Myanmar’s military bombs village ceremony killing scores of civilians

By RFA Burmese

UPDATED at 00:15 a.m. EDT on April 11, 2023

As many as 100 villagers have been killed and more than 50 injured when junta aircraft bombed a crowd of hundreds attending an office opening ceremony in Sagaing region’s Kanbalu township, locals said.

The air strike is one of the deadliest attacks on civilians since Myanmar's military seized power in a Feb. 1, 2021 coup d'etat.

Most of the injured and dead were women and children, witnesses told RFA. They said it was hard to tell how many people had died because the bodies were so badly mangled by the bombs and machine gun fire, but by Monday afternoon, the bodies of at least 53 people had been collected.

“I saw the bodies of four to six children who had been blown about 100 feet [30 meters from the building],” said a local who didn’t want to be identified.

“I saw bodies ripped open and burnt.”

Sources said that at least 20 children were among those killed in the air strike on Pa Zi Gyi village, although RFA was unable to confirm the claim.

Another resident who spoke on condition of anonymity said there were "too many finger-size bits of body parts all over the streets," adding that one could "barely walk without stepping on them."

"Some bodies were headless, while some heads were without bodies. There is no way to identify who the bodies belong to," the resident said. "The junta aircraft hovered around the village and shot at everyone from all angles, aiming at locations where civilians might be hiding."

Nway Oo, a relief worker, said the injured are being transported to clinics in nearby villages operated by the anti-junta People's Defense Force and are receiving medical treatment.

“Most of them are people with their hands or legs blown off," he said. "As we are transporting them in four-wheel drive vehicles, we can only bring 4-7 people at a time. We have to be vigilant and listen for the sound of junta aircraft before we enter and exit the village."

Nway Oo said that a military junta troop is stationed in nearby in Ma Lel village, hampering efforts to transport the injured.

An eyewitness to the attack told RFA that the military had "received specific information about the opening of the public administration office" ahead of time and "deliberately carried out an air raid on the civilian crowd."

"The junta attacked a crowd of ordinary civilians including women, children and pregnant women," he said. "There were no resistance fighters in that crowd.”

Videos of the bombing site shot by citizen journalists and viewed by RFA showed a barren expanse strewn with various body parts, punctuated by the smoking ruins of structures and destroyed motorbikes. Residents and anti-junta fighters can be seen dragging mutilated corpses for collection and identification as they comb through the carnage.

Junta statements on attack

People Media, the news agency of the Union Solidarity and Development Party – which serves as the junta’s electoral proxy party – said the army’s Northwestern Regional Headquarters carried out Tuesday morning’s attack on Pa Zi Gyi village. It did not mention the number of casualties.

Junta Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun claimed in comments carried by the pro-junta MRTV station that anti-junta forces, including the PDF, had assumed control of Kanbalu township through force and that the military had only targeted combatants during the ceremony.

"[The PDF] says villagers were killed when pictures are circulated of victims wearing civilian clothing, but when they carry out an attack, they claim that the same sort of victims are PDF," he said, suggesting that anti-junta forces had either doctored photos from the air strike or misreported casualties. "Additionally, the PDF hides their mines and other weapons there, so when we attacked, it triggered much larger explosions and caused more casualties."

Zaw Min Tun reiterated junta claims that the PDF is "a terrorist organization" that regularly commits "war crimes," including threatening villagers and setting fire to their homes, in contrast to reports RFA has received that accuse the military of such tactics.

Death toll expected to rise

Tuesday's air strike happened during the inauguration of a public administration office established by Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government, Nay Zin Lat, the National League for Democracy MP for Kanbalu township told RFA.

A statement from NUG President Duwa Lashi La said the death toll was expected to rise.

“They were men, women, and children who posed no threat to the Myanmar military,” he said in the statement posted on Facebook.

“The military continues its mindless war on our country’s own people. Their sole aim is to consolidate power through death and destruction. They will not succeed.”

The junta dissolved the NLD last month after the party failed to re-register with the Election Commission but members continue to work with the NUG to try to restore democracy in Myanmar and carry out administrative work in areas not under junta control. Locals said junta troops carry out frequent raids on Pa Zi Gyi.

Nay Zin Lat said many people died on the spot after a jet fighter dropped two bombs and an Mi-35 attack helicopter fired over 200 shots from its machine guns. He said more than 800 locals were attending the ceremony.

“There was a group of local residents who were discussing how to manage social issues in the community,” he said.

“They were bombarded by the air and shot at non-stop with machine guns. The shooting took about 15 minutes.”

He said the injured were taken to nearby villages and some local voluntary groups were providing medical treatment.

Nay Zin Lat urged organizations including the United Nations and the international community to do more to block the junta's supply of jet fuel and called for a more effective ban on the sale of arms and ammunition to the regime.

RFA called Aye Hlaing, Sagaing region’s junta spokesperson and social affairs minister, but no one answered.

International response

Tuesday's attack drew condemnation from a number of international organizations including the United Nations and rights groups.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for "those responsible to be held accountable" and for the injured to be allowed medical treatment and access to assistance.

U.N. Human Rights Chief Volker Turk said he was "horrified" by the attack, noting reports that schoolchildren performing dances, as well as other civilians, were among the victims.

"Despite clear legal obligations for the military to protect civilians in the conduct of hostilities, there has been blatant disregard for the related rules of international law," he said in a statement.

The U.S. State Department said the attacks in Sagaing region and Chin state this month underscore the junta's disregard for human life.

"The United States calls on the Burma regime to cease the horrific violence, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and to respect the genuine and inclusive democratic aspirations of the people of Burma," a spokesperson said.

"The military regime must abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law, including rules on the protection of civilians. The United States will continue to work with the international community to hold the regime accountable for violations and abuses committed in Burma."

London-based Amnesty International's Business and Human Rights Researcher Montse Ferrer said in a statement that Tuesday's attack and other junta air raids “highlight the urgent need to suspend the import of aviation fuel" to Myanmar's Air Force. "This supply chain fuels violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, and it must be disrupted in order to save lives," he said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA that "there's no justification for bombing a group of civilians."

"You can't just fly an airplane over a group of civilians and drop a bomb on them and say that because a few people may be militants that it was justified," he said. "That is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, it's a clear violation of the laws of war," he added, calling for a thorough investigation of the incident and a ban on aviation fuel to the junta.

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University, condemned the air strike "another outrageous attack on a civilian population by a regime that is increasingly desperate to achieve its strategic goals."

"The military's doctrine of counter-insurgency is ... based on terrorizing the population into submission -- it is based on intentional targeting of civilians," he said, adding that "air attacks are just part of that."

"[Air strikes] are an acknowledgement that the military is just stretched so thin right now ... They're spread all over the country in this multi-front war and so they're increasingly reliant on air attacks and long-range artillery because they simply cannot fight on the ground."

Tuesday's air strike came just one day after a junta jet fighter dropped bombs near a high school in Chin state's Falam township, killing nine civilians and injuring four others, according to residents.

Translated by RFA Burmese. Edited by Mike Firn and Joshua Lipes.

This story has been updated to include comments from junta Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun, eyewitnesses to the attack, local aid workers, and international organizations.