Three days before Southeast Asian ministers are scheduled to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the conflict in Myanmar, the country’s military has launched air strikes that have killed as many as 80 people, including singers and musicians, attending a concert in the country’s north.
The airstrike reportedly targeted an anniversary celebration held by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), a prominent ethnic resistance group, near Aung Bar Lay village in remote Hpakant township. The event, which was marking the 62nd anniversary of the founding of the KIO, was reportedly held at a base that is used by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the organization’s armed wing.
A spokesperson for the Kachin Artists Association told the Associated Press that military aircraft dropped four bombs on the celebration, which was attended by between 300 and 500 people. The spokesperson put the total tally of dead at around 80, and said that a Kachin singer and keyboard player were among the dead.
Videos posted on social media of the aftermath of the attack showed shattered wooden structures and other detritus littering a field.
The AP also cited a statement from the military junta’s information office confirming that it had launched an attack on what it described as the headquarters of the KIA’s 9th Brigade, calling it a “necessary operation” in response to “terrorist” acts.
The airstrikes are by far the most deadly that the military has carried out in its campaign to crush the growing resistance to its February 2021 coup, and add to the growing catalog of atrocities against civilians.
The reports of the attack drew immediate condemnations from foreign embassies, rights groups, and the United Nations office in the country. In a statement, the latter said that it was “deeply concerned and saddened” by the reports coming out of Kachin State.
“What would appear to be excessive and disproportionate use of force by security forces against unarmed civilians is unacceptable and those responsible must be held to account,” it said.
In a statement yesterday, the advocacy group Amnesty International said that the attack appeared to fit “a pattern of unlawful aerial attacks by the military which have killed and injured civilians in areas controlled by armed groups.”
“The military has shown ruthless disregard for civilian lives in its escalating campaign against opponents,” it said. “It is difficult to believe the military did not know of a significant civilian presence at the site of this attack.”
The climate of renewed shock and condemnation is set to form the backdrop to an emergency meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that will meet in Jakarta on Thursday to discuss the crisis in Myanmar. According to the Cambodian government, the current chair of ASEAN, the meeting will assess the coup government’s adherence to the bloc’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan and deliberate on how to push forward the country’s Myanmar diplomacy ahead of the ASEAN summit and related meetings on November 8-11.
The last major ASEAN meeting, a gathering of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Phnom Penh in July, took place a week after the Myanmar junta executed four political prisoners, an act that was serious enough to draw a rebuke from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The meeting determined that ASEAN would reassess the junta’s adherence to the Five-Point Consensus, which was agreed to at a special meeting in April 2021, at the November summit.
This attack underscores the military junta’s near-total contempt for the ASEAN Consensus, which calls for an immediate cessation of violence and good-faith efforts to negotiate with “all parties” to the country’s conflicts. It also reinforces a key shortcoming of the bloc’s approach to the post-coup crisis in Myanmar: its assumption of good faith on the part of the country’s military caste.
ASEAN’s remaining nine members now face the pressing question of what to do in response to this latest outrage. Frustration within the bloc has been growing for some time, particularly among officials from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore, and some sort of recalibration of its approach is likely.
In an open letter published today, a group of 457 Myanmar civil society groups called on the Southeast Asian bloc to “replace the ineﬀectual Five-Point Consensus (5PC) with a concrete plan of action to address the multiple catastrophes in Myanmar.” It added, “Despite being put on notice for non-compliance with the 5PC, the junta has repeatedly been emboldened by ASEAN’s empty warnings and ‘dialogues’ to continue to terror campaign with blanket impunity.”
However, it remains to be seen whether the bloc can muster the necessary consensus to chart a new course, or whether it will once again seek refuge in the procedural detail of the current stagnant process.