Shock as seven student protesters sentenced to death

Seven students from a single university – Dagon University, Yangon – and four other youth activists who took part in anti-regime protests in Myanmar have been sentenced to death by Yangon Insein Prison martial court on 30 November, according to student unions in Myanmar.

Botany student Khant Zin Win, students of Myanmar studies Thura Maung Maung and Khant Linn Maung Maung, industrial chemistry student Zaw Lin Naing, geography student Thiha Htet Zaw, archaeology student Hein Htet and physics student Thet Paing Oo, all from Dagon University, were accused of shooting dead Saw Moe Win, a retired lieutenant colonel on 18 April.

All under 25 years old, they were sentenced in closed trials by the military tribunal at the end of November for their alleged involvement in the killing in South Dagon Township on 18 April of Saw Moe Win, who managed a branch of the state-owned Global Treasure Bank and was a former army lieutenant colonel.

A guerrilla group calling itself the Anti-Fascist Armed Forces, and an allied group calling itself the Yangon Liberation Force, both formed after the coup, on 19 April claimed responsibility for the killing.

U Thein Shwe, father of Hein Htet, one of the students sentenced to death, told University World News his son left home and went to his friends in Sanchaung Township to play video games in April and was later abducted by the military forces.

He said that as a father he was grieving over the death sentences but couldn’t even tell his wife about his son’s sentencing because she “could die of a heart attack”. He added: “We will file a petition and appeal to do whatever we can to reduce the sentences. In addition to being worried for my son, I have been very worried for my wife now.”

A statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 2 December said UN Human Rights chief Volker Türk was shocked at the death sentences handed down by closed-door military courts since the coup last year, following the fresh convictions this week. The UN Human Rights Office was seeking clarification of the sentences handed down to the seven students, it said.

“The military continues to hold proceedings in secretive courts in violation of basic principles of fair trial and contrary to core judicial guarantees of independence and impartiality,” Türk said, calling for the suspension of all executions and a return to a moratorium on the death penalty.

Student unions react

Min Han Htet, a spokesperson at the Alliance of Students’ Unions Yangon as well as president of the Dagon University Students’ Union, told University World News that the military junta oppressed students who were against them, treating them as its enemies and murdering students brutally not only on the streets but also in interrogation centres.

“The military council [junta] is using the death penalty as a weapon in an attempt to assert control and suppress those who strongly oppose them,” he said, pointing to the collapse of the normal legal system since the coup.

According to Min Han Htet, more than 40 Dagon University students have been arrested since the February 2021 coup and half have already received harsh prison sentences such as life or the death penalty.

A joint statement on the death sentences was released in early December by 223 student unions, as well as separate statements from student groups condemning the death sentences. They said students did not accept the ruling by the courts, which they regard as the “pillars of the terrorist military”. They called for international action to prevent such killings.

Universities Students’ Union Alumni Force (USUAF) also released a statement on 1 December, noting that without action, the military will continue and step up to “worse and unimaginable crimes” if the international community ignored the current situation.

A spokesperson of the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) told University World News a total of 139 people have been sentenced to death including the students, as of 5 December.

“Students, scholars and political activists were being handed the death penalty by the military to take revenge by creating an environment of fear so that people dare not oppose the military,” he said.

According to AAPP data, post-coup a total of 97 were on death row as of 2 December.

Overall, some 121 have been sentenced in absentia, of whom 42 have been sentenced to death.

The military council has already executed four political activists, including one of the 88 Generation student leaders, Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, for violation of the counterterrorism law. His execution on 28 July was the first in three decades.

Guerrilla group claims responsibility

A guerrilla group calling itself the Anti-Fascist Armed Forces, and an allied group calling itself the Yangon Liberation Force (YLF), both formed after the coup, released a statement on 19 April saying that they had killed Saw Moe Win, who was a branch manager of the Global Treasure Bank as well as a former military officer, as part of their attack on ‘pillars of support’ of the military.

As the bank is state-owned, they claimed the bank manager was “working for the interests of the ‘terrorist’ army”.

YLF released a new statement on 5 December, after the imposition of the death penalty, saying that “members of the [YLF] and the families of the revolutionaries are deeply saddened by the death sentence of the seven students who were unjustly sentenced to death by the terrorist military”.

Min Han Htet of the student union alliance accused the military of being involved in extra-judicial killings and ‘committing genocide’ while using terms like “court procedures and jurisdiction”.

“We vow to seek justice and continue to fight against the military dictatorship and its institutions that are involved in these matters,” he said, adding that the military junta had to be held accountable for its actions.

Exiled government denounces killings

Aung Myo Min, union minister for human rights in the National Unity Government (NUG) – formed in exile after the February 2020 coup – told University World News: “NUG strongly denounced military-sponsored killings”, and called for “the release of all young people and other political activists”.

The students are pro-democracy activists, not criminals who deserve the highest punishment under the law, he said, adding: “This is not just an execution; it is military-sponsored killing of people who should not receive such a harsh sentence.”

“The death penalty should be abolished,” added Aung Myo Min, one of the student leaders of Myanmar’s 1988 student uprising. He was awarded several international awards for his work on human rights and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights. He called on the international community to put more pressure on the regime to stop such extra-judicial killings.

Aung Myo Min said the NUG had informed human rights organisations and international governments to put all-round pressure to end military-sponsored killing of young people. “Killing young people who are exercising their human rights is not acceptable in any form,” he said.