(New York) – Myanmar’s armed forces and the three ethnic armed groups fighting in northern Shan State should safeguard civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Renewed fighting since August 15, 2019 has resulted in the deaths of at least 17 civilians and injured 27, many of them women and children, according to the United Nations.
Approximately 7,500 people were displaced by the fighting in August, and 3,500 remain in temporary shelters. Nongovernmental groups have told Human Rights Watch that armed forces on both sides have stopped humanitarian aid convoys from traveling to affected populations, resulting in shortages of food and medicine.
“Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups should recognize that protecting civilians is a core obligation of the laws of war,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “All sides to the conflict should cease unlawful attacks against civilians and ensure that aid reaches people in need.”
Since independence in 1948, the Myanmar government has been engaged in numerous armed conflicts with ethnic armed groups across the country. Four of those armed groups, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Arakan Army, and Kachin Independence Army, have allied into a coalition called the Northern Alliance.
The recent hostilities began on August 15 after the Northern Alliance forces, minus the Kachin Independence Army, carried out coordinated attacks on military targets and civilian structures in Lashio, Nawnghkio, and Pyin Oo Lwin, near Mandalay.
The attacks killed seven security personnel at a guard post at the Goktwin bridge in Nawnghkio, an important trade route into China, and three security personnel at a military training institution, the Defense Services Technological Academy, in Pyin Oo Lwin.
The Myanmar military quickly counterattacked, with the heaviest fighting near the town of Kutkai close to the China border, and across northeastern Lashio township. The conflict has spread across the main Lashio-Muse highway and is affecting civilians in Lashio, Hseni, Kutkai, Kyaukme, Nawnghkio, and Muse townships.
On August 17, a rescue worker was killed and others traveling in an ambulance outside of Lashio were wounded when they came under attack from sniper fire and a rocket-propelled grenade. A survivor of the attack told Reuters that Northern Alliance fighters were responsible. The laws of war prohibit attacks on ambulances and other medical transport unless they are being used for military purposes.
On August 31, five civilians, three of them children, were killed in Kutkai after heavy shelling between the Myanmar military and Northern Alliance forces. Two others were wounded when a mortar shell hit their home. No side has claimed responsibility for these attacks, and each side has blamed the other.
The Myanmar military reportedly launched a helicopter attack in Kutkai township on September 2, causing heavy damage to a monastery and some civilian property. Civilians from the villages of Man Htan and Hui Khut fled to monasteries in Kutkai town.
A group of 346 nongovernmental organizations condemned the fighting in a statement on September 3, demanding an immediate end to attacks on civilians. On September 4, the acting UN resident coordinator in Myanmar, June Kunugi, issued a statement that at least 17 civilians had been killed in the recent fighting in northern Shan State.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, require the parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and “take all feasible precautions” to minimize incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. All warring parties are prohibited from deliberately attacking civilians or civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. Indiscriminate attacks are attacks that strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction. An attack is disproportionate if it could be expected to cause civilian loss greater than the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack. Explosive weapons with wide area effects, such as artillery and mortar shells, should be avoided in populated areas due to the foreseeable harm to civilians.
The fighting as well as transportation restrictions on roads have prevented humanitarian aid from reaching civilians at risk. A nongovernmental group based in Kutkai told Human Rights Watch that only local donations from community members were being distributed in camps and monasteries where internally displaced people have taken shelter. They said no aid from international humanitarian agencies had yet reached them.
A September 4 social media post by a local news outlet reported that the Kutkai hospital was running out of medicine but had managed to distribute out-of-date drugs to internally displaced people needing medical care. The same day, fighting northeast of Lashio in the Mong Yaw area displaced about 17 households.
Under the laws of war, parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate the rapid passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in need and not interfere with it arbitrarily. Parties must also ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian workers, which can only be restricted temporarily for reasons of imperative military necessity.
“It’s crucial that all sides to the conflict stop unnecessarily restricting the free movement of humanitarian agencies and civilians fleeing the fighting,” Adams said.