Myanmar: Civilians and children killed in military airstrikes as conflict intensifies

Indiscriminate airstrikes by the Myanmar military have killed civilians, including children, amid worsening conflict in the country’s Rakhine and Chin states, new evidence gathered by Amnesty International has revealed today.

These attacks and other serious human rights violations by the Myanmar military are taking place in townships where the internet has been cut off for more than a year. As a result, people have been left without access to information about the threat from COVID-19, and deprived of information about humanitarian assistance.

In May and June, Amnesty remotely interviewed more than two dozen ethnic Rakhine and Chin people affected by the ongoing military operations, analysed fresh satellite imagery of burned-down villages, and verified video footage showing serious violations carried out by the Myanmar military.

The conflict has escalated since an attack by the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group, on 4 January last year against several police posts in northern Rakhine. The incident prompted a retaliatory order from the government to ‘crush’ the armed group, a move which has displaced tens of thousands of people.

Myanmar officially labelled the AA an unlawful organisation on 23 March. Fighting surged between March and May, while Myanmar also dealt with its first COVID-19 cases.

The victims are predominantly from Buddhist and some Christian ethnic minorities, though media reports have also documented violations against Rohingya civilians.

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, said:

“While Myanmar authorities were urging people to stay at home to help stop COVID-19, in Rakhine and Chin states its military was burning down homes and killing civilians in indiscriminate attacks that amount to war crimes.

“The reliance on airstrikes and internet blackouts may be new, but one constant is the military’s remorseless neglect for civilian life.

“Despite mounting international pressure on the military’s operations in the area, including at the International Court of Justice, the shocking testimonies we have collected show just how deep impunity continues to run within Myanmar military ranks.

“The atrocities have not stopped. In fact, the Myanmar military’s cruelty is only getting more sophisticated. This relentless pattern of violations is clearly a matter for the ICC. The Security Council must act.”

Internet blackout during a pandemic

In June 2019, Myanmar authorities shut down the internet in nine conflict-affected townships in Rakhine and Chin States. At the time of writing, only one township has regained mobile internet access.

The government has claimed the internet blackout is necessary because the AA uses mobile internet to coordinate attacks against officials, plant anti-personnel mines, and incite hatred against the authorities. However, the blackout has severely limited public access to information about COVID-19.

One relief worker told Amnesty: “There are only a few people who are aware of COVID-19 in the camps.”

While serious violations by the Myanmar military continue, Amnesty reiterates its call for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in the country to the International Criminal Court.

Indiscriminate air strikes

The Myanmar military’s airpower has inflicted enormous damage. In Chin State, three people from a cluster of ethnic Chin villages called Meik Sar Wa in Paletwa Township described airstrikes which they said took place on 14 and 15 March.

One resident said the attack happened at around 11am, and added: “The whole village saw the plane…the sound was so loud.”

After hearing explosions, he ran to his father’s house and found his brother with a fatal stomach wound, as well as the body of his brother’s 16-year-old friend. He said his uncle, who was in a different house at the time, was also killed.

Two people from another family in the same village cluster told Amnesty that an airstrike killed nine people in their community, including a seven-year-old boy. The boy’s father said: “Our family is destroyed.”

Detention, torture and other violations

Meanwhile, residents have been arbitrarily detained by the military in several townships. A villager from Rakhine State’s Kyauktaw Township witnessed Myanmar soldiers arrest 10 villagers, including her husband, on 16 March. She told Amnesty that soldiers punched, kicked and hit the detainees who resisted. These troops were said to be from the 55th Light Infantry Division, which Amnesty has previously documented as carrying out violations in Rakhine State.

Myanmar soldiers also appear to have regularly confiscated or destroyed civilian property and commandeered monasteries as temporary bases. Amnesty documented similar abusive tactics by soldiers last year.

Residents said soldiers took rice, firewood, blankets and clothes, mobile phones and personal documents, gold bracelets and necklaces. Livestock was slaughtered or taken. Myanmar soldiers also knocked down doors, broke windows, and damaged small Buddhist shrines kept at home.

Amnesty also documented incidents of the burning or destruction of villages in different townships in Rakhine and Chin states. Satellite imagery of several conflict-affected villages shows widescale burning consistent with Myanmar military tactics.  Both the military and the Arakan Army have blamed each other for village burnings.

Arakan Army operations

Amnesty was not able to document operations and abuses by the Arakan Army in the reporting period due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and limited access to conflict-affected areas and witnesses. However, reports suggest the armed group has continued a pattern of abuses previously documented by Amnesty, including endangering lives of civilians during attacks, intimidation of local communities, and arbitrarily depriving people of their liberty.

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