U Phyo Zeya Thaw, a Burmese hip-hop pioneer whose democracy-affirming lyrics led to a career in Parliament and, after Myanmar’s military coup last year, as a resistance leader, was executed on Saturday in Yangon, Myanmar, by the country’s military junta. He was 41.
His execution, and those of three other political prisoners, were announced in the junta-controlled news media on Monday. His mother, Daw Khin Win May, confirmed his death.
The four men were convicted of terrorism charges in trials widely denounced as a sham. The four executions, including that of the veteran democracy activist U Kyaw Min Yu, popularly known as Ko Jimmy, were the first to be carried out in decades in Myanmar.
Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw, already well known as a democracy activist, led an underground resistance cell in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. Many such civilian militias, loosely grouped together as the People’s Defense Force, are led by ousted legislators, pro-democracy activists and even the occasional doctor or lawyer.
After Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw was arrested on terrorism charges last November, the authorities released a photo of him surrounded by weapons that they said he had been planning to use to kill members of the military forces.
His defenders disputed the authenticity of the photo. Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw’s face in the photo was visibly bruised and puffy.
“I laughed when I saw the weapons in the picture,” said Ma Thazin Nyunt Aung, Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw’s fiancée, who said she had been with him when he was arrested. “The military council is an organization that is never trusted because it never tells the truth.”
Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw, who was commonly known as Zayar Thaw (pronounced zay-yahr thaw), was adept at career makeovers.
Toward the end of the military’s first round of iron-fisted rule, in the early 2000s, he fronted one of Myanmar’s first hip-hop groups and co-founded Generation Wave, a collective of rappers, activists and other young people who used music as a medium of dissent.
“With hip-hop, we can express ourselves without fear,” Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw said in a 2011 interview, shortly after he was released from his first stint in prison. “Music can make us brave.”
As the ruling generals began to open up the country and allow members of the long oppressed National League for Democracy to run for Parliament in a 2012 by-election, Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw reinvented himself as a politician, trading his baggy hip-hop outfits for the demure shirt and sarong of the political class. His sideways baseball cap gave way to a neat hairdo worthy of a business executive.
He won a seat in Parliament for the N.L.D., the party of the democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
His was a rare young face in a political party whose stalwarts had grown old battling the military generals who had ruled Myanmar for nearly five decades, a period of international isolation and destruction.
“I was just an activist who rebelled against injustice,” Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw said shortly after his electoral victory. “When I was in prison, I thought seriously about what I wanted. I wanted to end injustice, so I joined the N.L.D.”
He grew close to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, traveling overseas with her and soothing her often cranky dog.
“He is almost like a son to her,” U Win Htein, a now-imprisoned N.L.D. elder, said of Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw in 2019. “He is very obedient. He believes in her, and she believes in him.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who rose to de facto leader of Myanmar after elections in 2015 and 2020, is also imprisoned and has been convicted of crimes that Western governments and human rights groups say are trumped up.
Phyo Zeya Thaw was born on March 26, 1981, in Yangon. His father was a rector of a dental school, and his mother was a dentist. In ninth grade, he told his parents that he wanted to become an artist. They encouraged him to pursue more traditional studies.
A year later, he informed his mother, Ms. Khin Win May, that he wanted to become a D.J.
“I asked him to explain what a D.J. is,” she said. He obliged.
She survives him, along with his father, U Mya Thaw; his sister, Daw Phyu Pa Pa Thaw; and his fiancée, Ms. Thazin Nyunt Aung.
Myanmar was then one of the most closed countries on earth, moldering under the generals’ inept rule. The military secret police terrorized the population. Listening to foreign radio broadcasts or holding foreign currency could result in long prison sentences.
While completing his university studies in English, Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw opened a recording studio and began to form Myanmar’s first major hip-hop band. The band was called Acid, and his music name was Nitric Acid.
In 2007, amid rising fuel prices and yet another economic crisis, Buddhist monks led mass protests in Yangon and other cities, overturning their alms bowls to signal disenchantment with the military junta. Young protesters syncopated their rebellion with local hip-hop.
As it had with previous mass demonstrations, the military ultimately responded with gunfire. Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw then co-founded Generation Wave, a secret band of anti-government hip-hoppers and youth activists.
He was arrested in 2008 and convicted of violating a law-and-order statute and of illegally possessing the equivalent of about $20 in foreign currency.
After his release from prison in 2011, he still performed at occasional gigs, but he began to focus on promoting the National League for Democracy.
With the military agreeing to power-sharing with a civilian authority, he was elected to Parliament in 2012 and re-elected in 2015, this time to represent a district in Naypyidaw, the capital built by the generals early this century to replace Yangon. The military-linked party was shocked by its defeat on home turf.
Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw busied himself as an assistant to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, helping to prepare briefing papers on legislation and peace talks with ethnic minority rebels. He remained loyal, even as she earned international condemnation for her support of the military when it unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims.
During parliamentary season in Naypyidaw, Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw lived in an austere concrete dormitory for legislators, his room outfitted with little more than a hard bed with a mosquito net and a table piled high with legislative paperwork. There was little evidence of his life as one of Myanmar’s most renowned hip-hop artists.
“He liked singing more than politics,” said Ms. Thazin Nyunt Aung, his fiancée. “But he did his duty to the end.”
Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw declined to run for re-election in 2020, hoping to return to rap. The National League for Democracy won an even bigger margin of victory that year. The military-aligned party was mortified.
The putsch came less than three months later, and the country’s top leaders were quickly rounded up and imprisoned.
When mass protests against the new junta spilled onto the streets, Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw joined the rallies. But with soldiers killing unarmed protesters with single shots to the head, even targeting small children, he and others went underground.
His activities in the resistance are not publicly known. He was arrested in November when 300 soldiers descended on the Yangon housing project where he was in hiding.
The military accused the four men executed on Saturday of being responsible for the deaths of at least 50 civilians, as well as soldiers, but it has not publicly presented any evidence of that.
In January, the junta’s court sentenced Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw and the three other activists to death.
“These death sentences, handed down by an illegitimate court of an illegitimate junta, are a vile attempt at instilling fear among the people of Myanmar,” the United Nations said in a statement.
Mr. Phyo Zeya Thaw was hanged before dawn on Saturday, along with the three other democracy activists.
“I will always be proud of my son because he gave his life for the country,” Ms. Khin Win May said. “He is the martyr who tried to bring democracy to Myanmar.”