A report from a Myanmar human rights group claims to shed new light on an air strike and attack on a school and Buddhist monastery earlier this year that left at least 11 people dead, including six children.
- Junta forces arrived in two transport helicopters while two attack helicopters fired at the school, a new report says
- The investigation says that when the junta forces left, they took up to 20 people along with the bodies of the dead children
- The junta says the school was being used by terrorists, who used villagers as human shields during the attack
Warning: This story contains descriptions of graphic violence that may distress some readers.
The junta has acknowledged that two army helicopters shot at a school in the village of Let Yet Kone in the Tabayin township in the central Sagaing region in September.
It said rebels were using the targeted building to attack its forces and as a base through which weapons were being moved.
However, new information — gathered during the weeks following the attack and published today by Myanmar Witness, which collects and verifies evidence of human rights incidents in Myanmar — has provided a more detailed account of the incident.
According to Myanmar Witness, the school, which had more than 240 pupils and was housed in a monastery building, was attacked in the afternoon of September 16 by junta forces that arrived in four, Russian-made helicopters.
While about 80 junta soldiers raided the village, two Mi-35 attack helicopters fired Soviet-developed S-5 ground attack rockets at the school.
Initial reports suggested that six children had been killed and 17 wounded.
In its new report, Myanmar Witness said at least 13 people were killed.
It confirmed that at least six of the dead were children from the school, but, as well, there are claims that a seventh child was killed.
Also killed in the attack were seven villagers aged from 13 to 49 years, along with volunteer teachers.
“Locals’ depiction of events tell of a stark and bloody aftermath, with many people reported injured, some severely, with limbs lost,” Myanmar Witness said.
“Debris from shelling and the air strike left casings, including the verified remnants of claimed S-5 rockets.”
Only junta forces have the aircraft suitable for S-5 rocket use, according to Myanmar Witness.
After the attack, which lasted about an hour, junta forces took away between 15 and 20 people and also removed the corpses of the child victims, the investigation found.
“Their bodies were either buried or cremated seven miles away in Ye-U township, presumably to destroy evidence of child casualties,” Myanmar Witness said.
“This shows a lack of care and the attempt to rid the scene of potential evidence of the crimes. This has prevented families from holding funerals.
“Reports state that the injured were treated at the nearby Ye-U hospital and some of the injured reportedly lost limbs.”
Myanmar Witness says it has the largest database of verified evidence related to human rights incidents in Myanmar, and used interviews with people on the ground in its report The Tabayin School Attack: How children were killed while they were learning.
The ABC has not been able to independently verify the claims.
Junta accuses armed opponents of using human shields
The military issued a statement as initial details of the attack emerged, blaming opposition movements.
It said the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group, and the People’s Defense Force (PDF), an umbrella organization of armed guerillas that the junta calls “terrorists”, had been hiding in the monastery and using the village to transport weapons in the area.
During “a surprise inspection”, security forces sent by helicopter were attacked by the PDF and the KIA inside houses and the monastery, it said.
It said some villagers had been killed when security forces responded, and that the wounded were taken to public hospitals.
Its statement accused the armed groups of using villagers as human shields.
The junta also said weapons — including mines and 16 handmade bombs — had later been seized.
However, according to Myanmar Witness, locals in Let Yet Kone village have denied there were any PDF or KIA forces in the area.
Teacher beheaded after school burned down
Myanmar’s pro-democracy shadow government, known as the National Unity Government (NUG), and the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) have been supporting schools such as the one in Let Yet Kone.
There are thought to be 27 community schools, 4,000 students and 380 CDM teachers in the Sagaing region.
“Other schools, specifically in Sagaing, have been targeted by the military in the past, all of which were NUG and CDM supported,” Myanmar Witness said.
“While this does not give a direct cause [for] the attack of the Let Yet Kone school, it does indicate a wider pattern of targeting of pro-NUG and CDM schools.”
A month after the Let Yet Kone school attack, a teacher at a NUG-supported school in Taung Myint village was killed and beheaded, Myanmar Witness said.
Images showing the teacher’s body dumped outside the school gates and his head impaled on a spike have been seen by the ABC.
The school was also burned down in the attack that Myanmar Witness said “marked escalation in terms of the brutality”.
“The burnt-out buildings signaled a stark warning to the community, as did the graffiti left during the attack, which contained threats to return for the individuals who had escaped,” it said.
“It soon became evident that these were not just threats. The following day, the mutilated body of a teacher was discovered in front of the school gates, with the head severed and impaled on one of the spikes.
“The teacher’s three-fingered salute — a symbol of the CDM — had been chopped off and placed on his body.”
Attacked school in highly targeted area
Since taking power in a coup in February 2021, the junta’s forces have conducted ground and air attacks in civilian areas, Myanmar Witness said.
And the Sagaing region, where the junta and opposition movements have been fighting for control, has been the worst affected.
Sagaing has the highest number of destroyed buildings and homes of any settlement in Myanmar.
Large areas of farmland have been burned too.
“Of Sagaing’s 37 townships, 34 have reported engaging in the conflict. Thousands of civilians have been displaced due to these attacks,” Myanmar Witness said in its report.
It said several ethnic armed organizations (EAO) have openly opposed the February 2021 coup, and have launched attacks against the military.
In response, those groups have been designated as terrorists by the military.
“This has led to reportedly widespread [junta] arson attacks and air-strike campaigns to try to gain a foothold in Sagaing,” Myanmar Witness said.
There have also been sporadic internet blackouts and attempts to limit humanitarian aid reaching rural areas.
“These extra measures are a means of trying to put pressure on resistance forces by harming the local communities where EAOs are located,” Myanmar Witness said.
Further information has been sought from the junta.