The U.S. Government Must Apply Pressure to Stop the Junta from Further Abuses

By Liesl Gerntholtz and Nadine Farid Johnson

The shattering news that four democracy activists were secretly executed at the end of July by Myanmar’s military junta demands a strong response, amid well-founded fears that the military is preparing to escalate its campaign of terror against civilians. The executions on Saturday, July 23 of the writer Ko Jimmy and the hip hop artist and former member of Parliament U Phyo Zaya Thaw were carried out after the two men were tried by a military tribunal on baseless charges of terrorism. The junta that has held Myanmar in its grip since the coup in February 2021 also executed the activists U Hla Myo Aung and U Aung Thura Zaw on the same day.

Although the military announced in June that it would execute the four men, the sudden move to do so came as a surprise. Before these executions, no one had been executed in Myanmar in over thirty years. Ko Jimmy and U Phyo Zaya Thaw were allowed to speak with their families the day before the executions. At the time, no one knew that those conversations would be their last.

PEN America’s contacts report that the military continues to treat Ko Jimmy’s and U Phyo Zaya Thaw’s families with unspeakable cruelty: Not only did they initially refuse to allow them to claim their loved ones’ bodies, but plainclothes men believed to be military officers have harassed the families at their homes, and authorities pressured them not to hold funerals. 

Writers and artists have been at the forefront of Myanmar’s resistance movement, using their creative and written expression to protest the junta, demand the elected government be returned to power, and offer a vision of a democratic future. They are part of a long tradition in Myanmar of creative resistance and protest. As a result, writers, artists, singers, and poets have also been a particular target of the junta’s brutal crackdown. Arrests started in the immediate aftermath of the coup and have continued. In PEN America’s latest (2021) Freedom to Write Index, Myanmar rose to being the world’s third worst jailer of writers, beaten only by China and Saudi Arabia, with 26 writers and intellectuals behind bars in 2021.

The U.S. government reacted quickly to news of the executions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called them “reprehensible.” Several members of Congress expressed their horror and called for accountability for those responsible. These statements are important, not least of all to the devastated families and the community of Myanmar activists, writers, and artists fighting for their freedom.

But more action by the U.S. government is needed to put pressure on the Myanmar regime and to raise the costs of repression.  And it needs to happen quickly.

The Myanmar activists PEN America is in touch with are increasingly afraid that these executions of activists may not be the last. Unconfirmed reports indicate additional executions of cultural figures may have already been carried out in secret, with more to come soon. At least 114 people have been sentenced to death by military tribunals since the 2021 coup.

There are several important steps the U.S. could take immediately.  The Senate should take action on the BURMA Act of 2021, which passed the House with broad bipartisan support back in April. This necessary legislation would impose sanctions on Myanmar military leaders, individuals who commit serious human rights abuses, and others complicit in providing material support to the junta. The bill would also authorize over $450 million in humanitarian assistance to support minority ethnic groups and others affected by conflict in Myanmar.

The Senate should also move to approve the pending nomination for a U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN, to strengthen the U.S.’ leverage in the region.

Regardless of congressional action, the Biden Administration could immediately implement sanctions against the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a state-owned company and a lucrative source of revenue for the junta. The European Union imposed sanctions on MOGE in February 2022, finding that it had provided the regime with “substantial resources.” Such a move would send a strong message to the junta that the U.S. will not stand for such gross violations of human rights in Myanmar, in a way that will be tough for them to ignore.

The devastation wrought by the junta in Myanmar–on the country’s people, and on its hard-won democratic progress–has slipped from headlines. Perhaps it has made the junta arrogant, thinking they could execute innocent writers, artists, and activists with impunity. The U.S. must demonstrate that is not the case.

Liesl Gerntholtz is the director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center and Nadine Farid Johnson is the managing director of PEN Washington and Free Expression Programs at PEN America