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Myanmar: Airstrike on Village an Apparent War Crime

Attack in Kachin State Shows Need for Arms Embargo, Aviation Fuel Bans

Homes destroyed after air and artillery strikes in Mung Lai Hkyet village, in Kachin State, Myanmar, October 10, 2023. © 2023 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar military attacked a village hosting hundreds of displaced civilians in Kachin State on October 9, 2023, killing 28 civilians, including 11 children, committing an apparent war crime, Human Rights Watch said today. The nighttime attack on Mung Lai Hkyet, which also injured more than 60 people and caused extensive damage to civilian structures, did not appear to be targeting a military objective.

Human Rights Watch interviewed five witnesses and reviewed 20 images and three videos of the aftermath of the attack, which suggest Myanmar forces initially conducted an airstrike on the village, then fired a barrage of ground-launched mortars or artillery. Images of areas hit by the initial strike show debris and damage consistent with the effects of shockwaves from large high-explosive bombs delivered by aircraft. Human Rights Watch found no evidence of opposition armed groups in the vicinity of the village at the time of the attack.

“The Myanmar military’s repeated strikes and shelling of a village filled with displaced people were either unlawfully deliberate or indiscriminate,” said Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Concerned governments shouldn’t just condemn this reckless disregard for civilian life, they should take meaningful and concrete actions to stop the military from committing future violations.”

Mung Lai Hkyet is located about five kilometers from the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) headquarters in Laiza, near the border with China. For decades, the KIA has been engaged in conflict with the Myanmar military, which has a long record of committing war crimes in Kachin State and elsewhere. When a ceasefire with the KIA broke down in 2011, Mung Lai Hkyet, which was mainly inhabited by ethnic Lisu, began hosting internally displaced people fleeing the renewed hostilities.

Clashes in Kachin State have increased since the KIA opposed Myanmar’s military coup in February 2021, causing further displacements to areas such as Mung Lai Hkyet. The KIA has also been training recruits in new armed groups opposing Myanmar’s junta.

A resident of Mung Lai Hkyet told Human Rights Watch that despite the KIA’s presence in Laiza, there were no KIA fighters in the village due to a nightly curfew and there had been no fighting near the village leading up to the incident.

A Laiza resident told Human Rights Watch that the first explosion was the loudest and could also be felt in Laiza: “It shook everything and then we heard a few more, smaller blasts.”

Witnesses told local media that they woke to the sound of the first blast around 11:30 p.m. followed by at least four more blasts. Images of the aftermath show a razed area about 500 meters wide and at least one crater roughly 6 meters deep, splintered wood from buildings, and twisted metal from vehicles.

The Laiza resident, who went to Mung Lai Hkyet the next morning to assist, said that villagers described hearing shells hissing through the air as they ran for cover. “It’s a sound we’re familiar with since up here, we’ve all experienced the military’s attacks,” the resident said. “But when you see the damage, it could not just have been shells that did this.”

 The aftermath of air and artillery strikes in Mung Lai Hkyet village, in Kachin State, Myanmar, October 10, 2023. © 2023 Private

All six members of one family were killed in the attack, while in another family the only surviving members were a 1-month-old and a 3-year-old, the resident said. Among those killed were 10 women, 10 girls younger than 18, seven men, and one 3-year-old boy.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a local hospital’s patient registry from October 11 that lists 15 injured survivors, including five children, receiving ongoing treatment.

Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a military spokesperson, denied responsibility for the attack in state media and suggested the explosion was caused by explosives stored in the village by the KIA.

The Myanmar military has repeatedly conducted airstrikes on populated areas in violation of the laws of war. In April, Myanmar forces killed at least 160 people in an airstrike using a thermobaric bomb – or “fuel-air explosive” – in Sagaing Region.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED) reported that airstrikes in Myanmar have increased every month since February this year.

The laws of war prohibit attacks that target civilians and civilian objects, that do not or cannot discriminate between civilians and combatants, or that are expected to cause harm to civilians or civilian property that is disproportionate to any anticipated military advantage.

The laws of war require parties to a conflict to distinguish at all times between civilian objects and military objectives, and attacking forces must do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives. If there is doubt as to whether an object normally used for civilian purposes, such as a school, is being used for military purposes, it should be presumed not to be.

Individuals committing or ordering serious laws-of-war violations with criminal intent, meaning deliberately or recklessly, are responsible for war crimes. The repeated unlawful attacks on Mung Lai Hkyet, without demonstrating the presence of military targets, strongly suggest that the attack was deliberate or reckless.

United Nations officials, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other groups have repeatedly said that the UN Security Council should impose an arms embargo on the Myanmar military and measures to cut off its aviation fuel, as well as targeted sanctions on the military’s revenues.

The United States, European Union, United Kingdom, and other countries have imposed targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military and its business and banking interests, meant to pressure the military to stem abuses and engage with diplomatic efforts over Myanmar’s current crisis. Several concerned governments have taken bilateral steps to block sales or transfers of aviation fuel. Concerned governments should better coordinate to enforce those sanctions and make them more effective, while pressing the Security Council to match them globally, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Myanmar military won’t stop committing atrocities until other governments work together to impose real economic restrictions and meaningful blockages of weapons, fuel, and materiel,” Maung said. “The status quo will only bring more war crimes and civilian deaths.”

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