“Bullets Rained from the Sky”: War Crimes and Displacement in Eastern Myanmar

May 31st, 2022  •  Author:   Amnesty International  •  12 minute read
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Executive Summary

Since seizing power in a coup d’état on 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military has committed massive human rights violations across the country. Armed conflict has erupted or escalated in several regions, including in Kayin and Kayah States, on the country’s eastern border with Thailand. The military’s operations there have reflected its signature policy of collective punishment of civilian communities perceived to support an armed group or, in the coup’s aftermath, the wider protest movement. Amid international inaction and waning global interest, the military has proceeded to attack civilians and civilian infrastructure from the air and the ground, unleashing a new wave of war crimes and likely crimes against humanity that have caused mass displacement and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

Among other crimes during its ongoing operations, the military has repeatedly fired explosive weapons with wide area effects, including artillery and mortars, into civilian areas; witnesses described to Amnesty International barrages that lasted days. Amnesty International documented 24 attacks by artillery or mortars between December 2021 and March 2022 that killed or injured civilians or that damaged civilian objects in eastern Myanmar. On 5 March 2022, as families were eating or preparing dinner, shelling in Ka Law Day village, Hpapun Township, Kayin State, killed seven people, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, and injured three others. A close family member of four of the people who were killed said he sat in his house all night looking at the bodies before burying them in the morning to avoid having himself or others injured by further shelling.

In another attack that month, people from Ta Maw Daw village, Thaton Township, Mon State, gathered for a Buddhist religious festival when mortars landed on the event. Two women in their 50s along with a sevenyear-old boy were killed; 11 other civilians were injured. “It’s not right what they did to us. It’s a religious event,” said Myat Htoo, 46, who was there with two daughters performing a traditional Karen dance. “Since that incident, villagers including myself could not sleep in our houses… We have to live in fear.”

For decades, ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) in Myanmar, including in Kayin and Kayah States, have been engaged in a struggle for greater rights and autonomy. Ceasefires, many of which held uneasily for years amid military provocation and continued marginalization of ethnic minorities, have broken down after the coup, and new armed resistance groups have emerged. Since armed conflict resumed in eastern Myanmar in early 2021, military attacks have killed hundreds of civilians, displaced more than 150,000 and destroyed numerous homes, schools, health facilities and houses of worship.

During research conducted in March and April 2022, including two weeks on the Thailand-Myanmar border, Amnesty International investigated violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed in the context of the non-international armed conflicts in eastern Myanmar. This report covers the period of December 2021 to March 2022, during which fighting escalated significantly in Kayin and Kayah States. It examines the situation in those two states as well as in some bordering areas of Mon and southern Shan States. Researchers interviewed 99 people, including direct witnesses of attacks, defectors from the Myanmar military, medical professionals and aid workers. Amnesty International also verified videos and photographs related to human rights violations, reviewed logs of aircraft observations by flight spotters, and analysed satellite imagery and fire data of village burning and other destruction.

As part of the research, delegates met with the Minister of Human Rights in the National Unity Government. On 17 May 2022, Amnesty International also sent a letter to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commanderin-Chief of Defence Services, summarizing its findings and requesting information related to the violations by forces under his overall command. No response had been received at the time of publication.

The conflict in Kayin State tends primarily to pit the Myanmar military against the Karen National Union / Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), one of the oldest and largest EAOs in Myanmar, going back to the late 1940s. In Kayah State, the main EAO is the Karenni National Progressive Party / Karenni Army (KNPP/KA), whose conflict with the military dates to 1957. In both Kayin and Kayah States, EAOs control significant territory, especially in rural areas, and have their own administrative structures, members of which Amnesty International met with during the research.

Since the military’s latest power grab, local armed opposition groups known as People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) have established themselves across the country under different command structures. Some PDFs have been trained by and report to EAOs, while others fall under the command of the National Unity Government (NUG), an administration in hiding and exile formed by many of those elected in the November 2020 elections that preceded the coup, as well as members of civil society organizations, some EAOs and other representatives of ethnic minorities.

In addition to unlawful ground attacks killing and injuring civilians, Amnesty International documented destruction or damage to civilian objects by shelling in 19 villages, including homes, schools, health facilities, churches, and monasteries. Myanmar military fire has reportedly damaged more than 100 religious buildings
in conflict areas across the country since the coup, including at least eight churches between January and March 2022 in Kayah State alone. Through witness testimony as well as the verification of photo and video material, Amnesty International documented at least seven incidents in which religious buildings were
damaged or destroyed by Myanmar military attacks; four were by shelling, three were by air strikes. Researchers also documented three attacks on schools in Kayin and Kayah States as well as the military’s occupation of schools in at least four villages.

Amnesty International’s findings highlight the military’s increasing use of air strikes in civilian areas, relying on both legacy systems and newer fighters, including Russian and Chinese jets. In eight documented air strikes that took place between January and March 2022, nine civilians were killed and at least nine others
injured; civilian objects were also damaged. Around 1am on 5 February 2022, the military carried out an air attack on Ta Dwee Koh village, Hpapun Township, Kayin State, killing two people and injuring several more. “I want [the Myanmar military] to see the suffering they caused us… They’re the ones who came to our area
and caused this suffering,” said a 23-year-old woman who sustained serious injury to her lower spine and continued to be in severe pain when interviewed by Amnesty International almost two months later.

Those who fled their villages seeking refuge in the jungle or in displacement sites have not been spared. On 17 January 2022, air strikes hit Ree Khee Bu IDP camp in Kayah State, killing a man in his 50s as well as 15- and 12-year-old sisters. Local authorities and civil society activists said the camp should have been well known to the military and that, on aerial surveillance, would appear distinct from an armed group base.

