The world must condemn Burma’s execution of freedom fighters

The international community must emphatically condemn the egregious executions last weekend of four Burmese democracy advocates by the country’s ruling junta.

Kyaw Min Yu (also known as Ko Jimmy), Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, and Aung Thura Zaw were hanged because of their unwavering support for freedom. It had been 34 years since rulers of Burma, now known as Myanmar,had summarily executed any of their own citizens — and it was under a military regime then, too.

Amid challenges to democracy and human rights around the world, this horrific attack on freedom fighters in Burma must not go unanswered. The international community cannot remain silent as the military junta in control of the country threatens even more outrages. The Burmese people need to know that the democratic world stands behind them.

It has been 18 months since Burma’s decade of transition to democracy was thwarted by a military coup d’état, and it’s becoming more evident with each passing day that the situation in the country is becoming ever more dire. Burma must not fall off the international community’s priority list. The Burmese people need our support now. And that means that the Biden administration, Congress, the media and civil society all have roles to play.

Sadly, the executions are just the latest atrocities committed by this oppressive regime to silence the Burmese people. Since the coup, almost 15,000 individuals across Burma have been arrested. About three-quarters of them are still detained, and over 2,000 have been killed, including women and children. 

“The military’s campaign of repression is an outright rejection of human dignity and the rule of law, conditions which modern nations recognize are critical for human beings to flourish,” Bush Institute Executive Director Holly Kuzmich said in a statement condemning the military’s actions. “That’s why, despite threats to their well-being, the Burmese people continue their pursuit of democracy.”

At the Bush Institute, we’ve engaged 79 young leaders across Burma since 2014 through our Liberty and Leadership Program (LLP) — part of our work to support democracy activists around the globe. We know firsthand that the young people of Burma want to be free, and we believe that when democracies thrive, we all thrive. Since the coup, our LLP young leaders have been at the forefront of peaceful opposition, organizing protests and coordinating efforts to share what is truly happening on the ground.

Burma was well along the path to democracy before the February 2021 coup. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was in power after five decades of military rule. Young people were excited and tantalized by their first taste of freedom. But then the brutal, military-led campaign against the Rohingya population in the country started to chip away at this progress, and it all came to a screeching halt when the military seized power once again.  

Freedom is something that’s easy for us to take for granted in the United States. But it’s not an option for so many in our world. For the people of Burma, free speech is effectively silenced, media is censored and repression of minority ethnic groups continues without any possibility of recourse. The Burma they knew just a couple of years ago is no more.

The family members of the four executed pro-democracy activists are still waiting for information regarding their loved ones. This is the epitome of cruelty, and it’s unacceptable. 

The situation in Burma is worsening. If we do nothing, I fear what these authoritarian leaders will do next. How far will they go? How far will democratic nations allow them to go?

The Biden administration and Congress must take effective, strong and coordinated action to hit members of the junta where it hurts most — their wealth. The media should use their platforms to keep Burma at the forefront of our attention, and civil society organizations should continue supporting those who need it the most during this time.

Peaceful opposition to the junta has shown the world that the Burmese people long for democracy, and they’ll do everything they can to restore their voice in government. But the military is not backing down either, and their tactics are becoming increasingly sinister. 

The United States and other democracies have an opportunity to stand with the people of Burma in their quest for freedom. By doing this, we can signal to authoritarian leaders across the world that we will not tolerate their actions. We can demonstrate that the desire for freedom is universal, and we will always walk alongside those who pursue it.   

Michael Bailey is senior program manager of Leadership Programs at the George W. Bush Institute.