Myanmar’s government said it has carried out its first executions in nearly 50 years, hanging a former National League for Democracy (NLD) legislator, a democracy activist and two men accused of violence after the country’s takeover by the military last year.

The executions, detailed in the state-run Mirror Daily newspaper, were carried out despite worldwide pleas for clemency for the four political prisoners.

The four were executed “in accordance with legal procedures” for directing and organising “violent and inhuman accomplice acts of terrorist killings”, the newspaper reported. It did not say when the executions were carried out.

Calls for clemency includes pleas from United Nations experts and Cambodia, which holds the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

The military government issued a brief statement confirming the report, while the prison where the men had been held and the prison department refused to comment.

Aung Myo Min, human rights minister for the National Unity Government, a shadow civilian administration established outside Myanmar after the military seized power in February 2021, rejected the allegations that the men were involved in violence.

Kyaw Min Yu
Kyaw Min Yu (AP)

“Punishing them with death is a way to rule the public through fear,” he told The Associated Press.

Among those executed was Phyo Zeya Thaw, a former legislator from ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, also known as Maung Kyaw, who was convicted in January by a closed military court of offences involving explosives, bombings and financing terrorism.

His wife, Thazin Nyunt Aung, told the AP she had not been informed his execution had been carried out. “I am still trying to confirm it myself,” she said.

The 41-year-old had been arrested last November based on information from people detained for shooting security personnel, state media said at the time.

He was also accused of being a key figure in a network that carried out what the military described as terrorist attacks in Yangon, the country’s biggest city.

Phyo Zeya Thaw had been a hip-hop musician before becoming a member of the Generation Wave political movement formed in 2007.

He was jailed in 2008 under a previous military government after being accused of illegal association and possession of foreign currency.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Outsted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi (AP)

Also executed was Kyaw Min Yu, a 53-year-old democracy activist better known as Ko Jimmy, for violating the counter-terrorism law.

Kyaw Min Yu was one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, veterans of a failed 1988 popular uprising against military rule.

He already had spent more than a dozen years behind bars for political activism before his arrest in Yangon last October.

He had been on a wanted list over social media postings that allegedly incited unrest, and state media said he was accused of terrorist acts including mine attacks and heading a group called Moon Light Operation to carry out urban guerrilla attacks.

The other two men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, were convicted of torturing and killing a woman in March 2021 whom they allegedly believed was a military informer.

Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the legal proceedings against the four had been “grossly unjust and politically motivated military trials”.

“The junta’s barbarity and callous disregard for human life aims to chill the anti-coup protest movement,” she said.

Thomas Andrews, an independent UN-appointed expert on human rights who had condemned the decision to go ahead with the executions when they were announced in June, called for a strong international response.

“I am outraged and devastated at the news of the junta’s execution of Myanmar patriots and champions of human rights and decency,” he said in a statement.

“These individuals were tried, convicted and sentenced by a military tribunal without the right of appeal and reportedly without legal counsel, in violation of international human rights law.”

Myanmar’s foreign ministry had rejected the wave of criticism that followed its announcement in June, declaring that the country’s judicial system is fair and that Phyo Zeya Thaw and Kyaw Min Yu were “proven to be masterminds of orchestrating full-scale terrorist attacks against innocent civilians to instil fear and disrupt peace and stability”.

“They killed at least 50 people,” military spokesperson Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun said on live television last month. He said the decision to hang all four prisoners conformed with the rule of law and the purpose was to prevent similar incidents in the future.