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Myanmar: Military should be investigated for war crimes in response to 'Operation 1027'

© STR/AFP via Getty Images

Myanmar military arbitrarily detained civilians and looted valuables

Use of cluster munitions in Shan State 

'Nearly three years after the coup, the suffering of civilians across Myanmar shows no signs of easing' - Matt Wells

Myanmar’s military has unlawfully killed, arbitrarily detained and stolen from civilians as it struggles to contain the heaviest outburst of armed resistance since the 2021 coup, Amnesty International said today.

Hostilities have significantly escalated since 27 October, when three ethnic armed organisations — the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army — launched coordinated attacks on military posts on the country’s northeastern border with China, in an offensive known as ‘Operation 1027’. The fighting represents the heaviest clashes since the coup, according to the UN.

Other armed groups fighting the military have increased their operations as well, collectively seizing territory and military posts and capturing soldiers.

Drawing on interviews with civilians from Pauktaw township in Rakhine State and analyses of photographs, video material and satellite imagery, Amnesty has documented likely indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian objects as well as, in northern Shan State, the use of banned cluster munitions, all of which should be investigated as war crimes.

Matt Wells, Director of Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Programme, said:

“The Myanmar military has a blood-stained résumé of indiscriminate attacks with devastating consequences for civilians, and its brutal response to a major offensive by armed groups fits a longstanding pattern.

“Nearly three years after the coup, the suffering of civilians across Myanmar shows no signs of easing, even as the issue has largely fallen off the international agenda.

“As the world stands by, the Myanmar military is again showing the brutality it unleashes on civilians. The UN Security Council must urgently impose an arms embargo to protect civilians from further catastrophe.

“The military’s impunity must finally end. We reiterate our call to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court and bring the perpetrators of crimes under international law to justice.”

Elderly and disabled left behind in Pauktaw town

On the morning of 16 November, Myanmar’s military began firing by air into Pauktaw town, Rakhine State, after the Arakan Army captured a police station.

After its morning attack, the military ordered all civilians to leave within one hour. According to Amnesty interviews with nine civilians present at the time and with a monk from a nearby village, most of Pauktaw’s 20,000 residents fled immediately. But at least several hundred were unable to evacuate before the military’s attacks resumed that afternoon.

One community worker, said many older people and people with disabilities were left behind despite local volunteers’ efforts.

Many civilians sought refuge within the Lawka Hteik Pan pagoda compound on the town’s outskirts.

Videos and photographs analysed by Amnesty’s weapons investigator show that Mi-24 Hind helicopters fired 57mm S-5K rockets, and ships fired 40mm high-explosive shells, into the city on 16 November. Only the Myanmar military operates those weapon systems.

The use of these inaccurate weapons in populated areas raises concerns about the Myanmar military’s ability to distinguish between military targets and civilians or civilian objects. The attacks may thus be indiscriminate and, as such, should be investigated as war crimes.

After the firing stopped, soldiers entered the Lawka Hteik Pan compound and arrested the people who were hiding there, according to four civilians present at the time.

“I was arrested at gunpoint,” said a 24-year-old woman, who had sought shelter there with her family, including a young child. “The soldiers asked me if I was a member of the AA [Arakan Army]… I couldn't say anything because I was so scared.”

Three women — two teachers and a pregnant popsicle vendor — were killed while hiding inside the Lawka Hteik Pan compound, according to one person who was also taking shelter in the compound and another person who saw the bodies. Amnesty could not independently determine how the women were killed, but the person who saw the bodies indicated they had gunshot wounds.

The same day, a 76-year-old monk was killed in the same compound. A person who saw the body told Amnesty the monk was killed by a strike, not gunfire.

The Arakan Army has reported that the monk was killed by a naval artillery shell. Amnesty has not been able to independently verify that detail, including after reviewing photographs of the monk’s body.

Soldiers arrest, pillage and loot

That night, soldiers forced the more than 100 civilians at the Lawka Hteik Pan compound to stay outside in the heavy rain. “Some people’s hands were tied behind their backs,” said the 24-year-old woman arrested at gunpoint. “We all had to sit in the rain all night. At dawn the next day, they forced us to enter the temple [and] locked the door.”

A 28-year-old woman who stayed in the town with her parents said soldiers from the Myanmar military discovered the place where they were hiding with two other families, taking all the men and leaving the women and children behind after stealing their valuables including gold, cash and mobile phones. At dawn the next morning, another group of soldiers came and arrested the rest.

The following day, soldiers also arrested a 60-year-old shopkeeper along with three other people with whom he had been hiding and two other people living on his street, bringing them to the Lawka Hteik Pan compound. “They threatened that they could kill all of us,” he said.

Those trapped at the Lawka Hteik Pan compound described being locked inside the prayer hall and denied food and water for two days. They also said soldiers took their mobile phones and other valuables. 

After two days, the soldiers selected a handful of men to collect food from the town. “Some of the arrested men were called and forced to break into the stalls in the market and take food,” said the 24-year-old woman.

The arrest and detention of persons sheltering in the Lawka Hteik Pan compound amount to arbitrary deprivation of liberty. The treatment of the detained civilians, including through denial of food and water and exposure to extreme weather, violates the principle of humane treatment. Moreover, the stealing of civilians’ private property amounts to pillage, which is prohibited under international humanitarian law and constitutes a war crime.

On 21 November, the Arakan Army drove military forces out of Pauktaw and evacuated the captives from the Lawka Hteik Pan compound. Witnesses said that, as they escaped, the military fired on the town.

In the following days, the military continued to fire on civilian infrastructure in Pauktaw from the sea and air.

Amnesty reviewed satellite imagery of Pauktaw, though high-resolution imagery coverage is limited. A clear image captured on 1 December shows multiple areas with extensive burning, damage and destruction, including a probable market, probable civilian homes and areas around religious sites.

In addition, the false-colour, near-infrared satellite imagery shows major destruction to buildings within a hospital compound and a crater nearby. The level of destruction and the size of the nearby crater suggest this damage was likely the result of air strikes. Imagery indicates the destruction occurred between 21 and 23 November.

Evidence of cluster munitions

Amnesty also documented an attack on Namkham township in northern Shan State. Late in the evening of 1 December or very early on 2 December, the Myanmar military conducted an air strike on Namkham using bombs that were most likely cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions are internationally banned as they are inherently indiscriminate, and their use constitutes a war crime.

Amnesty’s weapons investigator analysed five photographs of ordnance scrap recovered at the scene, and identified the remains of a cluster munitions dispenser.

In addition, two videos provided to Amnesty, and confirmed by the organization’s Crisis Evidence Lab as newly posted online, show the moment of the attack. After the sound of a passing jet aircraft, there are approximately 10 detonations in a line over the course of three seconds.

The videos are dark, as the attack was at night, but the aircraft use and pattern of detonations are consistent with the deployment of air-dropped cluster munitions. According to a report by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the attack killed one local resident, injured five others, and damaged some homes.

The tail kit, exposed electronics, and internal plumbing of the dispenser scrap in the photographs match the remnants of previous cluster munitions used in attacks by the Myanmar military.

Amnesty International has previously documented the military’s unlawful use of cluster munitions in attacks on a community gathering in a school in Mindat township in Chin State in July 2022, on a village in Demoso township in Kayah State in April 2022, and during fighting in Kayin State in April 2022.

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