International outrage over Myanmar's execution of four political prisoners has intensified with strong condemnation from world governments and grassroots protests, even as the military junta defended its decision.
The military-led government that seized power from elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021 has been accused of thousands of extrajudicial killings since then, but the hangings announced on Monday were the country's first official executions in decades.
“We feel that this is a crime against humanity,” said Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, speaking at the side of the UN’s Special Envoy on Myanmar Noeleen Heyzer at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.
He said the executions would be a focus of the upcoming meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers, which begin in Cambodia in a week. Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN group.
In Bangkok, hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators protested outside neighbouring Myanmar's embassy, waving flags and chanting slogans amid a heavy downpour.
Junta defends decision
But junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said the executions were not personal, but conducted under the law and the men were given a chance to defend themselves.
He said the military government knew the executions, which the spokesperson said was carried out in the name of justice for the people, would draw criticism.
"If we compare their sentence with other death penalty cases, they have committed crimes for which they should have been given death sentences many times," he said.
Among the four executed was Phyo Zeya Thaw, a 41-year-old former lawmaker from Suu Kyi’s party, and Kyaw Min Yu, a 53-year-old democracy activist better known as Ko Jimmy.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, announced in June that it was going to resume executing prisoners and has 113 others who have been sentenced to death, although 41 of those were convicted in absentia, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-governmental organisation that tracks killing and arrests.
“This was a barbaric act by Myanmar's military regime,” said New Zealand's Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta of the four executions carried out. “New Zealand condemns these actions in the strongest possible terms.”
Australia's Foreign Minister Penny Wong said she was “appalled” by the executions. “Australia opposes the death penalty in all circumstances for all people,” she said.
ASEAN denounced the executions as “highly reprehensible.” It said the move represented a setback to the group's efforts to facilitate a dialogue between the military leadership and opponents.
“We strongly and urgently call on all parties concerned to desist from taking actions that would only further aggravate the crisis, hinder peaceful dialogue among all parties concerned, and endanger peace, security and stability, not only in Myanmar, but the whole region,” the group said in a statement.