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Executions of Four Democracy Activists Intensifies Fight for Freedom in Myanmar

July 25, 2022

Myanmar’s military recently executed four pro-democracy activists in what is believed to be the first use of capital punishment in the southeast Asian country (also known as Burma) in more than three decades. In closed-door trials earlier this year, the activists were sentenced to death for carrying out “brutal and inhumane terror acts” by helping militias fight the army that overthrew the democratically-elected government in February 2021.

Despite concerns that the accusations were unfounded, the four Burmese activists were executed in secret on Saturday. Former legislator Phyo Zeya Thaw, veteran activist Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw were killed by hanging.

The rapper-turned-lawmaker Phyo Zeya Thaw was part of the National League for Democracy, the party of imprisoned leader Aung Suu Kyi, who was overthrown in the military coup. Ko Jimmy was the leader of the 88 Generation activist group that stood up to the regime of former dictator Ne Win.

Last month, United Nations representatives urged the junta to not proceed with the executions. In a statement, the U.N. addressed the authoritarian military rule, saying, “These death sentences, handed down by an illegitimate court of an illegitimate junta, are a vile attempt at instilling fear among the people of Myanmar.”

President of Christian Freedom International, Wendy Wright, told The Washington Stand that her team was first notified of the executions by a Burmese pastor they support. 

“For over 70 years, Christian ethnic minorities have been targeted by the ruling party. Christians are a particular target for the junta because those who are not Buddhist and not part of the ruling Burmese majority are seen as opposition. And so it’s very discouraging to see that over a year and a half after the coup, the fighting continues and seems to be escalating,” Wright said. 

According to the China Human Rights Organization, approximately 727 homes and churches were torched by the junta between September 2021 and January 2022. Since the coup, nearly 1,500 people have died and almost 400,000 have been displaced. 

Wright’s contact in Myanmar emphasized that the democracy activists were well respected by the Burmese. 

“He warned that these executions will lead to more fighting and more difficulties for the citizens,” shared Wright. 

Christian International has been supporting Christ-followers in Myanmar for over 20 years by providing food, resources, and training to youth at a border town school they founded.

“Over the last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) documented a marked increase in persecution against Christians in Burma by the military. We can expect this to continue — the military, no doubt, intends for the recent executions to act as a warning for anyone that steps out of line,” explained Arielle Del Turco, assistant director of the Center of Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. 

“The military is also driving a harmful Buddhist nationalist ideology — in doing so, it is pushing religious minorities further out to the margins of society,” she added. 

On April 6, the U.S. House passed the “Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2021,” or the BURMA Act, which requires the U.S. Department of State to report to Congress on the military coup in Myanmar. Should it pass in the Senate and be enacted into law, this bill will authorize over $450 million in humanitarian aid and support for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar over the next five years. 

Del Turco commented on the bill saying, “Legislation that enables and requires targeted sanctions against those committing atrocities abroad are always welcome steps towards addressing human rights crises.”

Beyond aid and advocating for religious freedom protections, Wright urges Christians in America to pray for Burmese Christians enduring persecution. 

Deborah Laker serves as a staff writer at The Washington Stand.