Myanmar coup one year on: military junta threatens first executions in decades

The Conversation

Prisons in Myanmar have been ordered to clean the gallows, in an apparent preparation for the execution of 101 political prisoners who have been sentenced to death since the military coup one year ago. These would be the first official executions in the country in over three decades.

It is almost a year to the day since newly elected members of parliament were supposed to take their seats following the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory the previous November. Instead, they were arrested by the military together with President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since then, the military junta has oppressed the population through forced disappearances, torture, arrests, killings and intimidation, including forcing people from their homes and burning villages. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an organisation set up by former political prisoners from Myanmar, 1,503 people have been killed and 11,838 arrested by the junta for taking part in the resistance movement. While many have already lost their lives in the fight for democracy, the order to clean the gallows marks a shift from battlefield deaths or extrajudicial killings in torture and interrogation, to killings condoned by the justice system.

This escalation of state violence and intimidation is significant, as the last executions to be carried out in Myanmar occurred in 1988. While the death penalty has remained part of the legal system and is occasionally used by judges, Myanmar has de facto abolished it. Those who have received the sentence for the past 30 years have later seen it commuted to life imprisonment, or been released on amnesties.

While the gallows have not been in use for decades, they represent extreme fear and horror within Myanmar prisons, where people have been kept on death row under multiple political regimes. In my research, I have found that authoritarian practices are still carried out in the prisons today. These practices are the legacy from former authoritarian regimes and indicate the weakness of the democratic transition of recent years, which has now abruptly come to an end.

In a 2018 interview for this research, a former prison officer described how when the gallows were last in use, most prison staff tried to avoid tasks concerned with the executions. Taking part in these traumatic experiences clearly violated their Buddhist religion. Military staff were stationed in the prisons to do these tasks instead. Even without being in charge of the executions, the same former officer described how he and his colleagues would get drunk on the nights after executions to erase the traumatic memory of them.

Legality of executions

A return to the use of the gallows in Myanmar would be a tragedy not only for those executed and their families, but also for the executioners and for all the people who would live in fear of execution. However, when I spoke with two former political prisoners who had themselves served time on death row under the previous military junta about the possibility of a return of executions, fear was not the first emotion that came to mind.

One, who had spent years on death row before his sentence was commuted to life, then release, said that the process of conducting executions legally could take years. Prisoners sentenced to death would have the right to appeal, a process that would have to be carried out before executions could take place.

He concluded that the prison authorities might very well have been ordered to clean the gallows, but they would have to clean them again in a couple years’ time if the authorities were to use the standard legal process that was followed when he was on death row. In spite of the atrocities committed by the current military junta, he still expected them to respect some rules.

The other former prisoner questioned the legality of a return to executions by a government that is not democratically elected. This, he said, was the reason executions had not been carried out by the previous junta. However, he added, there were differences between the current and former military juntas. When he was tortured by the previous junta, he said they avoided hitting and kicking him in the face and other places where it could be lethal.

Now, people are being tortured to death. Their bodies are being handed over to their families with clear marks of torture, and yet the authorities lie about the cause of death, but do not seem to care enough to cover up their marks.

While on one hand, this could be seen as an expression of an even more brutal military regime, this former political prisoner also read something else into it. He said that while the military junta might carry out executions, they will receive an even stronger pushback from the population of Myanmar and the international society. To him, the extreme brutality and disregard of legal standards by the military regime is a sign of their lack of understanding for how to rule a country: “They are digging their own grave”, he said.

The order to clean the gallows in Myanmar illustrates the extreme brutality of the current military junta. Time will tell whether this order is purely meant to spread fear among the resistance movement or whether the junta is ready to carry out executions. It will also show whether the junta is tightening its iron fist around the population or if this is a sign of the desperation of a regime waiting to fall apart.

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Liv Stoltze Gaborit has previously received funding from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the research project Legacies of Detention in Myanmar ( Liv Stoltze Gaborit is also a volunteer board member and spokesperson for Myanmar Action Group Denmark.