Myanmar’s military said it bombed ‘terrorists.’ It killed children.

August 4th, 2023  •  Author:   The Washington Post  •  11 minute read
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By Rebecca Tan, Cape Diamond

Hmone Yati Hlaing and Shoon Le Yadi, both 8, were best friends and neighbors in the quiet village of Pa Zi Gyi in central Myanmar. On rainy afternoons, they huddled together on the floor to draw, their families said. If there was music playing, they liked to dance, their heart-shaped faces breaking into giggles.

On April 11, just after daybreak, they cycled together to a community event in a residential neighborhood near where they lived. It was a few days before Thingyan, the Buddhist water festival that marks the start of the Myanmar New Year, and several hundred people had gathered to inaugurate the opening of a local administrative building.

Children were running in and around the new structure with its blue tin roof, excited for the food that had been promised, recalled people in attendance. Women took turns minding the stove as Burmese music played from mobile phones.

Hmone Yati Hlaing and Shoon Le Yadi arrived a little before 7 a.m. They were two of the last ones in, their relatives said, before a military jet flew overhead, dropping an explosive that tore apart the new building and most of the people in it.

Shoon Le Yadi, 8, was one of dozens of children killed in the Pa Zi Gyi airstrike. (Family photo)

Hmone Yati Hlaing, 8, Shoon Le Yadi’s friend, was also killed. The two girls had bicycled to the event together. (Family photo)

Moments after the blast, which shook buildings miles away, a helicopter gunship appeared over the building site, shooting methodically at those who remained alive. Dozens of people, many already injured, died trying to crawl to safety, survivors said.

At least 157 people were killed, according to two local groups that have verified the toll over several months. It was the single deadliest attack by the Myanmar military since it seized control from a civilian government in 2021, and a stunning demonstration, analysts said, of how far the junta is willing to go to crush the resistance movement that has pushed it out of large swaths of the country.

An image of the immediate aftermath of the April 11 airstrike shows casualties in the village of Pa Zi Gyi in Sagaing, Myanmar. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

The military acknowledged responsibility for the airstrike hours after it happened, announcing on state television that it had killed members of the rebel People’s Defense Force, whom the military called “terrorists,” active in the northern Sagaing region where resistance groups have a stronghold.

But records documenting the deaths and injuries from the attack that were provided exclusively to The Washington Post by a network of local medics, along with more than 100 photos and videos obtained from multiple people, show that at least 25 children were among the dead, including babies as young as 10 months. Survivors said most of the people killed were civilians from Pa Zi Gyi and nearby villages.

A spokesman for the junta did not respond to inquiries on The Post’s findings.

Kyaw Soe Lin, a farmer in his 30s, attended the event. Moments after being thrown by the blast onto the ground, he reached for his phone and started to record.

The Washington Post has blurred and edited this video of Kyaw Soe Lin because of the highly graphic nature of the footage. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

“I think I will live,” he said on the recording, his breath raspy. He panned the camera to show his left leg, which had been severed at the thigh, and then to the scene in front of him.

“People are destroyed,” he said. “They’re in pieces.”

The Washington Post has blurred and edited this video of Kyaw Soe Lin because of the highly graphic nature of the footage. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

Kyaw Soe Lin died later that day, said his wife, who shared these videos with The Post.

The visual evidence of the military’s assault backs up testimonies from nine people — survivors and medics — who witnessed the attack or its immediate aftermath. Many shared the same searing memories of seeing the small corpses of children thrown across the wreckage, dismembered beyond recognition.

The photos and videos, some not previously made public, are also a rare glimpse into the civil war being waged in Sagaing, part of the ethnic Bamar heartland that has been subject to the junta’s most brutal repression in recent years. Authorities have blocked virtually all international aid, and routinely cut internet and broadband access, leaving communities like Pa Zi Gyi out of contact for long stretches of time.

Weapons experts at Human Rights Watch said that based on photos of the attack that they reviewed independently of The Post’s investigation, the military dropped a thermobaric bomb, which draws surrounding oxygen as fuel, effectively “detonating the air” and causing an explosion that obliterates close targets.

The weapon has been used by governments, including the United States, against militants in bunkers or in caves. Deployed over a crowded building in a residential area, the bomb caused carnage that people in Sagaing said they had never seen in two years of conflict.

The Washington Post has blurred and edited this video because of the highly graphic nature of the footage. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

A group of 21 people from neighboring Ywar Thar Yar village had gone together to the Pa Zi Gyi event, and 13 died, said U Maung Hti, a survivor. Five children from a single household — siblings and cousins — came from another village and only one emerged alive, according to relatives.

U Ng Muay, 58, the grandfather of 8-year-old Hmone Yati Hlaing, said he got to the building minutes after the explosion. He looked for the little girl but found only parts of her body. Speaking on an hour-long call, he said he still struggled to understand what had happened. The last time he saw Hmone Yati Hlaing, she’d been twirling and jumping at home, excited for the New Year.

“She’d been so happy that day,” U Ng Muay said, “the day she died.”

About an hour after the attack, at 9 a.m., medics and members of the local district administration, which is allied with the anti-military resistance, began to arrive. Even before getting to the site, medics said, they saw people naked and crying along the side of the dirt road.

