Shwegu township under fire
17 Jul 2023
Fires, airstrikes and mass displacement reported in 13 villages
Key Event Details
Location of Incident: 13 villages in Shwegu township (ရွှေကူ မြို့နယ်), Kachin state (ကချင် ပြည်နယ်)
Man Wein (မံဝိန်း) village [24.137754, 96.738591]
Si Thar (စီသာ) village [24.128808, 96.745465]
Man Nar (မံနား) village [24.126390, 96.745613]
Tone Kauk (တုံးကောက်) village [24.136419, 96.753562]
Si Thaung (စီသောင်) village [24.107611,96.746033]
Man Hkar (မံခါး) village [24.117149, 96.737877]
Si Maw (စီမော်) village [24.136141, 96.719658]
Hing Kawng (ဟိန်ကောင်) village [24.131099, 96.724823]
Si Mu Gyi (စီမူကြီး) village [24.153250, 96.739304
Si Mu Lay (စီမူလေး) village [24.149589, 96.732140]
Nam Lang (နန့်လန်) village [24.157110, 96.719063]
Nawng Let Gyi (နောင်လက်ကြီး) village [24.162870, 96.723030]
Moe Kint (မိုးကင့်) village [24.131803, 96.711720]
Date/Time of Incident:
24 March 2023 - 11 April 2023
Alleged Perpetrator(s) and/or Involvement:
Light Infantry Division (LID) 88
Infantry Battalion (IB) 10, IB 77 under LID 88
Myanmar Air Force (MAF)
Kachin Independence Army (KIA)
Shwegu People’s Defense Force (PDF)
Summary of Investigation:
Shwegu township is an area of known resistance and site of clashes between the local Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Shwegu People’s Defense Force (PDF), and the military.
Multiple incidents were reported by social media users and local media in Shwegu between the end of March and mid-April including airstrikes, destruction of a medical facility, and ground battles.
Myanmar Witness has fully verified damage and destruction to structures in five villages through the geolocation of user-generated content (UGC).
Myanmar Witness partially verified fires in several other villages in Shwegu township between 24 March 2023 and 11 April 2023.
Myanmar Witness also investigated claims that these attacks have resulted in the death and displacement of civilians in the township but have been unable to verify these occurrences.
On 24 March 2023, it was alleged that Myanmar military forces clashed with KIA and PDF joint forces in Shwegu township, Kachin state. As a result of these clashes, which continued from 25 March 2023 to 11 April 2023, multiple villages - 13 were identified by Myanmar Witness - suffered air and ground attacks from the Myanmar military resulting in fires and the destruction of housing. Some villages experienced multiple fires within this time period.
Myanmar Witness verified, through geolocation and chronolocation of UGC and FIRMS data, fires in 13 villages in Shwegu township between 24 March and 11 April 2023. Media sources reported that 12 villages were affected during the clashes, but Myanmar Witness has also identified fires in Moe Kint village. This could indicate that 13 villages were affected.
Additionally, Myanmar Witness geolocated an alleged airstrike in Si Thar village; a site that the Shwegu PDF claimed the military had attacked. Myanmar Witness has geolocated additional footage which purports to show a medical facility having suffered damage akin to an airstrike attack in Si Thar village, suggesting that civilian infrastructure has been affected by the clashes in Shwegu. Myanmar Witness has identified content that indicates the presence of Myanmar military troops during and/or before the fires in Shwegu and around the affected area. Their presence was determined by cross-referencing location information from pro-Security Administration Council (SAC) media channels and social media claims related to SAC personnel presence and operations in the area.
Background and Context
Shwegu has experienced clashes between the military, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and local PDF since the military coup in February 2021. By June 2021, Myanmar Peace Monitor reported that roughly 6,000 civilians had fled from 42 locations in Mansi and Shwegu townships, Kachin state, due to clashes in the area. The Shwegu region borders three notably important conflict areas in Myanmar: Sagaing (part of the ‘dry zone’), Kachin, and Shan (Figure 1).
