Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (2023)

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (1)

Just before she left for school on the afternoon of 16 September last year, nine year-old Zin Nwe Phyo was thrilled to be given a new pair of sandals by her uncle.

She made him a cup of coffee, put on the shoes and headed off to school, a 10-minute walk away in the village of Let Yet Kone in central Myanmar. Shortly afterwards, her uncle recalls, he saw two helicopters circling over the village. Suddenly they started shooting.

Zin Nwe Phyo and her classmates had just arrived at the school and were settling down with their teachers, when someone shouted that the aircraft were coming their way.

They began running for cover, terrified and crying out for help, as rockets and ammunition struck the school.

"We did not know what to do," said one teacher, who had been inside a classroom when the air strikes began. "At first I did not hear the sound of the helicopter, I heard the bullets and bombs hitting the school grounds."

"Children inside the main school building were hit by the weapons and began running outside, trying to hide," said another teacher. With her class she managed to hide behind a big tamarind tree.

"They fired right through the school walls, hitting the children," said one eyewitness. "Pieces flying out of the main building injured children in the next building. There were big holes blown out of the ground floor."

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (2)

Their attackers were two Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships, nicknamed "flying tanks" or "crocodiles" because of their sinister appearance and protective armour. They carry a formidable array of weapons, including powerful rapid-fire cannon, and pods that fire multiple rockets, which are devastating to people, vehicles and all but the strongest buildings.

In the two years since Myanmar's military ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government, air strikes like this have become a new and deadly tactic in a civil war that is now a brutal stalemate across much of the country, conducted by an air force which has in recent years grown to about 70 aircraft, mostly Russian and Chinese-made.

It's hard to estimate how many have died in such air attacks because access to much of Myanmar is now impossible, making the conflict's true toll largely invisible to the outside world. The BBC spoke to eyewitnesses, villagers and families over a series of phone calls to find out how the attack on the school unfolded.

The firing continued for around 30 minutes, eyewitnesses said, tearing chunks out of the walls and roofs.

Then soldiers, who had landed in two other helicopters nearby, marched in, some still shooting, and ordered the survivors to come out and squat on the ground. They were warned not to look up, or they would be killed. The soldiers began questioning them about the presence of any opposition forces in the village.

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Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (3)

Inside the main school building three children lay dead. One was Zin Nwe Phyo. Another was seven-year-old Su Yati Hlaing - she and her older sister were being brought up by their grandmother. Their parents, like so many in this region, had moved to Thailand to seek work. Others were horribly injured, some missing limbs. Among them was Phone Tay Za, also seven years old, crying out in pain.

The soldiers used plastic bin liners to collect body parts. At least 12 wounded children and teachers were loaded on to two trucks commandeered by the military and driven away to the nearest hospital in the town of Ye-U. Two of the children later died. In the fields skirting the village, a teenage boy and six adults had been shot dead by the soldiers.

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (4)

This is a country that has long been at war with itself. The Burmese armed forces have been fighting various insurgent groups since independence in 1948. But these conflicts were low-tech affairs, involving mainly ground troops in an endless tussle for territory in contested border regions. They were often little different from the trench warfare of a century ago.

It was in 2012 in Kachin state - just after the air force had obtained its first Mi-35 gunship - that the military first used aerial weapons extensively against insurgents. Air strikes were also used in some of the other internal conflicts which kept burning throughout Myanmar's 10-year democratic interlude, in Shan and Rakhine states.

However, since the February 2021 coup, the army has suffered heavy casualties in road ambushes carried out by the hundreds of so-called People's Defence Forces, or PDFs - volunteer militias that were established after the junta crushed peaceful protests against the coup.

So it has relied on air support - bombing by aircraft suitable for ground attack; or air mobile operations like the one at Let Yet Kone, where gunships blast targets before soldiers arrive to kill or capture any opposition forces they find.

There were at least 600 air attacks by the military between February 2021 and January 2023, according to a BBC analysis of data from the conflict-monitoring group Acled (Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project).

Casualties from these strikes are difficult to estimate. According to the clandestine National Unity Government or NUG, which leads opposition to the military regime, air attacks by the armed forces killed 155 civilians between October 2021 and September 2022.

The resistance groups are poorly armed, with no capacity to fight back against the air strikes. They have adapted consumer drones to launch their own air attacks, dropping small explosives on military vehicles and guard posts, but to limited effect.

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (5)

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It is not clear why Let Yet Kone was targeted by the army. It is a poor village of around 3,000 inhabitants, most of them rice or groundnut farmers, set in the scrubby brown landscape of central Myanmar's dry zone, where water is scarce outside of the monsoon season.

It is in a district called Depayin where resistance to the coup has been strong. Depayin has seen many armed clashes between the army and PDFs, although not, according to residents, in Let Yet Kone. At least 112 of the 268 attacks recorded by the NUG were in southern Sagaing, where Depayin is located.

A spokesman for the military government said after the school attack that soldiers had gone to the village to check the reported presence of fighters from a PDF and from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and that they had come under fire from the school. This account is contradicted by every eyewitness who spoke to the BBC. The military has produced no evidence of insurgent activity at the school.

The school had been set up only three months earlier in the Buddhist monastery at the northern edge of the village. It taught around 240 pupils. Residents told the BBC that it is one of more than 100 schools in Depayin which are now being run by communities opposing military rule.

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (6)

Teachers and health workers were among the earliest supporters of the civil disobedience movement. In one of the first and most widely-supported acts of defiance against the coup, state workers vowed to withdraw all co-operation with the new military government. As a result a lot of schools and health centres are now being run by communities, not the government.

Phone Tay Za's mother says she heard the shooting and explosions start about 30 minutes after she had seen her son off to school. But, like Zin Nwe Phyo's uncle, she assumed it could not be the target of the helicopter gunships.