“It was horrible. Really horrible,” recounted one medic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from the military. “I didn’t even know how to be angry. My heart was just full of sadness.”

Charred bodies surrounded the site of the new building, which had been demolished except for a few wooden pillars. The force of the explosion left human remains and bits of clothes hanging from tree branches.

In one set of images provided to The Post, several boys, including one in a T-shirt with a cartoon image of Daisy Duck, are lying faceup on the ground, caked in ash and blood. Their eyes are closed and arms outstretched. In another set of images, bodies are piled on top of one another in close embrace.

Wey, an administrator from the local Kanbalu township whom The Post is identifying only by his first name because of concern for his safety, recalled stepping over bodies while running from the helicopter’s strafing. “We knew some were children,” he said, “because their skulls were so small.”

As morning stretched into afternoon, medics and local villagers put the injured on the backs of motorcycles and trucks, transporting them to nearby hospitals and makeshift clinics set up in the jungle. Treating patients on wooden planks covered with plastic sheets, doctors did what they could.

Survivors of the attack on Pa Zi Gyi were transported out of the village on motorcycles and trucks to makeshift field hospitals. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

One surgeon, whom The Post is identifying only by his first name of Wai because of concern for his safety, said several children died before making it to his operating table.

An 8-year-old boy who had been shot from the helicopter in his leg and torso was brought in by relatives on a motorcycle. The child survived after his leg was amputated, Wai said, but he was hysterical for hours after his surgery. “He kept shouting, ‘The jets are coming! The jets are coming!’” Wai recalled.

Maung Oo, left, transports his 8-year-old son to a clinic after the attack. The boy suffered injuries to his leg and torso, medics said. (Obtained by The Washington Post)

In the afternoon, medics brought in a bloodied woman who made Wai stop in his tracks, he said.

Moe Moe, a 32-year-old mother of one, was heavily pregnant and looked weeks away from giving birth. She’d stepped out of the building moments before the blast hurled her onto the ground, crushing her left arm. Two days after her arm was amputated by Wai, she told medics in a packed medical shelter what had happened to her.

“When they fired, it hit my arm,” she said, her voice shaking over the cries of other patients.

The following interview contains disturbing audio. The Post is blurring the face of the woman, Moe Moe, to protect her identity. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

Moe Moe told medics that she thought her husband, who had attended the event with her, had escaped. But she learned later that he’d died of his injuries, Moe Moe told The Post. He didn’t get to see their second child, who was born three weeks after the attack.

Patients kept arriving at the clinics as night fell.

At 8 p.m., Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the military, went on Myawaddy TV, a military-owned network in the capital, Naypyidaw. He announced that the junta’s air force had attacked Pa Zi Gyi.

Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the military, went on Myawaddy TV, a military-owned network in the capital, to announce the attack on Pa Zi Gyi. (Video: Myawaddy TV)

“We were informed that the PDF terrorists in that event were killed,” he said, using the abbreviation for the rebel People’s Defense Forces. “These groups carrying out these events stand against the government and the people.”

The general said rebel forces had been storing ammunition in the new building, and said explosions of the stored ammunition caused some of the casualties. But survivors of the attack said there were no weapons in the building. Weapons experts at Human Rights Watch said that while they cannot rule out the possibility of other explosions, visual evidence suggests that the thermobaric weapon was significant and caused an overwhelming share of the casualties.

Since the start of the year, the Myanmar military has conducted more than 300 aerial attacks, dozens targeting civilians, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), established by the United Nations to collect evidence of the most serious violations of international law in Myanmar, has tracked a marked increase in the use of bombs against civilians over the past year, said chief investigator Nicholas Koumjian, based in Geneva. Koumjian said his team has evidence that suggests the military has targeted locations where it knows or should have known there were large numbers of civilians.

What happened at Pa Zi Gyi “is an example of an indiscriminate attack that disproportionally affected civilians,” Koumjian said. “In other words, a war crime.”

Officials at the National Unity Government, a parallel administration set up by opposition leaders in the wake of the coup, say the military’s indiscriminate killing is the point — part of a deliberate campaign that has also included setting entire villages on fire, beheading resistance fighters and conducting summary executions of famed democracy leaders.

For weeks after the airstrike in Pa Zi Gyi, survivors and relatives of the victims stayed in temporary shelters deep in a nearby jungle, fearful that the military’s jets and helicopters would return.

At one shelter, a 6-year-old boy hid out with his mother, Yin Mar San, 30, and his grandfather. In a video taken by visiting medics two days after the attack, Yin Mar San tried to recount what happened: Her son had attended the event with four other children from their household. But the other children hadn’t come back.

In a video filmed by visiting medics, Yin Mar San describes what happened during the military’s airstrike. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

Yin Mar San held the boy to her chest as she tried to speak.

“Only my son is alive,” she repeated. “Only my son is alive.”

About the story

Tan reported from Bangkok. Diamond reported from Yangon, Myanmar. Photo editing by Jennifer Samuel. Video editing by Jason Aldag. Story editing by Alan Sipress and Reem Akkad.

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