‘Monster from the sky’: two years on from coup, Myanmar junta increases airstrikes on civilians | Myanmar
IIt was early evening and people had gathered at a local pandal in the village of Mo Dar Ley in Myanmar’s Sagaing region to prepare for the Buddhist novices’ initiation ceremony the next day. As soon as they started cooking, fighter jets appeared in the sky. Then the sound of explosions rang through the air.
“Planes dropped bombs out of nowhere,” said Naing Co*, who was just a few houses away from the pandal, when the January 19 attack took place. He remembered how he grabbed his wife and son and rushed to see what had happened. His parents’ house, located a few kilometers away, was engulfed in flames. His mother, 68, was among the eight killed. She died instantly.
Military violence intensifies
Such attacks have become almost a daily occurrence in Myanmar, where the military junta that took power in February 2021 is increasingly launching airstrikes inside the country in an attempt to quell determined opposition. The Myanmar Witness report identified 135 “air warfare” incidents in the last six months of 2022, each most likely representing more than one air strike.
“The number of air warfare incidents in the report is almost certainly conservative,” said Daniel Anlezark, deputy head of Myanmar Witness Investigations. Regular internet outages, the remoteness of some events, and fear of reprisals all make it difficult to report airstrikes.
The junta, backed by Russian and Chinese aircraft, carried out airstrikes in 10 of the country’s 14 administrative divisions, according to Myanmar Witness. Schools, medical facilities and religious sites were damaged.
Anecdotal data collected by the monitoring group Acled suggests that in 2022 the military carried out more air strikes. this means that the number of attacks carried out outside of combat operations has more than tripled, to 312 incidents in 2022. Each incident may include several airstrikes.
People live in constant fear, said Aung Myo Min, human rights minister in the government of national unity, which was set up to oppose the junta’s rule. “They call them a kind of monster from the sky,” he said of the airstrikes. Some call the planes, now ubiquitous, “deadly dragonflies.”
On Wednesday, two years since the military toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government, the public is expected to find ways to express opposition to the junta and its pledge to hold elections this year. In Yangon, where military violence means it’s unsafe to take to the streets, “silent strikes” are being planned to keep people at home. “One vote and one round. Fight illegal elections by proving your silence,” reads the slogan of the protest work posted online.
After the coup, the military faced stiff resistance from both peaceful demonstrators and armed resistance groups, which received support from some ethnic armed organizations. In September, the Special Advisory Council on Myanmar estimated that the junta had stable control of only 17% of the country’s territory, while rival factions actually controlled more than 52%.
However, the junta’s ability to launch airstrikes gives it an asymmetrical advantage over adversaries.
Myanmar’s military is hedging its arms portfolio between Russia and China and has drawn closer to both countries since the coup, expressing support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and backing Beijing’s claims to Taiwan, said Hunter Marston, a researcher and analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. . “They relied on their air superiority and used it indiscriminately,” he added.
For Naing Ko, the brutality of the airstrike had a lasting impact on his family and society.
His father, who was absent at the time of the airstrike, received a shrapnel wound and is in the hospital. “We didn’t tell him about my mother in case he goes into shock and something happens to him,” Naing Ko said. “I can’t lose them both now.”
The family hardly sleeps at night, fearing that the military will come again. 7-year-old son Naing Ko is afraid to be away from his parents. “He shakes as soon as he hears the sound of a gunshot or the word ‘Sittar’ (soldier),” he says.
Scorched earth tactics
The military airstrikes strategy was deployed in tandem with scorched earth tactics. December 2022, an above-average month for airstrikes, also accounted for the highest number of deliberate fires since Myanmar Witness began monitoring in September 2021, with more than 132 such incidents recorded.
The Sagain region, the center of the Bamar ethnic majority and now a hotbed of resistance, has become a target for both sides.
Shun Lei*, who lives in the village of Nyaung Hla in the east of Depayin, Sagain, said her area has been burned several times. The village was hit by an airstrike last July but burned to the ground six months later on December 3rd and again on January 13th and 25th.
“There used to be 700 houses in our village, but now there are only a hundred. We cannot count the list of houses that are now burned, but only the list of the remaining houses,” she said.
According to the UN, about 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Myanmar. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has skyrocketed from 1 million before the coup to an expected 17.6 million in 2023.
Tinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent activist who opposed the coup, said that the international response after the coup was “slow and uncoordinated”. She welcomed the assistance provided to Ukraine, but noted that such assistance had not been offered to Myanmar. “As for the resistance forces in Myanmar, we do not receive any support even from our neighboring countries,” she said. “People are brazenly killed in broad daylight just because they can’t defend themselves.”
Shun Lei believes that the Sagaing region is under attack because of the strong resistance. In her village, people now live in shelters made from burnt iron sheets and palm leaves; they fear that there is no point in rebuilding their homes if their homes are again the target of attacks.
“Everything is temporary in our lives right now—clothing, food, shelter. We need to leave these things as soon as they enter the village again. Now we pack our bed sheets every morning when we wake up, just to be ready when we have to run,” said Shun Lei.
Despite repeated attacks, she vows to oppose military attempts to hold elections. “None of us will participate,” she said. “We’ll make sure they fail.”
* Names have been changed.