The military junta’s execution of four pro-democracy activists earlier this week has again shone a spotlight on the appalling judgement and brutality of the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his top generals.
Since the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, conditions have deteriorated starkly – with deplorable violence, impoverishment, and the destruction both locally and abroad of any residual respect for Myanmar’s military.
Millions of Myanmar people actively oppose them, through civil disobedience or militancy. But in a misguided effort to project strength and determination, the military has shown its hollowness and desperation.
By killing pro-democracy activists Phyo Zeya Thaw, Kyaw Min Yu, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, the military regime has demonstrated its disdain for the post-coup diplomatic efforts within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and further afield.
Phyo Zeya Thaw was probably the best known of this group outside the country. He was elected to serve in parliament in April 2012 in a crucial wave of National League for Democracy byelection successes.
Shortly after that election, Phyo Zeya Thaw came to Australia, where he met with senior political and civil society figures, including Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He also spoke at the Australian National University, where he, and other freshly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) representatives, were given a rousing welcome.
Notably, Phyo Zeya Thaw was supported at the ballot box on three occasions by the people of Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, the generals’ own heavily curated symbolic centre. With his activism, rap music, policy-making, and post-coup resistance, Phyo Zeya Thaw was a giant figure in his generation’s efforts to re-shape Myanmar society.
Kyaw Min Yu, often known simply as Ko Jimmy, was also a significant player in Myanmar’s history of democratic activism and was a member of pro-democracy movement the 88 Generation Students Group. In total, he spent over 20 years in jail.
These killings are a further tragic reminder of the costs of last year’s coup and the terrible toll on Myanmar’s most courageous and capable people. They’re also exacerbating the pressures being felt by the regime at home and abroad.
Problems at home
The regime is still under immense pressure from the ongoing armed resistance. It doesn’t help that the Myanmar economy is still collapsing.
In April this year, the generals required all banks to convert most of the US dollars held in their accounts to Myanmar Kyat, the local currency, at the official rate of K$1,850 to USD$1.
Companies with at least 10% foreign ownership were exempt. But throughout July this exclusion was revoked leaving very few companies in Myanmar able to hold US dollars, such as those in Special Economic Zones.
The government’s failing economic management has caused further panic throughout the economy, with the black-market rate of Kyat to US dollars falling to around K$2,500 to the dollar. So, anyone or any company with USD in banks is losing at least 30% of its value on any exchange.
Along with other restrictions on trade and currency, there’s now almost no incentive to export goods since making a profit is virtually impossible.
With the civil disobedience movement still opposing the military, these efforts are strangling the last lifeline of the economy.
The regime is increasingly isolated
A few days before the executions, the International Court of Justice in The Hague rejected Myanmar’s four objections regarding the genocide case over the Rohingya, which means the case will be allowed to continue.
Although the court only deals with states, in reality, the military in Myanmar is primarily the target of this prosecution.
And earlier this month, Min Aung Hlaing travelled to Russia, hoping to bolster his image as an international figure. In the Myanmar state media, it was hailed as a success. However, in Russia, a country desperate for friends too, the media barely recognised the trip, embarrassingly alleging he was there on a “private visit”.
Even the ASEAN members who are usually reluctant to directly criticise Myanmar’s leaders have found the executions impossible to stomach.
What the killings tell us
This week’s executions are a failed attempt by the military leadership to exert pressure on its opponents.
After 18 months of constant fighting, they’re yet to consolidate their rule over the country, even in the cities and usually peaceful central areas of the country.
While the generals talk of holding elections next year, there’s little international appetite for engaging with the regime.
In July, the head of the UK embassy in Myanmar was forced to leave the country for refusing to present credentials to Min Aung Hlaing.
Military leaders unwilling to compromise
The executions will revitalise the resistance in some areas, where people feel they have no choice but to maintain their rage against the military and its civilian proxies. There will be more tit-for-tat violence and greater desperation amongst the security forces seeking to defend a failing regime.
The economic pressures built up over the past year are another wildcard. Myanmar people have historically taken to the streets in the biggest numbers when an economic shock makes their livelihoods untenable. We don’t know if we are approaching such a moment, but the signs for the local economy aren’t good.
With a government felled in Sri Lanka due to economic upheaval, and with repercussions from the war in Ukraine felt across Myanmar’s trading sectors, the potential for further violence is there. And we can’t ignore the prospect of even greater suffering amongst the Myanmar people.
Despite words of condemnation from the international community, there’s relatively little international support for Myanmar’s opposition forces. Compare this with the vast array of weapons, training and intelligence provided to Ukraine.
That pro-democracy activists can be executed so callously demonstrates there’s no limit to the cruel retribution the generals will inflict on those who oppose them.
However, rather than demonstrating potency and dominance to a domestic and international audience, these executions demonstrate the junta is weak, isolated and rapidly running out of options.