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Before executions, Myanmar’s junta tortured opponents to crush dissent

A year and a half after seizing power in a coup, the military government is resorting to increasingly brutal measures to stamp out resistance to its rule, rights groups say.
Myanmar nationals living in South Korea march
Myanmar nationals living in South Korea marched in Seoul on Saturday to condemn Myanmar’s recent execution of four democracy activists.Ahn Young-joon / AP

Executions, brutal beatings and sexual violence — Myanmar’s military junta is resorting to increasingly brutal measures to crush opposition to its rule, according to a new Amnesty International report Monday. 

The report adds to evidence that detainees are being tortured by the military regime that seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government in February 2021, prompting calls for the international community to take greater action against the junta.

“It is a message that they will do anything to maintain their power,” Amnesty’s Myanmar researcher told NBC News by email. 

“As long as the Myanmar military is not held accountable for their crimes, it is difficult to imagine any prospect of peace in Myanmar,” said the researcher, whose name is not being used for security reasons.

The report comes after the government executed four democracy activists last month, in the first such killings in more than 30 years. The executions of the four men — Kyaw Min Yu, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, who were sentenced after a closed-door trial — have drawn international condemnation, including from the United Nations Security Council.

“Given how things have deteriorated in Myanmar, this is a moment to stop, assess and move forward in a coordinated and very robust way based on action, not simply condemnation,” Tom Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, told NBC News by phone. 

“The more time that we delay taking the action that is necessary, the greater the catastrophe that will befall the people of Myanmar,” he added.

Myanmar nationals living in South Korea march
The executions of the four men have drawn international condemnation.Ahn Young-joon / AP

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), more than 70 other political prisoners are facing execution in Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma, while 41 have been sentenced to death in absentia. It is unclear whether more executions will be carried out by the junta, but “the more desperate they are, the more brutal they become,” Bo Kyi, the nongovernmental organization’s joint secretary, said in an email.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to emailed requests for comment. Officials have defended the executions as “justice for the people,” saying the men were criminals who received due process.

Myanmar’s government-in-exile, known as the National Unity Government, did not reply to a request for comment. After the executions were reported last week, Zin Mar Aung, the shadow government’s foreign affairs minister, said that while Ukraine had received weapons from abroad in its fight against Russia, and Afghans had been airlifted out of their country when the Taliban retook power last year, there was “deafening silence for Myanmar people.”

“How many more lives does the international community need [to see destroyed] before it can act decisively against the junta?” she asked in a video posted online.

The Department of State did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on whether it could be doing more to pressure the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement last week that the executions demonstrated the junta’s “complete disregard for human rights and the rule of law.”

Since the coup, the Myanmar military has responded to mostly peaceful protests with lethal force, killing more than 2,000 people, according to the AAPP, a figure the junta disputes. More than 14,500 people have been arrested, including Suu Kyi and other senior government figures.

The junta declared a state of emergency after the coup, promising new elections now set for 2023. In a speech Monday, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said the state of emergency had been extended by another six months because of internal instability.

The junta has been in a grinding conflict with hundreds of anti-government militias across the country, and experts say the military’s losses may be contributing to its escalating campaign against civilian opposition.

A protestor holds a sign with photos of the Myanmar activist execution victims
A protester in Seoul holds a sign with photos of the executed activists.Ahn Young-joon / AP

The torture of detainees is “part of an overall strategy intended to break their spirits and compel people to give up any resistance to the 2021 military coup,” Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a news release accompanying the report.

Detainees described physical violence, forced confessions, death and rape threats, and unsanitary conditions, according to the report, which was based on 15 interviews in March with former detainees, lawyers and experts. Lawyers said they had trouble locating their clients.

One protester, Ma Kyu, said that after her arrest a police officer told her: “We do not even need to put you in jail. We can simply shoot you.” 

Other abuses were sexual or gender-based. Saw Han Nway Oo, a transgender woman who was arrested in September 2021, said her interrogators took off her clothes and mocked her naked body.

“During the interrogation, whenever I used feminine pronouns for myself, they said you are gay, so you must like this and exposed their male genitals in front of me,” she told researchers.

The findings of the Amnesty International report are consistent with research by other rights groups.

“I was recently in Chin state, where we documented the military’s use of torture against ethnic Chin civilians in detention,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the Bangkok-based group Fortify Rights. “It’s widespread and systematic and shows no signs of decreasing.”

The military’s actions are “enabled by the lack of coordinated, international action to stop the flow of funds and arms,” said Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for Justice for Myanmar.  

“The U.S. has a particularly crucial role to play,” she said. In addition to a global arms embargo, he argued for sanctions on Myanmar’s national oil and gas company and the junta’s other business interests. 

The state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise has already been sanctioned by the European Union, while the French energy company Total and the American energy company Chevron have said they are withdrawing from the country.

Smith agreed: “The military is using those funds to murder civilians and they must be stopped.”

CORRECTION (Aug. 2, 2022, 10:28 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article used an incorrect pronoun to refer to Yadanar Maung, a spokesperson for Justice for Myanmar. Maung is female, not male.