Phyo Zeya Thaw hadn’t been out of jail long when he came to Australia to do a political advisers’ course 10 years ago.
The Myanmar hip-hop artist turned politician – who eventually turned hip-hop artist again – was one of four people executed by the military junta following accusations of terror acts that many considered unfounded.
The executions, the first for decades in the south-east Asian country, were widely condemned on Monday.
Phyo Zeya Thaw had originally been imprisoned in 2008 for the subversive, pro-democracy music he created with his band, Acid. After his release in 2011, he went into politics and won a seat, before AusAid brought him to Australia in 2012.
Peter Yates, a political adviser for the Labor government at the time, spent a month with Phyo Zeya Thaw then and stayed in touch as he worked for leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Phyo Zeya Thaw became a lawmaker in her National League for Democracy which became the ruling party in 2015.
Yates on Monday shared pictures of Phyo Zeya Thaw meeting with then prime minister Julia Gillard, being interviewed by the ABC, and throwing a coin into a water feature at Parliament House.
The execution of democracy activist Ko Phyo Zeya Thaw is beyond shocking. In 2012, the Aust govt supported Ko Zeya Thaw as a newly elected MP, bringing him to Australia and providing him with training. Here he is meeting with PM @JuliaGillard in parliament house. #auspol pic.twitter.com/I1zhvG47YD — Peter Yates (@yatespj) July 25, 2022
Phyo Zeya Thaw left politics to return to activism and music. He was arrested in November 2021 and sentenced to death this year.
He was executed along with Kyaw Min Yu (known as “Ko Jimmy”), Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, who were all convicted after closed trials.
“When [NLD] got elected, Zeya was the most junior MP,” Yates said.
“He was Aung San Suu Kyi’s offsider. He met [US president Barack] Obama in the Oval Office, he had this amazing time as a member of parliament then decided he wanted to go back to rap music.
“He’d had a marriage breakdown, connected with an old rap music lover, and decided to leave politics. And when the coup happened he quickly went back to doing that underground activist work.”
Yates wasn’t able to get in touch with his friend once he was imprisoned, but believes Phyo Zeya Thaw spoke to his wife just days before his death. The ABC reported she didn’t know the execution was set to go ahead.
Yates said he and others had held out hope that the junta was making threats it wouldn’t deliver on, and were shocked when the regime went ahead with the executions. And Australia’s response to the junta’s threats was “extremely limp”, he said.
Australia has maintained pressure on Myanmar to release Australian Prof Sean Turnell, who was also imprisoned by the Myanmar military. However, neither the previous Coalition government nor the current Labor one has implemented sanctions to push for the release of political prisoners.
Human Rights Watch called the executions an “act of utter cruelty”. The acting Asia director, Elaine Pearson, said the executions “followed grossly unjust and politically motivated military trials”.
“This horrific news was compounded by the junta’s failure to notify the men’s families, who learned about the executions through the junta’s media reports,” she said.
“The junta’s barbarity and callous disregard for human life aims to chill the anti-coup protest movement.”
There has not been an execution in Myanmar for decades, but the junta has sentenced dozens of activists after seizing power last year.
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, called the decision a “blatant violation to the right to life, liberty and security of person”.