The number of casualties from a Myanmar military airstrike on a gathering at Pa Zi Gyi village in Sagaing Region continued to rise on Thursday, exceeding 160, according to figures compiled by the National Unity Government (NUG) and local sources.
Just before 8am on Tuesday, a junta fighter jet dropped two bombs on 200 people who were attending an opening ceremony for the new office of the Kanbalu Township People’s Administration Team, operating under the publicly mandated NUG, which the military council has designated a terrorist organisation. Soon after the initial aerial bombardment, an Mi-35 helicopter opened fire on the area for 10 minutes.
Many of the bodies found after the attack were crushed, dismembered or burnt beyond recognition. Sources on the ground said it had taken three days to retrieve the dead as the military continued to send aircraft over the area, threatening further strikes.
Kyaw Wanna, a leader within the anti-junta Red Peacock Defence Force who was among the volunteers searching for corpses in the aftermath of the brutal assault, said that the remains of 158 people had been found and cremated as of Thursday afternoon; the bodies of 130 of the victims had remained intact. Volunteers also cremated body parts and limbs of victims whose bodies were not found whole.
According to a spokesperson from Battalion 4 of the Kanbalu District People’s Defence Force (PDF), which is also involved in the volunteer efforts, among the victims were 78 men, 22 women, and 23 children, as well as 35 people whose sex and age could not be determined due to the condition of their bodies. The youngest victims were two infants, three and seven months old, he said, and added that three of the women who had been killed were pregnant.
He told Myanmar Now that locals were still working with the volunteers to identify the dead, most of whom were from Pa Zi Gyi, since members of every village household were present at the event. However, most surviving relatives had since fled the area, he explained, adding that it may take several more days to confirm details regarding who is among the deceased.
Volunteers may also locate more bodies as they continue to comb the area, the Kanbalu PDF spokesperson said.
“We can’t retrieve the bodies in the afternoons because it is extremely hot. We have to resume our search in the mornings,” he told Myanmar Now, noting that there were still people who remained unaccounted for.
In addition to those found dead surrounding the blast site, five of some 50 injured survivors—four women and one man—also died of their injuries at a local clinic hours after the aerial assault, raising the number of casualties at the time of reporting to 163, according to local estimates.
Most of those who are injured are in critical condition, with 17 reportedly undergoing major surgeries at an undisclosed location, including a pregnant woman who had to have her hand amputated.
In a video statement released on Thursday, Nay Phone Latt, spokesperson for the NUG’s Prime Minister’s Office, said that the death toll stood at 165, but noted that the number may yet increase.
Myanmar Now is unable to independently verify the number of people killed in the attack.
Myanmar army spokesperson Zaw Min Tun later attempted to justify the attack by stating that “terrorist” PDF members were present at the gathering, alleging that they had forced local civilians to participate. He claimed the event was held at a location where the resistance had stored weapons and gunpowder, suggesting that the casualties were not solely caused by the military’s actions.
In the wake of the attack, international officials, including those from the US State Department, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, expressed concern and issued condemnations.
On Thursday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also released a statement denouncing the airstrike.
“All forms of violence must end immediately, particularly the use of force against civilians,” ASEAN’s current chair, Indonesia, said. “This would be the only way to create a conducive environment for an inclusive national dialogue to find a sustainable peaceful solution in Myanmar.”
Rights group Justice for Myanmar (JFM) said in a Friday statement that “words of concern are not enough,” and that “the junta’s international crimes must be met with international action.”
The junta’s “act of terrorism” was made possible by the “complicity” of ASEAN, China, Russia and international companies that continue to supply funding, weapons and jet fuel to the military, according to JFM.
The group pointed out that Russia and China—permanent members of the UN Security Council which have blocked international action against Myanmar’s junta—continue to be the military council’s primary suppliers of combat aircraft.
Meanwhile, JFM described ASEAN as having “impeded an effective international response to the Myanmar military’s illegal coup attempt and campaign of terror” through the pursuit of its “failed Five Point Consensus.” It also denounced ASEAN’s legitimisation of the junta by allowing continued participation in security exercises and certain meetings, and through the provision of army training.
The group called for recognition of the NUG, a global arms embargo on the junta, a ban on jet fuel sales, and sanctions imposed on oil and gas and businesses providing supplies including arms to the military.