Prior to the coup, Kachin was an area of prolonged internal conflict. Ethnic armed organisations have long sought autonomy over the state and control over its natural resources. Since the coup, the KIA has been one of the ethnic armed organisations actively supporting the development of armed resistance in the dry zone, such as Sagaing and Magway. In these areas, fighting between the PDF and the military is ongoing, with repeated claims that the military is targeting communities in areas of suspected PDF activity. Attacks impacting civilians have become more commonly reported and investigated by Myanmar Witness. For example, Myanmar Witness investigated an airstrike on a concert which reportedly killed over 80 people.
Figure 1: Shwegu township in relation to the three bordering regions of Sagaing, Kachin, and Shan (Map created by Myanmar Witness).
Multiple media organisations have reported on the destruction in Shwegu between 24 March 2023 and 11 April 2023. Civilian houses in Nam Lang village were allegedly destroyed due to clashes between local defence forces and the military on 24 March 2023. On 25 March, BBC Burma reported that airstrikes had taken place in the villages of Nam Lang, Man Wein and Si Thaung. On 30 March 2023, Khit Thit Media reported that the SAC cut the internet and phone connections in Shwegu township. The military has historically used internet shutdowns to quell opposition, notably since taking power in February 2021 and — as Myanmar Witness has previously reported on — during the following months of anti-military protest. However, platforms such as Netblocks, OONI and IODA, which often report on communications blackouts, provide no indication that there was an internet shutdown, preventing Myanmar Witness from verifying these claims. Nevertheless, there is relatively little UGC associated with the fires in Shwegu, supporting the notion that some form of restriction on communication systems was in place.
Since 30 March 2023 — when it is alleged that the military cut the internet connection — several villages were reportedly attacked by the military using airstrikes and arson, including: Man Wein, Si Thar, Tone Kauk, Si Thaung, Man Hkar, Si Maw, Nam Lang, and Nawng Let Gyi. The media generally report clashes in 12 villages in Shwegu, which resulted in fires. Myanmar Witness has partially verified fires in a further six villages using low-resolution satellite imagery analysis and FIRMS: Man Nar, Hing Kawng, Si Mu Gyi, Si Mu Lay, and Moe Kint.
Methodology & Limitations
To learn more about the Myanmar Witness methodology and the limitations specific to this investigation, download the PDF.
Figure 2: Map of verified fires in 13 villages in Shwegu during 24 March and 11 April 2023. Created with Datawrapper.
Timeline of event
Myanmar Witness was able to verify:
At least 13 villages suffered fire damage between 24 March and 11 April 2023.
The destruction of the villages was verified through the use of Sentinel satellite imagery.
The possible dates of fires were identified through FIRMS, which indicated that some villages may have been attacked multiple times.
Four villages were badly affected by fire. The damage and destruction, as shown by UGC, was geolocated to: Si Thaung, Man Wein, Si Thar, and Nawng Let Gyi villages. Some structural damage was also verified in Man Nar village allegedly due to airstrikes.
A building in Si Thar, allegedly a medical facility, was badly damaged during the timeframe investigated.
Figure 3: Graphic of incidents in Shwegu from 24 March - 11 April 2023. Sentinel and FIRMS were used to confirm locations and dates for 13 separate villages experiencing fires. Myanmar Witness geolocated damage to an alleged medical facility in Si Thar (red marker) and huge destruction in Man Wein (white marker), as well as several instances of active fires on the days alleged on Sentinel (black markers) (source of bottom right image: People Defense Force - Shwegu).
The investigation walkthrough
Myanmar Witness identified a cluster of fires in Shwegu township using the Myanmar Witness fire database, which were then verified using FIRMS and Sentinel. Following this, Myanmar Witness conducted an investigation to identify related UGC and reports via social media channels and official media sources, which led to further verification of the impact of the fires and destruction in five of the villages.
Myanmar Witness cannot verify the exact number of houses destroyed due to the limited UGC and information. Multiple media sources claimed that the military were the single perpetrator responsible for the fires, setting them intentionally throughout the clashes with the KIA and PDF in the area. Myanmar Witness has been unable to verify these claims. Despite this, Myanmar Witness confirmed that fire incidents in Shwegu township were consistent with the locations where clashes between the military, KIA, and PDF were reported.
