Military airstrike on civilian village a war crime, says international rights group

The junta’s use of indiscriminate airstrikes is increasing in Myanmar, where violence targeting civilians is some of the highest in the world

It was just before midnight on October 9 when explosives rained down on Mung Lai Hkyet, a village in Myanmar’s northern Kachin State where hundreds of displaced civilians were sheltering. At least 28 civilians were killed, including 10 women, 10 girls, seven men, and one 3-year-old boy. More than 60 were injured.

Nestled high in the mountains near the Myanmar-China border, Mung Lai Hkyet sits just three miles from Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organisation/Army (KIO/A) who have battled Myanmar’s military for decades. Yet there were no KIA fighters in the village that night, a witness told international research and advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW). There had not been any fighting nearby leading up to the incident, nor had there been any warning. 

After interviewing four other witnesses and reviewing 20 images and three videos of the aftermath of the attack, HRW has suggested that the assault—which seems to have consisted of an airstrike followed by a battery of mortar fire—could constitute a war crime.

“We’re actually very careful about designating this type of incident as war crimes because generally you don’t often know what’s happened during airstrikes and after airstrikes until much later,” Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at HRW, told Myanmar Now. “But it’s pretty clear that this was purposely targeting an area that was inhabited by mainly civilian people, that there were no military targets.”

The junta has denied responsibility for the attack, stating that the explosion was caused by munitions that the KIA stored in the village.

But the evidence suggests otherwise, according to HRW, which said that the images reviewed by the organisation show a razed area about 500 metres wide and at least one crater roughly 6 metres deep. According to analysis by Amnesty International’s weapons expert, the size of the crater and the visible damage is consistent with the largest aerial-delivered bombs known to be in the inventory of the Myanmar military.

Maung explained that the observed details of the incident satisfy multiple criteria for war crimes: the junta’s failure to distinguish between civilians and armed groups; the use of unguided weapons leading to indiscriminate attacks; and the apparent targeting of already displaced peoples.

“The whole fact that they didn’t give warning; that it happened in the middle of the night while a civilian population was asleep; the fact that there was not just one hit, which could be accidental, but then a barrage of what we think is artillery or shelling afterwards in the same location—it all suggests and points to an apparent war crime, and that’s how we’ve come to this determination,” Maung said. “It is clear that it’s deliberate and recklessly targeting civilians.”

The junta’s use of airstrikes has increased every month since February, following a marked uptick in such attacks throughout 2022, according to reports by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). An annual report published in February noted that such tactics of oppression were facilitated by the Burmese military’s increased procurement of combat aircraft from Russia and China. It also found that Myanmar recorded more incidents of state forces targeting civilians with violence than any other country in 2022—recording two-and-a-half times the number of such events as the second-highest country, Afghanistan. 

The difference now, according to Maung, is that while in 2022 military airstrikes mainly occurred in areas with strong anti-coup resistance, and typically ceased during the wet season, 2023 has seen them spread to all parts of the country and continue throughout the year.

“It seems like they are becoming more brazen, for sure,” she said. 

It remains unclear why the junta attacked Mung Lai Hkyet rather than the KIA headquarters in nearby Laiza. Some reports, however, have noted an escalation of military violence against civilians in Myanmar’s Kachin and northern Shan states over the past 12 months—specifically in and around areas designated for projects relating to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

A paper published by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) on October 9 noted that the junta’s abuses against civilians—including aerial bombardment, shelling, arbitrary arrests, and the use of civilians as human shields—sharply increased since mid-2022, fuelling the displacement of nearly 14,000 civilians over the past fifteen months. At the same time, the military pursued plans to shut down existing camps in the area, which currently house more than 107,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), in an apparent bid to secure transport routes for China’s expansion of the BRI.

“Already, our mapping shows that most of the human rights abuses by [junta] forces in northern Burma since the February 2021 coup are located alongside planned BRI projects and transport corridors,” the report said. “Since the coup, increased pressure by the [junta] to shut down the IDP camps appears closely linked to their desire to fast-track Chinese investment, as many of the camps lie near planned BRI projects.”

Maung agrees that there is “a big question why” the junta would focus their crosshairs on a village of IDPs so close to the KIA stronghold. She also noted, however, that “this is part and parcel of the Myanmar military’s policy of ‘four cuts,’ [a strategy to undermine resistance forces by sabotaging their access to food, finances, intelligence, and recruits] and ensuring that whatever they do, they come out on top.”

HRW is calling on international governments to enforce a global arms embargo in order to cut off the junta’s access to the aviation fuel that allows them to fly jets and drop bombs on their own civilian populations.

“I think we’ve had some success with targeted sanctions, but I just think that they really aren’t coordinated enough or being implemented or enforced,” Maung said. “I think that is the key issue: that enforcement is really weak or really slow. And of course, at the crux of it is that the UN Security Council really hasn’t come together to ensure that the Myanmar military can’t keep committing these crimes.”

Matthew Wells, Director of Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Programme, echoed Maung’s position.

“The world must wake up to the horror unfolding daily in Myanmar,” he said, in a statement cited by an Amnesty International report on Friday. “The UN Security Council should impose a long-overdue arms embargo, including on the supply of aviation fuel, as the Myanmar military repeatedly unleashes its arsenal on civilians across the country.”

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