Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Myanmar’s military of using a thermobaric bomb or “vacuum bomb” in an air strike on an opposition village, resulting in the deaths of dozens of civilians, in what is likely to be considered a war crime. The military’s attack on Pazi Gyi village in the Sagaing region on 22 April 2023, had caused “indiscriminate and disproportionate civilian casualties” and is an apparent war crime, HRW said. The assessment was based on 59 photos of the victims’ bodies and a video of the site following the strike.
Myanmar has been embroiled in conflict since the military coup in February 2021, which sparked renewed clashes with ethnic rebel groups, as well as the formation of dozens of “People’s Defence Forces” that are now battling the junta. Fighting has ravaged large tracts of Myanmar, causing a humanitarian crisis with over 1.3 million people in need of aid, according to the United Nations. The conflict has also forced thousands to flee to neighbouring countries, including Thailand and Bangladesh.
The military had reportedly used a thermobaric bomb in the attack on the opposition stronghold last month, killing around 170 people, according to media and local reports, leading to widespread condemnation from the international community. Thermobaric bombs, which are not specifically banned under international conventions, are more powerful than conventional high-explosive munitions and use two separate charges. The first scatters a fuel mixture as a cloud around the target, and the second detonates the cloud, sucking the oxygen out of the atmosphere and forming a huge fireball.
Myanmar is set to dominate a meeting of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which started in Indonesia on 9 May 2023. The bloc has led diplomatic efforts to resolve the bloody crisis, but the junta, backed by allies and arms suppliers Russia and China, has refused to negotiate with its opponents.
HRW has called on the United Nations Security Council to adopt an arms embargo on Myanmar, refer the junta to the International Criminal Court, and impose sanctions on the military’s sprawling business empire. “The Myanmar junta’s abusive military operations depend on its ability to purchase weapons and materiel,” HRW said. “ASEAN and the UN Security Council both need to reconsider their toothless approaches to Myanmar’s junta and take stronger measures.”
The junta said it had launched “limited air strikes” on Pazi Gyi but said most of the dead had been killed after the strikes hit an ammunition store. However, the report by HRW contradicts the junta’s claims, and it is likely to put more pressure on the international community to take stronger measures to stop the ongoing violence and human rights abuses in Myanmar.
The conflict in Myanmar has also raised concerns about the role of Russia and China, who are seen as key allies of the junta. Russia has supplied military equipment to Myanmar, including fighter jets and surface-to-air missile systems, while China is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner and has blocked efforts by the United Nations to impose sanctions on the junta. The involvement of these two countries has also raised questions about their commitment to human rights and democracy, given their support for a military regime that has been accused of serious human rights abuses.
In conclusion, the use of a thermobaric bomb on civilians in Myanmar by the military is a grave violation of human rights and is an apparent war crime. The ongoing conflict in Myanmar has resulted in a humanitarian crisis, with millions of people in need of aid and thousands of people fleeing the country. The international community, including ASEAN, the United Nations, and major powers like Russia and China, must take stronger measures to end the violence and hold those responsible for human rights violations.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Coverpage’s editorial stance.