The following section will provide information related to fires in the 13 villages. Fire incidents in five villages were classified as ‘fully verified’ as Myanmar Witness was able to identify and geolocate UGC associated with the fires and the destruction they caused (as per Myanmar Witness’ methodology). Incidents in the remaining villages were ‘partially verified’ using FIRMS and Sentinel data. Despite the verification of fire incidents and the resultant destruction, in all cases there is no evidence to conclusively say that the military was responsible.
Lastly, the impact of the fires and clashes in the township was investigated, including the displacement and deaths of individuals.
Verification of fire incidents via FIRMS and Sentinel
Between 24 March and 11 April 2023, FIRMS registered fires in 13 villages in Shwegu, consistent with the dates of the fires reported on social media (Figure 4).
Figure 4: FIRMS identified fires in 13 villages in Shwegu (top). Mapped by Myanmar Witness (bottom, Google Earth), between 24 March and 11 April 2023.
Myanmar Witness analysed satellite imagery from these locations and confirmed that the 13 villages had suffered from fire damage. Satellite imagery from 20 April 2023 (nine days after the clashes reportedly ended) demonstrates destruction in each village, some of which is considerable.
Despite there being no related UGC of Si Maw, Hing Kawng, and Man Nar from 10 April 2023 to allow for the further verification of fires through geolocation, Myanmar Witness identified parts of these villages which appear to have active fires at the time when Sentinel satellite imagery was taken. This can be seen using Sentinel’s false colour filter on 10 April 2023 (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Active fires were captured on Sentinel’s Urban False Colour on 10 April 2023 in Si Maw, Moe Kint, Si Maw, Hing Kawng, and Man Hkar.
Date and location of the fires verified via FIRMS
To access the links, download the PDF version of this report.
Fires in five villages further verified using UGC
Si Thaung village reportedly experienced fires more than once within the investigative timeframe. For example, the media reported the first fire on 25 March, however FIRMS didn't detect fire signatures that day. On the same day, a Shwegu Facebook page and the BBC posted images allegedly showing the aftermath of military attacks in Si Thaung, Si Mu Lay, and Man Wein. Myanmar Witness geolocated the images (Figure 8) to Si Thaung at 24.105928, 96.748044.
Although there were claims of airstrikes in the area, the images posted by the Shwegu Facebook page are inconclusive. While some show destruction that is consistent with airstrike damage — houses have been completely destroyed with parts of the roofing and fencing broken — other images appear to show burnt flooring and material that could indicate fires where the houses were destroyed (Figure 9). Despite images of destruction to buildings, Myanmar Witness cannot fully verify the claims of an airstrike due to the lack of geolocatable features or verifiable evidence in these images, particularly of aircraft or munitions in the area.
FIRMS detected heat signatures on 9 April; this is consistent with the destruction Myanmar Witness identified using Sentinel satellite imagery on 20 April. Sentinel imagery from 20 April 2023 shows ground changes, suggesting potential fire damage to Si Thaung. This indicates that the village could have been the site of clashes more than once between 24 March 2023 and 11 April 2023.
Figure 8: Footage of destroyed likely school building and motorcycles, geolocated to Si Thaung [24.107351, 96.745435] (source: Myitkyina News Journal).
Figure 9: Footage of destroyed houses, geolocated to Si Thaung [24.105928, 96.748044] (source: Social Punishment Shwegu).
On 30 March 2023, Mandalay Free Press reported on an airstrike in Man Wein and claimed that almost the entire village was burned down after the airstrike. The military allegedly set fire to the village by hand.
FIRMS registered a fire at around 0844 on 30 March 2023 in Man Wein. Myanmar Witness geolocated PDF drone footage that reveals that almost the whole of Man Wein was damaged by fire. Myanmar Witness geolocated this drone footage to around 24.137754, 96.738591. Using Google Earth’s measurement tool, Myanmar Witness estimates that a 60 m squared area of Man Wein was destroyed, as shown in the drone footage. This coincides with the Sentinel satellite imagery burn mark visible the day after the event on 31 March 2023 (Figure 10).
