Myanmar: world turns blind eye as death sentences mount

Myanmar nationals living in Thailand hold pictures of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against the military coup outside Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, following the execution of four political prisoners in July 2022. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The international community has been accused of sidelining the crisis in Myanmar while the military junta uses the death penalty as a “political tool to crush opposition”.

Earlier this month, the United Nations human rights chief warned that Myanmar’s military junta had sentenced more than 130 people to death since the military coup in February last year.

The latest victims were a group of seven university students all aged between 18 and 24, and at least four youth activists. They were sentenced to death by a military court behind closed doors on the 29 and 30 November, according to Volker Türk, who accused the junta of using the death penalty as a “political tool to crush opposition.”

“The military continues to hold proceedings in secretive courts in violation of basic principles of fair trial and contrary to core judicial guarantees of independence and impartiality,” Türk said, calling for the suspension of all executions and a return to a moratorium on death penalty. “Military courts have consistently failed to uphold any degree of transparency contrary to the most basic due process or fair trial guarantees.”

Despite breaking just days after the news that Iran’s regime had issued its first death sentence to a person involved in the recent anti-government protests, the latest reports from Myanmar were not met by the same international outcry.

Civil society groups are worried that ongoing crises elsewhere, including the suppression of  protests in Iran and the ongoing war in Ukraine, are distracting the international community from  abuses being committed in Myanmar.

“Myanmar, sadly, is not seen as crucial geopolitically as perhaps Ukraine or Iran,” Cornelius Damar Hanung, Asia advocacy and campaigns officer for Civicus, a global alliance of over 10,000 civil society organisations and activists, told Geneva Solutions from Jakarta.“So there is a concern that the crisis in Myanmar will get sidelined.”

Hanung and his team have been monitoring the situation in Myanmar since the coup began, coordinating with organisations and activists both inside and outside the country to report on the extent of the junta’s crackdown and push the international community to act.

“We are facing an entity that doesn't have any regards or any respect for upholding the international human rights standards that we have,” he added. “So without strong intervention from the international community we are very afraid that these executions could escalate.”

Death penalty as a ‘tool’

Out of nearly 16,500 people who have been arrested for opposing the military’s coup, 1,700 detainees have been tried and convicted in secret ad hoc tribunals, some lasting barely a few minutes. None have been acquitted.

In July, Myanmar’s military carried out the first executions in the country in over 30 years, hanging four people including a former lawmaker and a democracy activist despite pressure from the international community, including the UN and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Speaking following the latest sentences this month, Türk accused the military of showing disdain for regional and international peace efforts through its use of the death penalty. The latest sentences bring the total number of people sentenced to capital punishment to 139.

“This is a very serious and grave human rights violation, because despite the pressure from the international community to halt the use of the death penalty, like the one in the case of the four pro-democracy activists who were executed this year, the illegal junta has continued to use this cruel and barbaric form of punishment,” said Hanung.

The use of the death penalty adds to an ever growing list of reported violations carried out by the military junta since it seized power and toppled Myanmar’s democratically elected government in February 2021. Around 2,000 people are thought to have been killed so far, and the military has been accused of bombing hospitals, schools and burning whole villages to the ground.

Around 1.3 million people have been displaced since the coup, according to the UN, and the military has been accused of destroying more than 28,000 homes. The junta has continued to pile convictions carrying lengthy prison terms on Myanmar’s deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, while rights groups report extrajudicial killings by soldiers and militias.

“We have seen a level of violation under the illegal junta that is unprecedented,” said Hanung. “There is no break from the systemic violence that is continuously happening day by day, and is escalated through airstrikes and other cruelty.

“Human rights groups have documented the killing of thousands while the perpetrators enjoy impunity, and many more languish in the detention, facing torture and ill treatment as well as trumped up charges of incitement or terrorism.”

Hanung noted numerous reports of detainees being tortured and kept in dismal conditions, with no access to legal support or their families. He said the high-profile release of around 6,000 prisoners last month was nothing more than a “PR stunt” following pressure on the junta.

“Often those who are released are rearrested shortly after without people knowing,” he added.

International community criticised

Rights groups have criticised the international community for failing to do more to hold the military junta to account.

“Our biggest concern is the systemic violence conducted by the illegal junta, which is increasing daily,” said Hanung. “At the same time, we're confronted by the lack of a strong accountability mechanism from the international community.”

Member states have been criticised for not going further in sanctioning Myanmar’s military. While some countries, including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and European Union members have imposed sanctions on the junta in an effort to cut off its revenues, others – namely Russia and China – have been accused of supporting the military through ongoing business deals and weapons supplies.

“There needs to be coordinated, targeted sanctions by all countries that have a connection with the military-owned businesses in Myanmar, because there is documentation that this revenue has been used by them to sustain their cruelty,” said Hanung. “We need to cut their revenue in as many avenues as possible. It requires coordination and cooperation by all states.”

Hanung’s words echo those of the UN’s special rapporteur on Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, in his latest address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in September.

“With each report I have warned that unless UN Member States change course in the way they collectively respond to this crisis, the people of Myanmar will suffer even further,” he said.

“Let me be frank: the people of Myanmar are deeply disappointed by the response of the international community to this crisis. They are frustrated and angered by Member States that are working to prop up this illegal and brutal military junta with funding, trade, weapons, and a veneer of legitimacy,” he added.

“But they are also disappointed by those nations that voice support for them, but then fail to back up their words with action. The stakes could not be higher”.

The UN faced criticism this month when it announced it had yet again deferred a decision on who would represent Myanmar at the UN; the sitting UN Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, appointed by the elected National Unity Government (NUG) , or a nominee of the generals who staged last year’s coup that overthrew the government.

The deadlock appeared to have come to an end on Monday, when a UN diplomat told VOA that the UN credentials committee had agreed to uphold Moe Tun’s status as the country’s ambassador. However, rights groups have argued that the UN’s indecision over Myanmar’s representation has hampered the global response to the situation in the country and risks legitimising the coup regime.

For Hanung, the international community’s response to Myanmar could offer a worrying indication of how similar crises may be met in the future.

“We have international human rights mechanisms and regional human rights mechanisms, but what's the value of these mechanisms if they cannot be used to effectively hold the illegal junta accountable and to address the human rights violations in Myanmar?” he said.

“If the international community fails on Myanmar, then you can imagine that other crises happening in other regions cannot be meaningfully addressed.”