There are several documented incidents in which Myanmar soldiers deliberately shot civilians either as people were going about their daily life or even as they fled attacks. A 26-year-old woman was one of several witnesses who described soldiers shooting dead at least six civilians as they tried to escape to Thailand across the Moei River in mid-January 2022. In another incident, soldiers shot a 13-year-old boy who had gone to collect plums by the bank of the Yun Salin River, near Hpapun town in Kayin State on 3 March 2022. “My leg still hurts when I walk,” the boy told Amnesty International around three weeks later. “I don’t feel good in my heart… [The conflict] has nothing to do with me… and now I got shot for no reason.”

Furthermore, soldiers have committed a range of detention-related violations in eastern Myanmar, including unlawful deprivation of liberty, torture and other ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions and apparent enforced disappearances. Soldiers have targeted activists, politicians and other members of the Civil Disobedience
Movement (CDM) who fled to EAO-controlled territories in fear of reprisals by the military authorities for protesting against the coup and military crackdown. Troops have also rounded up other civilians on the basis of their ethnicity, especially those from Karen and Karenni communities, as they travel to or from or remain
in villages largely abandoned due to fighting or military bombardment.

In several egregious cases documented by Amnesty International, Myanmar soldiers extrajudicially executed people in their custody. In January 2022, three men, all farmers, went missing after leaving a displacement site to collect food from their homes in San Pya 6 Mile village, Demoso Township, Kayah State. Their decomposed bodies were found in a pit latrine around two weeks later. The brother of one of the victims said he identified the slain men by their clothes and the state of their teeth. Soldiers fired on the brother and others as they tried to retrieve the bodies; they could only return to finish the burial a month later.

In raiding towns and villages in eastern Myanmar, soldiers have engaged in systematic looting and, in Kayah State in particular, burning of homes. Witnesses from six villages reported the looting of properties, including the loss of jewellery, cash, vehicles and livestock; at times, soldiers slashed rice sacks, ruining food stocks.
“They tried to destroy what they couldn’t take,” said a 36-year-old woman from Myo Haung village, Kayin State, who watched from hiding as soldiers rummaged through houses and took belongings and animals.

Amnesty International’s analysis of fire data and satellite imagery shows village burning across parts of Kayah State from February to April 2022, with some villages burned multiple times. In one of the hardest-hit areas, soldiers burned houses and other structures in almost every village as they moved south during operations
along the road from Moe Bye, in southern Shan State, to Demoso, in Kayah State, between mid-February and late March 2022. Several civilians who fled Wari Suplai village, on the border of Shan and Kayah States, said they watched from nearby farmlands as houses went up in flames after the village all but emptied on 18 February 2022; more than two thirds of the houses in the village were torched. “It’s not a house anymore. It’s all ashes – black and charcoal… It’s my life’s savings. It was destroyed within minutes,” said a 38-yearold farmer and father of two young children.

The intense fighting and military violations have had an enormous psychosocial impact and have caused mass displacement in Kayin and Kayah States; one third to half of the latter’s total population has been displaced. In some cases, entire villages have been emptied of their populations; at times, civilians have had to flee more than once over the past months. Facing perilous conditions, including lack of food, water and adequate shelter, civilians have taken refuge wherever they can, including in houses of worship, schools, makeshift camps, caves and in the jungle. The humanitarian crisis is being further exacerbated by the military’s restrictions on crucial aid, including but not confined to logistical impediments, roadblocks and the active confiscation of lifesaving assistance such as medical supplies. Staff of NGOs have been arrested, at times forcibly disappeared; fearing military attacks, many IDPs have abandoned displacement camps and ventured further into forested areas and caves, rendering them harder to reach with aid.

These findings build on previous work in Myanmar documenting the military’s signature “Four Cuts” strategy which is designed to deprive ethnic armed groups of food, money, intelligence, and potential recruits, often by imposing measures that punish the wider civilian population. Amnesty International’s documentation of the conflicts in eastern Myanmar shows repeated, deliberate actions by the military that violate international humanitarian law. Many amount to war crimes. To the extent that some prohibited acts, including murder, torture, forcible transfer, and persecution on ethnic grounds, were committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, they are likely crimes against humanity.

Amnesty International has identified some units implicated in these war crimes and likely crimes against humanity in eastern Myanmar, including the army’s 66th Light Infantry Division (LID), whose members were identified by witnesses from the distinct patches on their uniforms. A former field commander from LID 66 involved in operations in Kayah State in 2021 told Amnesty International he had witnessed attacks directed against civilians as well as burning and looting and confirmed patterns of violations, saying of the military’s leadership: “They want to put fear into the civilians.” Other implicated units include ones belonging to the Eastern and Southeastern Commands, the Directorate of Artillery and the Air Force.

The military’s crimes against civilians in eastern Myanmar reflect decades-long patterns of abuse and flagrant impunity. Inaction by the international community, despite the military’s repeated crimes under international law in recent years, has encouraged additional atrocities against civilians. To prevent further crimes and ensure accountability, the UN Security Council must swiftly implement a comprehensive arms embargo, including on the sale or transfer of military-grade aviation fuel, and must refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom, among others, must send a clear message that violations will no longer be tolerated, including through actions to support accountability and to end the transfer of weapons to the military. For their part, donor states and international humanitarian organizations and agencies must significantly increase needed aid. The international community must not continue to sit on its hands as civilians in eastern Myanmar, and across the country, pay such a high price for its inaction.

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