The musician belongs to the National League for Democracy, and he has been a close ally of Aung San Suu Kyi. The former member of parliament was arrested last November and his wife, Thazin Nyunt Aung, does not know where he is being held.
He and another high-profile figure, pro-democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, have been on death row since January for treason and terrorism. In June, the military approved their executions along with those of two other men, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw.
No dates have been set, but the military is defending the decision as "required action." Spokesperson Zaw Min Tun told a news conference on June 16 that the pro-democracy groups' incitement "caused 50 innocent people to be killed."
The Global New Light of Myanmar reported that Phyo Zeyar Thaw was arrested in November, 2021.
Wall of secrecy
Thazin Nyunt Aung says a wall of secrecy surrounds the arrests and sentences. "The military has announced that the defendants' objections have been rejected, or that their petition has been rejected. But it's completely hidden, so we don't know anything. The military's claims and rulings are based on their unilateral decisions."
Phyo Zeyar Thaw and his wife, Thazin Nyunt Aung, seen at a pro-democracy rally in 2021.
She believes the international community can stop the executions. "He always said that we have to get out of this bad system," she says of her 41-year-old husband, who retired from politics in 2020 to resume the music career that made him famous in his youth.
"If the military actually goes ahead and carries out the death penalty, we believe that would reflect a failure of leaders and young people around the world who claim to value democracy -- but are overlooking our situation."
United Nations makes its case
The planned executions are being condemned by the United Nations, human rights groups, and countries including the United States and France.
Myanmar's Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) says if the sentences are carried out, they would be the country's first executions of political prisoners in 35 years.
Nicholas Koumjian is the head of the UN's Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar.
Nicholas Koumjian, the head of the UN's Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, released a statement on June 20 calling on the military to reconsider: "Imposing a prison or death sentence in such circumstances could constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes.
"The crime against humanity of persecution is the severe denial of a person's fundamental rights under international law when committed on discriminatory grounds, such as a person's political affiliation," the statement read.
Influence of ASEAN
Myanmar expert Nemoto Kei, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, believes the country's military may be resorting to extreme measures because the regime feels cornered.
"The new generation of military leaders has crossed a red line in saying that it is okay to execute people to deal with situations when the people resist," he notes.
Nemoto believes that a protest by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- to which Myanmar belongs -- could yield results.
The group maintains a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members. But on June 10, the prime minister of current chair Cambodia sent a letter to Myanmar's military commander urging that he reconsider the executions.
"Cambodia, the country that understands Myanmar the most, is advising against the death penalty. If Myanmar goes ahead with it, the rest of ASEAN could come together in a united front," says Nemoto. "This suggests ASEAN is challenging Myanmar's domestic judicial decision, despite concerns about interference. It's a big step."
Protesters put up a banner at Shwedagon Pagoda, a major landmark in Yangon, on June 12.
AAPP says 115 people have been put on death row under Myanmar's military rule as of June 24. The figure includes two children.
Protests in mid-June drew large crowds of people whose message was that "the whole country is under a death sentence."
They do not appear to be intimidated, and they aren't about to give up their cause.