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 Myanmar: Potentially War Crime-Inducing Advanced Blast Attack Results in Over 160 Fatalities

A recent and damning report from Human Rights Watch has highlighted the Myanmar military’s use of a “thermobaric” munition in an attack on a Sagaing Region opposition building on April 11, 2023, which resulted in the death of over 160 individuals, including children.

The advanced “enhanced-blast” munition utilised in the assault on the village of Pa Zi Gyi in upper Myanmar has been implicated in the severe and indiscriminate civilian casualties – a clear breach of international humanitarian law. This reprehensible act appears to be a war crime, demonstrating the Myanmar military’s continued and unchecked serious abuses.

The military’s employment of a weapon devised for maximum devastation in an area teeming with civilians is a blatant display of their disregard for human life. This has prompted urgent calls for international governments to sever the junta’s financial, arms, and aviation fuel supply to discourage further atrocities.

In the build-up to the Buddhist new year on April 11, around 300 residents from Kantbalu township convened to inaugurate an opposition-led administrative office in Pa Zi Gyi. Eyewitness accounts relay a chilling narrative of a military jet that dropped at least one munition, which detonated amidst the crowd, followed shortly after by a helicopter gunship that unleashed a barrage of cannons, grenades, and rockets on the fleeing civilians.

The office was designed for civilian activities such as tax filing, township meetings, and judicial processes, although it was also used to store goods, funds, medicines, and some ammunition by the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), an anti-junta militia.

Human Rights Watch’s investigation into photos of the victims and the aftermath of the attacks suggest that the initial assault was carried out with a potent, air-dropped “enhanced-blast” munition. This type of weapon, known as “thermobaric” or a “vapor-cloud explosive,” can cause extensive damage over a wide area and is particularly devastating when used in populated regions.

The Myanmar military, through state media, admitted to the airstrikes on the evening of April 11, claiming that they were targeting PDF members and that the casualties were a result of the strikes hitting PDF explosive and landmine storage units, which subsequently exploded.

Nonetheless, the National Unity Government reports that those who perished were primarily civilian residents of Pa Zi Gyi, including 40 children, with the youngest victim being just 6 months old and the eldest 76. They reported that the total death toll from the attack was 168, although Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm these figures.

International humanitarian law compels all parties in non-international armed conflicts, such as those in Myanmar, to differentiate between combatants and civilians, to ensure that targets are military objectives rather than civilians or civilian objects, and to avoid and minimise civilian loss of life and property.

Since the military coup in February 2021, AOAV has recorded 2,091 civilian casualties in Myanmar, 793 of whom were killed and 1,298 injured. Among the civilian casualties, AOAV has recorded at least 328 children, 249 women, and 365 men.

80% (1,674) of civilian casualties were reportedly killed and injured by the military government, who carried out 85% (323) of their attacks in areas reported as populated.

Overall, AOAV has recorded 577 incidents of explosive weapon use in populated areas in Myanmar, or 55% of all 1,042 recorded incidents. 60% (1,974) of casualties in populated areas were reported as civilians.

Villages are by far the worst affected locations, accouting for both the majority of incidents, 32% (332), and the majority of civilian casualties, 55% (1,153). 263 civilians have been killed and injured at public gatherings, and 109 in places of worship.

Dr Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, strongly condemned the April 11 air strike. “The utilization of such devastating weapons in areas heavily populated by civilians is not only a flagrant violation of international law but a profound betrayal of our shared human values. The loss of innocent lives, including children, is utterly tragic and unacceptable. It’s a stark reminder that the international community must take robust measures to prevent further atrocities,” he said. “We stand with Human Rights Watch in calling for a global halt to funding, arms, and fuel supplies to Myanmar’s military, and for a strong international response to these grave abuses.”