The US government must exert pressure to prevent the Board from committing more abuses
By Liesl Gerntholtz and Nadine Farid Johnson
The devastating news that four democracy activists were secretly executed in late July by Myanmar’s military junta demands a forceful response, amid well-founded fears that the armed forces are preparing to escalate their campaign of terror against the civilians. The executions on Saturday 23 July of writer Ko Jimmy and hip hop artist and former MP U Phyo Zaya Thaw were carried out after the two men were tried by a military court on baseless charges of terrorism. The junta that has kept Myanmar under control since the February 2021 coup also executed activists U Hla Myo Aung and U Aung Thura Zaw on the same day.
Although the army announced in June that it would execute the four men, the sudden decision to do so came as a surprise. Before these executions, no one had been executed in Myanmar for more than thirty years. Ko Jimmy and U Phyo Zaya Thaw were allowed to speak to their families the day before the executions. At the time, no one knew that those conversations would be the last.
PEN America contacts report that the military continues to treat the families of Ko Jimmy and U Phyo Zaya Thaw with unspeakable cruelty: not only did they initially refuse to allow them to claim the bodies of their loved ones, but men in civilian clothes who He believes they are military officers who have harassed the families in their homes and the authorities pressured them not to hold funerals.
Writers and artists have been at the forefront of Myanmar’s resistance movement, using their creative and written expression to protest against the junta, demand that the elected government return to power, and offer a vision of a democratic future. They are part of a long tradition in Myanmar of creative resistance and protest. As a result, writers, artists, singers and poets have also been a particular target of the junta’s brutal crackdown. The arrests began immediately after the coup and have continued. In the latest PEN America Freedom to Write Index (2021), Myanmar became the third worst jailer of writers in the world, second only to China and Saudi Arabia, with 26 writers and intellectuals behind bars in 2021.
The US government reacted quickly to the news of the executions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called them “reprehensible.” Several members of Congress expressed their horror and called for those responsible to be held accountable. These statements are important, especially for the devastated families and the community of activists, writers and artists in Myanmar who are fighting for their freedom.
But more action is needed from the US government to put pressure on the Myanmar regime and increase the costs of the crackdown. And it has to happen quickly.
Myanmar activists with whom PEN America is in contact increasingly fear that these executions of activists will not be the last. Unconfirmed reports indicate that additional executions of cultural figures may already have been secretly carried out, with more to follow. At least 114 people have been sentenced to death by military courts since the 2021 coup.
There are several important steps that the United States could take immediately. The Senate should take action on the BURMA Act of 2021, which passed the House with broad bipartisan support in April. This necessary legislation would impose sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders, individuals committing serious human rights abuses, and others complicit in providing material support to the junta. The bill would also authorize more than $450 million in humanitarian assistance to support minority and other ethnic groups affected by the conflict in Myanmar.
The Senate should also move on to approve the pending nomination of a US Ambassador to ASEAN, to strengthen US influence in the region.
Regardless of congressional action, the Biden Administration could immediately implement sanctions against the Myanma Oil and Gas Company (MOGE), a state-owned company and a lucrative source of revenue for the board. The European Union imposed sanctions on MOGE in February 2022, finding that it had provided the regime with “substantial resources.” Such a move would send a strong message to the junta that the United States will not tolerate such serious human rights violations in Myanmar, in a way that they will find it difficult to ignore.
The devastation wrought by the junta in Myanmar, on the country’s population and its hard-won democratic progress, has disappeared from the headlines. Perhaps it has made the board arrogant, thinking they could execute innocent writers, artists and activists with impunity. The United States must show that this is not the case.
Liesl Gerntholtz is director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center and Nadine Farid Johnson is general director of PEN Washington and Free Expression Programs at PEN America.