adheres to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.”

With Chinese support for the coup regime growing, and with China increasingly pressuring Myanmar’s neighbors in mainland Southeast Asia to adopt a similar approach, international efforts to support the return of democracy will likely have limited impact, unless a much stronger coalition of states at the regional level begin to mobilize robust support for the resistance. One possible approach would be for the United States, Japan, India and Australia to collectively decide to make efforts to hold the Myanmar army accountable for its crimes and to restore democracy in Burma one of the top priorities in both the Quad and in their bilateral relationships. This might help empower Thailand to significantly scale up cross-border assistance to the embattled population, while also signaling to China a much higher level of international resolve to end the Myanmar military’s campaigns of violence and destruction.

Ultimately, the most effective outside intervention would be a blockade on the military’s access to material support, but this cannot be accomplished without agreement among those supplying weapons and other vital resources, especially Russia and China.

The executions were carried out in advance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministerial next week. As some ASEAN nations issue stark rebukes of the decision, could this signal a shift in the bloc’s approach to the coup regime?

ASEAN is experiencing clear internal divisions about how to manage its approach to the crisis in Myanmar, so we should not expect much from the coming ministerial beyond a rhetorical response. On the one hand, Malaysia spoke out very strongly against the junta’s actions, declaring the executions had made a mockery of ASEAN’s plan to address the crisis. On the other hand, states like Thailand and Laos remained silent on the issue, and while Cambodia publicly issued a statement of condemnation in its role as chair, it demonstrated no interest in pushing for a more robust response.

While ASEAN warned the junta against carrying out these executions, given the divisions, and Cambodia’s limited political will to move counter to China’s interests, it would be surprising to see the ministerial meeting make any progress on placing further restrictions on the junta or facilitating access to the country for international humanitarian assistance to the resistance. What could potentially help ASEAN identify a way forward would be for Indonesia, as the incoming chair for 2023, and Singapore to work closely with Malaysia ahead of the meeting to take up the Malaysia foreign minister’s suggestion around rethinking ASEAN’s five-point plan for addressing the crisis. As suggested by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, one possible move might be instituting regional travel bans on the junta and its proxies, or potentially suspending the junta’s working-level participation in ASEAN and other regional platforms until it releases the political leadership and agrees to step down.

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