The United States on Monday condemned Myanmar’s execution of political activists and elected officials and called on the military government to immediately end the violence.
U.S. officials said that “all options are on the table,” including economic measures to cut off the military junta’s revenues that it uses to commit the violence.
Myanmar state media said the Southeast Asian country executed four democracy activists it had accused of helping carry out “terror acts” against the government that seized power last year in a coup. The four had been sentenced to death in closed-door trials in January and April.
Those executed were democracy figure Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy; former lawmaker and hip-hop artist Phyo Zeya Thaw, an ally of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi; and two others, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw.
“The United States condemns in the strongest terms the Burmese military regime’s heinous execution of pro-democracy activists and elected leaders,” the White House National Security Council said in a statement. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
The U.S. called on Myanmar’s rulers to “release those they have unjustly detained and allow for a peaceful return to democracy in accordance with the wishes of the people of Burma.”
At the State Department, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “these reprehensible acts of violence further exemplify the regime’s complete disregard for human rights and the rule of law.”
Myanmar remains mired in civil unrest since a military coup toppled the country’s civilian-led government in February 2021.
The junta has killed more than 2,100, displaced more than 700,000, and detained members of civil society and journalists since the coup, the State Department said.
“There can be no business as usual with this regime,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said during Monday’s briefing.
“We urge all countries to ban the sale of military equipment to Burma, to refrain from lending the regime any degree of international credibility, and we call on ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] to maintain its important precedents, only allowing Burmese nonpolitical representation at regional events.”
In the U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez urged President Joe Biden’s administration to step up actions against the junta after the executions over the weekend, which were the first such executions in Burma since 1988.
“The Biden administration must exercise the authorities that Congress has already granted it to impose additional targeted sanctions on the Naypyidaw regime—including on Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise,” Menendez said.
China is among the major suppliers to the Myanmar military and has maintained close ties with the junta. In Beijing, Chinese officials refrained from condemning the Burmese military publicly.
“China always adheres to the principle of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs,” said Zhao Lijian, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, during a Monday briefing.
“All parties and factions in Myanmar should properly handle their differences and conflicts within the framework of the constitution and laws,” Zhao said.
The mother of Phyo Zeya Thaw told VOA Burmese that she had been able to meet her son virtually on Friday.
She said that prison authorities had refused to provide details about her son’s execution, including the exact day and time of her son’s death, which are critical in planning for traditional funeral rituals. Prison officials also told her there was no precedent in Insein Prison of returning bodies to families.
The executions appeared to be a direct rebuke of ASEAN members’ appeals.
In a June letter to the junta, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who chairs this year’s ASEAN, had expressed deep concerns and asked junta chief Min Aung Hlaing not to carry out the executions.
Others, including Malaysian lawmaker Charles Santiago, chair of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, also weighed in.
“Not even the previous military regime, which ruled between 1988 and 2011, dared to carry out the death penalty against political prisoners,” Santiago said.
The United Nations was among numerous critics of the executions.
“I am dismayed that despite appeals from across the world, the military conducted these executions with no regard for human rights,” U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said. “This cruel and regressive step is an extension of the military’s ongoing repressive campaign against its own people.”
She added: “These executions—the first in Myanmar in decades—are cruel violations of the rights to life, liberty and security of a person and fair trial guarantees. For the military to widen its killing will only deepen its entanglement in the crisis it has itself created.”
Myanmar’s National Unity Government, a shadow administration outlawed by the ruling military junta, said it was “extremely saddened. … The global community must punish their cruelty.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said, “This goes against our repeated calls for all detainees to be freed. It also will sharpen the feelings of the [Myanmar] people and worsen the conflict as well as deepening Myanmar’s isolation from the international community. It is a matter of deep concern.”
Richard Horsey, a senior adviser on Myanmar at the International Crisis Group, said, “Any possibility of dialogue to end the crisis created by the coup has now been removed. This is the regime demonstrating that it will do what it wants and listen to no one. It sees this as a demonstration of strength, but it may be a serious miscalculation.”
Amnesty International Regional Director Erwin van der Borght said the “executions amount to arbitrary deprivation of lives and are another example of Myanmar’s atrocious human rights record. … The international community must act immediately, as more than 100 people are believed to be on death row after being convicted in similar proceedings.”
Margaret Besheer, VOA Burma and Reuters contributed to this report.