Myanmar Prime Minister Min Aung Hlaing

The Myanmar military’s attack on a village hosting hundreds of displaced civilians is an ‘apparent war crime’, Human Rights Watch has said. According to the NGO, the airstrike on Mung Lai Hkyet in Kachin State on October 9 which killed 28 civilians did not appear to be targeting a military objective.

Human Rights Watch says it has interviewed five witnesses and reviewed both photographic and video evidence of the aftermath of the attack. It concludes that Myanmar forces initially conducted an airstrike on the village, then fired a barrage of ground-launched mortars or artillery. The NGO says that 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 aircrafts, and that no evidence of opposition armed groups in the vicinity of the village could be found at the time of the attack.

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 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. They added: “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.

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. According to Human Rights Watch, 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 officialsHuman Rights WatchAmnesty 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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