On October 23, Myanmar’s military bombed an outdoor concert in A Nan Pa, a village in the country’s northernmost Kachin State.
Witnesses said the military dropped several bombs without warning.
The concert had been organized to celebrate the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which is fighting for autonomy in the war-torn country.
Members of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the KIO (and just one of many ethnic armed organizations in the highly diverse country), were among the scores killed or wounded in the attack.
On October 27, the KIA claimed the death toll had risen to 75.
It was the deadliest airstrike since the military seized power in a February 2021 coup, ousting an elected government. Myanmar’s military rulers have framed the attack as a strike on a KIA base and denied that civilians were killed.
“According to the relevant authorities, the news that innocent civilians and some Kachin singers were killed by plane bombing a music concert in Hpakant is just a rumor,” Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry said in a Facebook post on October 25.
That is false.
The military cut off phone and internet connections in the area and has blocked off access to the site, seriously hampering verification efforts. However, news reports and witness accounts said civilians were indeed killed.
One witness told The New York Times that a bomb hit near the well-illuminated stage, killing three musicians. Times journalists spoke with witnesses and confirmed the death of popular Burmese singer Aurali Lahpai.
The Kachin News group, which is sympathetic to the KIO, reported that Aurali’s keyboardist, Ko King, and another singer, Galau Yaw Lwi, were also killed.
The Myanmar Now news site reported that actor Lahtaw Zau Ding was among the casualties but was unable to confirm his death.
Rescue workers told the Times that some of the people died because the military, which controls a key bridge, would not allow them to transport the wounded to a hospital in the nearby town of Hpakant.
A resident likewise told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister U.S.-funded organization to VOA, that a military blockade of the roads leading to and from the concert grounds could figure in more deaths.
“There are about 150 injured patients, and 60 to 70 people are already dead,” the resident told RFA on condition of anonymity in an October 25 report before the death toll was updated. “I am very worried, as we can’t give any medical treatment to the injured. We approached the junta blockage gates and asked if we could help, but they wouldn't let us through.”
The KIA also said more are at risk of dying from injuries due to the military’s blockade.
Locals contacted by RFA also said most of the dead were civilians.
Myanmar’s Irrawaddy news website, run by Myanmar exiles in Thailand, reported that 28 of the victims were from the KIA or its political wing.
Of the civilian victims, Irrawaddy reported, six were Kachin ethnic businessmen and eight were members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party ousted from power in the 2021 coup. The NLD members were sheltering in KIA-controlled territory to evade arrest.
Another witness, who said he had been “thrown by the force of the blast,” told Myanmar Now, “Both older people and youth[s]” were present at the bombing.
“I have a list of some deaths, but [have] not received all yet because most bodies are deformed badly and [are being identified],” Ye Myo Hein, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and visiting fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, told Polygraph.info.
“The KIA has not released a list of deaths and injured people due to concern that the military would pressure their family members, and due to the fact that some dead bodies are still in the process of being identified,” he said.
He accused the military of “outright lies” in claiming to have struck a military target.
A video circulating online showed the aftermath of the strike. Rescue workers confirmed its authenticity to the Times, as well as the authenticity of photographs showing dozens of dead in rows on plastic tarps.
Myanmar’s Foreign Ministry framed the strike as “self-defense” against “armed terrorists.” They claim the airstrike happened “at the base of KIA Brigade-9, which is the site of a military operation. It is not the place where the people reside nor reach but restricted to the public.”
The KIA is among ethnic armed organizations refusing peace talks with the junta and launches attacks on regime forces (as do other armed groups) in Kachin State.
Although KIA is active in the region, the U.S.-based president of the Kachin Alliance, Nsang Gum San, told Polygraph.info that the KIA military base is nowhere near the site of the bombing attack.
He said the site of the concert had likely been picked due to its accessibly as “a crossroads” in the region.
“This is in mining territory. They have these makeshift, flea-market kind of roadway stalls that are littered around those territories. It’s not only in A Nan Pa, but other parts of the [jade mining] region, too,” Nsang said.
“Wherever they have some population, they will pitch up these makeshift marketplaces. And [the scene of the strike] is like a crossroads that goes to different destinations in the Kachin mining region,” he said.
Nsang said it would be “ludicrous” to describe any territory which the KIA operates in or controls as a KIA base.
“There’s a KIA base about 10 miles [16 kilometers] from the capital, Myitkyina. Would you call that a KIA territory?”
Nsang added that this is a “textbook example of the Burmese military carrying out war crimes,” under the cover of targeting purported “military installations.”
In a written message, KIO leader, Lieutenant General Gun Maw, also claimed that “A Nan Pa is not the KIA's military base,” likewise, arguing “it is a midway station with a row of shops where travelers stop and rest.”
Meanwhile, the United States, its allies and rights groups condemned the airstrike.
“This attack underscores the military regime’s responsibility for crisis and instability in Myanmar and the region and its disregard for its obligation to protect civilians and respect the principles and rules of international humanitarian law,” a joint statement from the United States and other Western allies read.
Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the attack on “hundreds of concertgoers “is an apparent violation of the laws of war.”
“Myanmar military operations in ethnic minority areas have long been characterized by a near total disregard for civilian lives and property and a failure to abide by international law,” Pearson said.
U.K.-based Amnesty International offered a similar assessment.
The United Nations, which said it is still verifying details, said the attack appeared to represent “excessive and disproportionate use of force by security forces against unarmed civilians.”
The attack came days before foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held a special meeting in Indonesia to discuss the Myanmar crisis.
The ASEAN ministers reiterated their calls to bring about a peaceful solution in Myanmar, which has been in turmoil since the military overthrew the government led by imprisoned Nobel laureate , and violently cracked down on those protesting the coup.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said ASEAN’s stance was a “huge disappointment.”
“Myanmar’s junta has time and again shown a total lack of respect for ASEAN, which it happily uses as both a shield to fend off international criticism, as well as a useful diplomatic diversion that buys time for the junta to carry out its brutal war against the Burmese people,” Robertson said.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said on October 26 that willing states should form a coalition – as they have done to counter Russia's war against Ukraine – to target Myanmar's military government with sanctions and an arms embargo. That, he said, could get around likely efforts by China and Russia to block U.N. Security Council action on Myanmar.