Si Thar and Man Nar
On 5 April 2023, the anti-military group Red Peacock media reported that Si Thar was hit by an airstrike, resulting in the destruction of the village’s hospital and fire damage to the adjoining village of Man Nar (Figure 11). FIRMS data shows multiple heat signatures in Si Thar and Man Nar villages on 5 Apr 2023, consistent with media claims that the military attacked these villages on these days. Both villages also appear to have suffered significant burn damage, evident through changes to ground coverage as identified using Sentinel imagery (dated 20 April 2023).
Shwegu PDF posted footage on 6 April 2023, purporting to show the aftermath of the airstrike on the medical facility which Myanmar Witness geolocated to 24.128808, 96.745465 (Figure 12). Myanmar Witness also geolocated images of destruction to Man Nar village. Limited UGC showing the aircraft or munitions has made it difficult for Myanmar Witness to confirm the airstrike. Despite this, the damage to structures in Si Thar and Man Nar appears to be consistent with an air attack: buildings suffered structural damage (especially to roofing). Additionally, images posted online by Shwegu PDF indicate that there was fire damage and active fires.
Figure 11: Geolocated footage of active fires in Si Thar at 24.126099, 96.743182 (source: Red Peacock Media).
Figure 12: Geolocation of the alleged medical facility destroyed in Si Thar at 24.128808, 96.745465 (source: Red Peacock Media).
Figure 13: Geolocated footage of Man Nar at 24.127086, 96.745625 (source: Red Peacock Media).
Nawng Let Gyi
On 11 April 2023, Mizzima reported that the military set fire to Nam Lang and Nawng Let Gyi (for the second time). FIRMS also detected high heat signatures around Nam Lang on 11 April 2023. Myanmar Witness analysed Sentinel imagery (taken on 20 April 2023) and confirmed that both villages suffered significant ground changes which are consistent with burn damage.
Myanmar Witness also identified and verified UGC from Nawng Let Gyi village, confirming the extent of the destruction (uploaded by a private account and the source has been redacted due to privacy concerns).
Figure 14: Geolocated footage of destroyed houses in Nawng Let Gyi village at 24.162724,96.721197 (source: redacted due to privacy concerns).
Displacement and Victims
Clashes causing displacement
On 23 March 2023, The 74 Media reported that thousands of residents from the western side of Shwegu were seen fleeing Shwegu township at around 0800 local time, as the military was reportedly using heavy weapons in the area. Similarly, on 17 April 2023, Kachin News Group reported that around 10,000 people had fled Shwegu, with more than half of them living in surrounding jungles, where emergency medical aid and food were needed. Individuals supporting IDPs from Shwegu told the Kachin News Group that IDPs feared returning to villages in southeast Shwegu due to concerns about the military’s return.
At the time of reporting, Myanmar Witness has not identified verifiable footage of IDP movement from the township. It’s likely that internet shutdowns and ongoing conflict could have hampered the documentation and reporting of these events. As such, these claims have not, as of yet, been verified.
PCT reported at least 17 known KIA/PDF soldiers were killed by the military during the clashes. On 19 April 2023, RFA also reported on casualties of the clashes, including that the bodies of ten individuals were found after the military convoy left Shwegu. The victims’ names and ages were shared online. The casualties reportedly aged between 22-60 years old. RFA also noted that these individuals had sustained injuries to their throats and gunshot wounds. MRTV uploaded images of three deceased individuals allegedly killed during the clashes; two of which were wearing military fatigues. The MRTV post alleged that these individuals were KIA/PDF personnel killed during clashes in the area. Myanmar Witness could not identify images of all of the deceased individuals.
Figures 15: Images of deceased individuals alleged to be KIA/PDF soldiers killed during clashes with the military in Shwegu. (Left picture appears to show individuals in civilian clothes, while on the right shows an individual in a uniform). (Source: MRTV).
