On Monday evening at 8 p.m., the familiar and provocative sound of pots and pans clashing returned to the streets of Yangon. In the aftermath of last year’s coup, the same din was heard every night as people demanded a return to democracy – until the military launched a brutal crackdown on such acts of dissent. Anyone suspected of opposing the junta risks arrest, or worse.
It was the recent execution of four prisoners that prompted people to relaunch the protest despite everything. Phyo Zeya Thaw, a rapper and former lawmaker from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, and prominent democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, known as Jimmy, were among those killed. They had been convicted under anti-terrorism laws in January.
The Guardian spoke to anti-junta figures in Myanmar and in exile abroad about their executions, which drew worldwide condemnation and horror in Myanmar.
The people of Myanmar are already well aware of the junta’s brutality, said Salai Za Uk Ling, deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, which has documented atrocities including the burning of homes and the massacre of civilians since the coup. Still, the brazenness of the executions was shocking, he added. “In such a public display of brutality, I don’t know what justification they would give,” he said, adding that it illustrated how little the junta seemed to care about its international reputation.
Thet Swe Win, a 36-year-old human rights activist and executive director of Synergy, an organization that works to foster social harmony in Myanmar, said he fears there is now a wave of executions. Dozens of other prisoners were sentenced to death.
“It’s similar to the first bullet they fired at Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing,” he said, referring to the first protester killed by the army after last year’s coup. “Then they killed many protesters during the crackdown.”
More than 2,100 people have been killed by the junta and 11,759 remain in detention, according to advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) Burma, which monitors arrests and killings.
Ei Ei Moe, 33, is a member of Generation Wave, a movement co-founded by Phyo Zeya Thaw, whom she knew personally. She said he always wanted the people to stay together.
“I couldn’t even cry when I heard about the execution, my heart was choked. I did not know what to do. I still think he is still with us. As long as social media has pictures of him, that was even more amazing to me,” she said. Phyo Zeya Thaw was part of an early generation of rappers in Myanmar whose music – and coded critiques of the previous military regime – resonated with young listeners. He then became a deputy.
Observers say the executions are another attempt to crush the opposition which has remained defiant even in the face of crackdowns which the UN human rights office says could amount to war crimes.
However, activists say they are not discouraged. “This generation will not be afraid. If they killed one Zeya Thaw, there will be countless Zeya Thaw,” Ei Ei Moe said.
Activist Ella Chris described Kyaw Min Yu, who rose to prominence as a student leader during the 1988 uprising against the previous military regime, as “an idol for the young pro-democracy generation”. Before the coup, Ella Chris was an avid cyclist who posted fitness videos on social media between her work on gender equality and land rights. Like many people involved in the anti-coup protests, she was forced to flee her home. “But we are not afraid,” she said.
Myanmar’s military junta, which seized power in a February 2021 coup, is struggling to maintain control of the country. It faces both peaceful protest movements and resistance supported by several ethnic armed groups.
Some of these powerful ethnic groups condemned the executions, including the Arakan Army and a representative of the Kachin Independence Army, who both called the killings a “senseless” act that harmed the prospect of negotiations. In eastern Myanmar, the Karenni Nationalities Defense Forces have vowed to fight back against the “war crime”.
A group of Yangon-based resistance fighters under the national unity government, which was trained in exile by elected politicians, representatives of ethnic minorities and activists, have also vowed to avenge their deaths. On Monday, guerrilla fighters in Yangon and Mandalay launched attacks on junta targets, while a flash protest in Yangon displayed a poster saying ‘we are never afraid’ before quickly dispersing to avoid being arrested.
While many have been pressured into joining armed resistance groups that are using whatever weapons they can get their hands on to fight the junta, others continue to find ways to stage peaceful protests.
In urban areas, these are flash mobs that only last a few minutes but must be impeccably planned months in advance, with preparations made for the possibility of someone being detained, said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent anti-coup activist. “Do we have enough shelters to move, do we have enough information to close our Facebook accounts and immediately cut off all communication? Because once a person is arrested, each of us has to move on.
Activists continue even though they know they are risking their lives, she added. “Not just our own lives, but it could also cost the lives of our own families, the lives of our friends,” she said. Even a critical comment on Facebook is risky.
Sut Seng Htoi, an activist from Kachin in northern Myanmar, questioned the international response as the junta said it would carry out the executions.
“I wonder why they didn’t do anything,” she said. “It made me even more suspicious of the international community and the UN,” echoing the sentiments of many who believe the international community has let Myanmar down.
Thet Swe Win, said the international community “must take concrete action rather than issuing statements on wasted paper.” He added: “We don’t forget and we don’t forgive. We will continue to fight, even if no one helps us.