(NEW YORK)—PEN America today called the secret military executions of four Myanmar pro-democracy activists “abhorrent,” and urged the international community to hold the military junta accountable for this devastating act of brutality. Two of the activists, Phyo Zayar Thaw and Ko Jimmy, were creative artists sentenced to death in 2021 for “conspiring against the regime,” but their only crime was speaking out against the brutal military coup in Myanmar in February 2021.

The Myanmar military also executed activists U Hla Myo Aung and U Aung Thura Zaw.

Liesl Gerntholz, director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center, said: “This is an unspeakable act of brutality, an abhorrent act. We join their families and the people of Myanmar in mourning the devastating loss of these artist-activists this morning. The decision to carry out the execution represents a dramatic escalation of repressive tactics being widely used against prominent voices of conscience and critics of the regime. It is also outrageous that the junta had imposed additional cruelty on their families by refusing the confirm the deaths and allow them to claim the bodies.”

Gerntholtz said: “The junta will have to answer not only to the international community for this, but also to their own people. And the civilian population has shown that they will not surrender to tyranny quietly. These two men are an exemplary case in point, bravely championing free expression and democracy in the country, despite knowing what their words and speech could lead to. The executions were the first in the country in over 30 years, and this merciless development in Myanmar could mean that additional political prisoners are in dire danger of being silenced in the same, horrific manner. The international community must respond strongly against the military’s reprehensible actions to save future activists’ lives.”

Relatives who visited with the activists on Friday relayed to PEN America that they had been told by prison officers that if they were to be executed, the family would be informed of when. But in fact the family was not informed and learned about the executions, which reportedly occurred on Saturday, from the news. 

After the February 2021 military coup, the Myanmar junta has been unsparing in its crackdown on the country’s creative sphere, which has a history of strong political opposition to authoritarianism in the country. PEN America’s report, “Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup,” describes the mass mobilization of Myanmar poets, artists, and the creative community in the face of the overwhelming military might of the country’s junta. According to PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index, Myanmar jailed the third-most writers and public intellectuals in the world as a result of the military coup.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057