Figure 16: Pro-military account uploaded pictures of an alleged KIA/PDF bunker in Shwegu. (Source: MRTV).
Mandalay Free Press released Images online allegedly showing messages left on structures within Shwegu (although the specific village or location remains unknown). These messages contain profanities directed against the KIA and PDF (Figure 17). Myanmar Witness has reported on similar graffiti in other sites of conflict and have largely been considered an intimidation tactic.
Figure 17: Messages against the KIA and PDF allegedly appeared on structures in Shwegu during clashes between the military and local defence forces. The text reads (top)“Fuck you KIA, are you happy guys?”, and (bottom) “Fuck you, PDF and civilians” (source: Mandalay Free Press).
During the course of the investigation, Myanmar Witness analysed a video posted by local residents on Facebook on 12 April 2023, in which they claim that munitions from a military aircraft had been found in Si Thaung.
Myanmar Witness cannot identify with certainty the type and model of the filmed ordnance nor the system that delivered it. At the same time, Myanmar Witness has identified some noteworthy details – reported below – which allow for an overall assessment that the ordnance filmed in the video was highly likely delivered by an aircraft.
In the video, seven pieces of ordnance are visible. The seven pieces of ordnance appear to be identical apart from one, which has an additional tail kit with fins section still partly attached (Figure 19). Myanmar Witness believes that it is highly likely that the other six pieces of ordnance belong to the same model as the seventh but lack the additional tail kit, which may have been lost during flight or impact.
Figure 19: The presence of screws on the first munition from the bottom suggests that a tail kit may have been initially attached (source: Private).
The seven pieces of ordnance appearing in the footage appear to be of a calibre larger than 60mm. This was estimated by Myanmar Witness based on the calibre of the first round (a mortar round) visible in frame on the right of the video (Figure 20).
Figure 20: 60mm mortar round on the right of the image (source: Redacted due to privacy concerns).
The presence of add-on tail kits strongly suggests these rounds were re-purposed to be employed by aircraft. At the same time, the lack of suspension lugs on all of the bombs’ bodies indicates that these rounds could not have been attached to any aircraft pylons. The possibility that these rounds were fired by a rocket pod must be excluded, given the absence of a rocket motor and the fixed tail fins. For these reasons Myanmar Witness strongly believes that these seven rounds may in fact be sub-munitions, released mid-air by a larger, cargo-type bomb.
An additional element which corroborates this thesis is the strong resemblance between the only surviving tail kit found in Shwegu township with other add-on tail kits allegedly found in the Kokang region of Shan State – following SAC airstrikes – and posted on Facebook on 28 December 2022 (shown below). On that occasion the add-on kits were found together with a large container-type bomb.
Figure 21: remnants or air-dropped munitions, allegedly found in the Kokan region (Source: Khit Thit Media).
Myanmar Witness investigated a cluster of 13 fires in Shwegu township between 24 March 2023 and 11 April 2023. These fires coincided with claims online that the military was active in the area. All 13 fires were confirmed using FIRMS and sentinel satellite imagery, and five of the fires were further verified following the geolocation of UGC of the fire damage. As a result, Myanmar Witness is confident that multiple fires occurred in villages in Shwegu around the time clashes were taking place in the area.
Myanmar Witness has also identified several allegations of airstrikes and claims related to munitions found in these attacks. It is claimed online that LID 88 and the Myanmar Air Force were responsible, causing destruction to medical facilities and close to places of worship. While this could not be verified, the munitions found were consistent with those used in other Myanmar Air Force attacks.
This investigation has highlighted the destruction of civilian infrastructure and identified claims related to the mass displacement of individuals from the township as well as human casualties. Myanmar Witness will continue to monitor claims related to the human toll of fires.
Ethnic Armed Organization/Ethnic Resistance Organisation - EAO/ERO
Fire Information for Resource Management System - FIRMS
Kachin Independence Army - KIA
People’s Defense Forces - PDF
Local Defense Forces - LDF
Myanmar Air Force - MAF
State Administration Council - SAC
User Generated Content - UGC