A History of Capital Punishment in Burma
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A History of Capital Punishment in Burma

By Wai Moe Monday, December 22, 2003

On Nov 28, a special court inside Rangoon’s Insein prison sentenced nine people, including the editor of a weekly sport journal, to death for high treason. Close colleagues of Zaw Thet Htwe maintain that the editor did not attempt to assassinate military leaders and provoke an uprising, as the junta charged.

If true, Zaw Thet Htwe’s sentence would not be the first time the death penalty was handed to an innocent person in Burma. Nor would it be the first time the application of capital punishment appeared to have political motivations. The Burmese regime has used the death penalty as a tool to enforce their unjust power throughout their rule. After the 1962 military coup, a lot of opposition members were sentenced to death and hanged, including members of ethnic insurgent groups.

Burma has a long history of capital punishment, tracing its roots back to the monarchy period. It was also used throughout the colonial era. Even during the democracy period, the elected government sentenced criminals and political prisoners to death.

One of the famous heroes of the Burmese independent movement, Maj Chin Kaung, was charged with treason and sentenced to death because he was a member of the Communist Party, which had been fighting the Burmese government since 1948. Fortunately, he was pardoned by the second Burmese president, Mann Win Maung, one of his colleagues during the independence struggle. Other political prisoners were not so lucky. Their death sentences were carried out.

The present military government has continued to use capital punishment to oppress political activists. Following the December 1974 Burmese students’ uprising prominent student leader Tin Maung Oo was sentenced to death. He was executed a few months later. In 1976, an Army captain, Ohn Kyaw Myaint, was sentenced to death for attempting to assassinate the Burmese dictator, Ne Win. In the 1980’s, dozens of members of the Karen National Union (KNU) were arrested in the Pegu Mountains region and sentenced to death.

Since the military coup of 1988, the junta has been using the death penalty for all crimes, but primarily to threaten the Burmese democracy groups. Today, however, death sentences do not carry the weight they once did. Despite the numerous sentences that have been handed out, nobody has been hanged since 1988. The junta explains that a statement issued during the coup referred to them as a temporary government, so it is not their responsibility to carry out hangings, only to issue sentences.

This does not mean, however, that the military government harbors any goodwill toward the prisoners. It is quick to issue death sentences to pro-democracy activists. What’s more, the junta makes critical distinctions between the criminal and political cases.

In the past 15 years, the government has publicly announced three amnesties: one in 1989, a second in 1993, and the most recent in 1997. Unconditional amnesty was granted to criminal prisoners. Political prisoners on death row do not qualify for such pardons.

The 1997 amnesty specified that all death sentences would be commuted to life imprisonment and all life sentences reduced to ten years. But there was one major exception to this rule: the junta carefully noted that the amnesty did not apply to "state security" prisoners, the junta’s euphemism for political prisoners.

The double standard for granting amnesties causes political prisoners—many of whom are facing long-term imprisonment—considerable distress. They have been exempted from the seemingly "unconditional" amnesties, while their fellow cellmates, imprisoned for criminal behavior, have been released from their deserved penalties.

A prime example of this is former death row inmate Maung Maung. In 1992, he was sentenced to death by a Myaingun Township court for the rape and murder of a young girl. But his death sentence was commuted to 20 years under the conditions of the 1993 amnesty. In 1997, he accepted the amnesty again, and his imprisonment was changed from 20 years to ten years. He walked out of Myaingun prison only ten years after committing his crime.

In contrast to this story is the story of U Kawiya, a Buddhist monk who led a group of young monks in the 1988 uprising. In 1989, he was arrested for treason, and a year later was sentenced to death by a Mandalay court under section No 3 of the State Emergency Act. When the junta declared another amnesty for long-term prisoners, U Kawila’s sentence was changed to life in prison.

But in 1997, when the junta underwent a name change and some senior members were removed, political prisoners were exempted from the amnesty. U Kawiya was one of those who suffered on account of this discrimination. Had he been a criminal prisoner instead of a political prisoner, he would have been released.

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