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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Airstrike kills at least 80 during outdoor concert in Myanmar

Destroyed wooden structures near Aung Bar Lay Village, Kachin State, in Myanmar, on Monday. Airstrikes by Myanmar’s military have killed scores of people since the coup last year.

By Richard C. Paddock

The popular Burmese singer, Aurali Lahpai, was performing onstage in northern Myanmar on Sunday evening when three military jets flew overhead and bombed the outdoor concert. One bomb struck near the main stage, witnesses said, killing Aurali and several other performers in the middle of a song. At least 80 people were killed in the attack, according to emergency workers.

The airstrike, which targeted the territory of ethnic Kachin rebels, was the deadliest aerial attack mounted by Myanmar’s military regime since it seized power in a coup last year, and has prompted renewed calls for a global arms embargo against the junta, as well as tougher banking sanctions and a ban on aviation fuel sales.

“They were targeting civilians, not the enemy,” said Col. Naw Bu, a spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization, which has long sought autonomy for Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin state. “This is an evil act and this is a war crime. We are grieving over the deaths of our people.”

The concert was held in the village of A Nang Pa to celebrate the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the Kachin Independence Organization, one of the largest and most active ethnic groups, which has been fighting the Myanmar military for years. Since the coup, it has joined with pro-democracy forces in its efforts and has been helping to train soldiers from the People’s Defense Force, an armed resistance group formed after the military seized power in February 2021.

Hkun Htwe, a village resident who attended the concert, said he watched the planes as they flew overhead and saw the bombs land in four places. The spotlights illuminating the stage at the open-air event made it easy for the pilots to target the venue, he said. The bomb that hit near the stage, he said, killed Aurali and at least two other musicians as they performed.

Rescue workers said some victims died because military troops, who control a key bridge in the area, would not allow them to transport the wounded to a hospital in the town of Hkapant. “Some patients died from blood loss,” said one emergency worker, U Myo Min.

A video of the concert venue taken the next day, which was shared on social media and verified by rescue workers, showed wooden debris and abandoned motorbikes spread across a wide area. Photos seen by The New York Times and also verified by rescue workers showed dozens of dead victims lying in rows on plastic tarps on the ground.

A major in the Kachin Independence Army — the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization — and other high-ranking officers were among those killed, said Col. Naw Bu, who also serves as spokesman for the rebel army.

In a statement released early Tuesday, the junta said that the site of the bombing was a Kachin army base, not a concert venue, and that it had acted in accordance with its rules of engagement, which it said were derived from four Geneva Conventions. It also said that widespread reports of civilian deaths, including the deaths of the performers, were “rumors based on fake news, false news and extorted news.”

As justification for the bombing, the junta cited recent attacks on its forces by combined units of the Kachin Independence Army and the People’s Defense Force, including numerous assaults on police posts and at least 11 troop ambushes.

Myanmar’s military, which had shared power with a civilian government for a decade, seized control in a coup on Feb. 1, 2021, and has waged a brutal crackdown on opponents ever since. At least 2,388 civilians have been killed and nearly 16,000 arrested, according to rights groups.

Many pro-democracy activists have fled to remote parts of the country that are under the control of ethnic rebel groups and joined the People’s Defense Force to wage what they call a revolution against the junta. The military has retaliated by bombing suspected rebel encampments with fighter jets.

The shadow National Unity Government, made up of ethnic leaders and elected officials who escaped arrest after the coup, said the regime had launched nearly 240 airstrikes against civilians, killing more than 200, before the concert bombing. Last month, the military attacked a school in the Sagaing Division, killing 14 people, including seven children, the unity government said. (These numbers could not be independently verified by The Times.)

“The terrorist military has deliberately committed another mass killing with aerial bombardments by targeting a large public concert,” the National Unity Government said. The Kachin Independence Organization announced in a statement Tuesday that it would step up its military activities against the junta in retaliation for Sunday’s attack.

Kachin state, which borders China and India, is well known for its lucrative jade trade, worth billions of dollars a year. The industry operates outside the rule of law and deadly mine collapses are common, sometimes killing hundreds. The jade business is largely controlled by the military and its crony companies, but the Kachin rebels also extract revenue from the miners.

Competition for Myanmar’s vast natural resources has long been a major source of conflict between the military and numerous ethnic groups that have formed their own armies to fight back against the regime.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called for urgent action by world leaders and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional body. Leaders from the association will be meeting in November, but have taken little action so far to address the coup and subsequent crackdown.

“For over a year and a half, the junta has carried out grave abuses against the millions of people who oppose military rule,” said Elaine Pearson, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “How high does the death count need to reach before governments around the world impose consequences that will impact the junta’s behavior?”

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