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Activists including Myanmar citizens  protest in Tokyo - they are wearing face masks and holding photos of the men killed.
Activists including Myanmar citizens protest in Tokyo on July 26, 2022, against Myanmar’s recent execution of four prisoners Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

Top democracy activists were executed in Myanmar – 4 key things to know

The current conflict in Myanmar raised new international concern when the country’s military announced on July 25, 2022, that it had executed four pro-democracy activists and political prisoners.

The high-profile killings were the latest signal that the civil conflict in the Southeast Asian country is deepening, almost 18 months after the military staged a coup and overtook the democratically elected government in February 2021.

The military killed two leading political leaders who opposed the junta – Kyaw Min Yu, a writer and activist known as Jimmy, and Phyo Zeya Thaw, a hip-hop musician turned lawmaker under the old political regime – citing counterterrorism charges.

Two other people – Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw – were executed after they were convicted of killing a woman who they reportedly thought was a military informer.

The executions follow a recent report from human rights group Amnesty International that the military is laying land mines in residential areas to hurt and kill civilians.

I am a scholar of Myanmar politics and culture. Here are four key points to help untangle the country’s complicated conflict and the meaning behind the executions.

The military government is sending a message

The political executions of these activists were the first in many decades for Myanmar, which has vacillated from military control to emerging democratic leadership over the past few decades. The military wants to send a message to other citizens – and to the world – that it is in charge.

But behind a thin veneer of control, the military’s fears of public opposition and uprisings can be detected by people in Myanmar and outside observers alike.

Soldiers overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi, the former leader and foreign minister of Myanmar, in early 2021 and first placed her under house arrest.

The coup sparked a wave of protests across the country – over 4,700 anti-coup events were reported by the end of June 2021. The military responded with conducting mass arrests and killing civilians.

The military then sent Aung San Suu Kyi to prison on multiple corruption charges in April 2022 that the nonprofit Human Rights Watch has called “bogus.”

Executing four revolutionary leaders will likely escalate nationwide resistance to the military.

Protesters in Bangkok hold photos of Aung San Suu Kyi as they march through the streets, with umbrellas and flags.
Protesters in Bangkok hold photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s detained former leader, on July 26, 2022. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images

The conflict’s complicated back story

When the military staged the 2021 coup, the generals made a miscalculation.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, had won a landslide victory against the military-backed opposition in November 2020. Military generals demanded another election, offering little evidence of irregularities, but recognizing that power was slipping from their hands.

Military representatives still held an allocated 25% of parliament seats because of the constitution, but without their allied political parties, their political leverage was limited.

At the time, there was a global pandemic. The economy slowed down.

The generals likely hoped that the coup would be merely a smooth transition back to the old system – before Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was first elected in 2015 – when the different generations of generals had controlled everything, from 1962 onward.

But the National League for Democracy’s ascension to power brought about many positive changes, particularly in the country’s heartland, where a major ethnic group, Bamar, lives. The country’s gross domestic product, an indicator of economic growth, was also at an all-time high in 2020.

Many could see life was improving for them and for their children. The generals did not foresee the outrage that would follow the coup.

An assault weapon and the uniformed legs of a soldier are visible in the back of a truck as seen through the window of a bus on a busy city street.
Women look out the window of a bus at armed soldiers patrolling a street in Yangon, Myanmar. STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How political resistance has played out

Early days of peaceful demonstrations after the coup quickly turned to armed resistance when the army did not respect the people’s demands to return power to the government they elected.

U.N. human rights experts have said the military junta is a “criminal enterprise” that is systematically committing murder, torture and forced disappearances. The junta has also blocked access to many social media sites, like Facebook, and engaged in widespread human rights violations, including attacks on civilians, according to the U.N.

Many young people joined ethnic revolutionary groups, many of which had been fighting the army since 1948, when Myanmar – then known as Burma – became independent from British rule.

Ethnic armies supported the young people who decided to join the resistance, and housed, fed and trained them.

Some Myanmar citizens, meanwhile, have donated their incomes, houses and cars to help support revolutionary groups. It’s become popular for people to visit websites and play online games created by Myanmar tech developers – generating money that goes to these groups.

This bypasses the military’s crackdown on mobile money transfers to members of the armed groups, and the closure of many banks.

The military is also losing some territorial control, as more and more regions slowly form their own administrations, which the military does not recognize.

A cat walks in front of a row of men holding guns. Only their bodies are shown.
A cat walks in front of members of the People’s Defense Force – a armed group in Myanmar that opposes the military government. David Mmr/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Other countries are mostly staying out of it

The United States and other major powers have largely been absent as Myanmar has experienced a coup and subsequent political and economic crisis.

While the Myanmar army continues to get support and military supplies from Russia, other countries have taken a wait-and-see approach.

One reason is that Myanmar’s situation is internal, and its military is not fighting other countries. Now, hundreds of internal groups in Myanmar are fighting over their vested interests, including territory.

I believe no clear winner will walk away from this civil war – and staging little to no interference has been the international community’s general position. People of Myanmar have interpreted this stance as willful ignorance to their plight.

There are, however, some symbolic victories for the opposition by way of international engagement.

Ousted political leaders from the National League for Democracy and others against the junta formed a new shadow government, the National Unity Government, in May 2021. Most of their top members operate “undercover or through members based abroad,” according to CNN.

The U.N. has not formally recognized the National Unity Government but has allowed representatives to speak at the U.N. on behalf of Myanmar.

The U.S. has hosted National Unity Government delegations several times – but it has yet to unfreeze the US$1 billion the previous Myanmar government held at a U.S. Federal Reserve bank.

Both the National Unity Government and the military claim rights to this money.

An uncertain future

The coup triggered an economic collapse, plunging Myanmar’s currency to an all-time low.

Many Myanmar citizens feel trapped in the entrenched war.

The country is fast-forwarding into the past, when it was deeply isolated from the world. And there is no clear end in sight to the conflict.

The military hosted peace talks in April and May, but fewer than half of the country’s major 21 ethnic armed groups attended.

Many of these groups together with the newly formed armed People’s Defense Forces, part of the National Unity Government, have vowed to fight on, especially after the executions. Because of their determination, many people in the country feel that the future is uncertain – but not hopeless.