"After the sound of the heavy guns firing died down I headed toward the school," she said. "I saw children and adults squatting on the ground with their heads lowered. The soldiers were kicking those who turned their heads up."

She begged the soldiers to let her look for her son. They refused. "You people care when your own get shot," one told her, "but not when it happens to us."

Then she heard Phone Tay Za calling out to her, and they let her go to him inside the ruined classroom.

"I found him in a pool of blood with eyes blinking slowly. He said, 'mom, just kill me please.' I told him he would be fine. 'You will not die'."

"I cried my heart out, shouting 'how dare you do this to my son'. The whole monastery compound was in absolute silence. When I shouted, it echoed through the buildings. A soldier yelled at me not to scream like that and told me to stay still where I was. So I sat there in the classroom for about 45 minutes with my child in my arms. I saw three children's dead bodies there. I did not know whose children they were. I could not look at their faces."

Phone Tay Za died shortly afterwards. The soldiers refused to let his mother keep his body and took it away. The bodies of Zin Nwe Phyo and Su Yati Hlaing were also taken by the military, before their families could see them, and later secretly cremated.

A thousand kilometres away in Thailand Su Yati Hlaing's parents were working their shifts in the electronic components factory when they heard that the military had attacked their village.

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (7)

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"My wife and I were in agony. We could not concentrate on our work anymore," her father said.

"It was around 2:30 in the afternoon so we could not leave. We kept working, with heavy hearts. Colleagues asked us if we were ok. My wife could not hold her tears anymore and started crying. We decided to not do the usual overtime that day and asked our team leader to go back to our room."

Later that evening they got a call from Su Yati Hlaing's grandmother telling them she had been killed.

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (8)

The attack in Let Yet Kone drew international rebuke and horror, but the air strikes continued.

On 23 October air force jets bombed a concert in Kachin State commemorating the anniversary of the start of the KIA insurgency.

Survivors say three huge explosions ripped through the large crowd which had gathered for the event, killing 60 people, including senior KIA commanders and a popular Kachin singer. Many more are thought to have died in the following days after the army blocked the evacuation of those who had been seriously injured in the attack.

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (9)

At the other end of the country the air force bombed a lead mine in southern Karen State, close to the border with Thailand, on 15 November, killing three miners and injuring eight others. The junta spokesman justified the attack on the grounds that the mining was illegal, and in an area controlled by the insurgent Karen National Union.

And only last month, the air force bombed the main base of the insurgent Chin National Front, next to the border with India. It also launched air strikes which hit two churches in Karen State, killing five non-combatants.

This increased capacity for aerial warfare is being sustained by continued support from Russia and China after the coup, despite many other governments ostracising Myanmar's military regime.

Russia, in particular, has stepped up to become its strongest foreign backer. Russian equipment, like the Mi-35 and the agile Yak-130 ground attack jets, are central to the air campaign against insurgents. China has recently supplied Myanmar with modern FTC-2000 trainers, aircraft which are also well-suited for a ground attack.

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Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (10)

The high death toll in such attacks has drawn the attention of war crimes investigators. The Myanmar armed forces have often been accused of such crimes in the past - often abuses by ground troops, particularly against the Rohingyas in 2017. But the use of air power brings with it new types of atrocities.

For the survivors of Let Yet Kone, the nightmare did not end on 16 September.

They say many of the children and some of the adults are still traumatised by what they saw that day. The military has continued to target their village, attacking it again three more times, and burning down many of the houses.

This is a poor community. They do not have the resources to rebuild, and in any case they do not know when the soldiers will be back to burn them again.

"Children are everything for their parents," says one local militia leader. "By killing our children, the military has crushed them mentally. And I must say they have succeeded. Even for me, I will need a lot of motivation to carry on the revolutionary fight now."

Su Yati Hlaing's parents are still in Thailand, unable to return after their daughter's death. They cannot afford the cost of the journey, nor the risk of losing the factory jobs they had always hoped would give their little girl a better life.

"There were many things I had imagined," says her mother. "I imagined that when I finally went back I would live happily with my daughters, I would cook for them, whatever they wanted. I had so many dreams. I wanted them to be wise and educated, as much as we, their parents, are uneducated. They were just about to begin their journey. My daughter did not even get our affection and warmth closely, because we were away so long. Now, she is gone for forever."

Myanmar: Air strikes have become a deadly new tactic in the civil war (11)

The BBC analysed attack data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled), which collects reports of incidents related to political violence and protests around the world. Aerial attacks have been defined as conflict events involving aircraft in specific locations either during an armed clash or as an independent strike. The data covers the period 1 February 2021 to 20 January 2023.

Additional reporting: BBC Burmese

Data analysis: Becky Dale

Production: Lulu Luo, Dominic Bailey

Design: Lilly Huynh

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FAQs

What is the reason behind civil war in Myanmar? ›

The Myanmar Civil War (Burmese: ၂၀၂၁-၂၀၂၃ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံ ပြည်သူ့ခုခံတွန်းလှန်စစ်), also called the Myanmar Spring Revolution, is an ongoing civil war following Myanmar's long-running insurgencies which escalated significantly in response to the 2021 military coup d'état and the subsequent violent crackdown on anti-coup ...

Is Myanmar having a civil war? ›

The civil war in Myanmar is getting too close to the Indian border for comfort and could heighten the refugee problem, security officials in the border States of Manipur and Mizoram said.

What is the armed conflict in Myanmar? ›

Insurgencies have been ongoing in Myanmar since 1948, the year the country, then known as Burma, gained independence from the United Kingdom. The conflict has largely been ethnic-based, with several ethnic armed groups fighting Myanmar's armed forces, the Tatmadaw, for self-determination.

How did the Myanmar protest start? ›

Protests in Myanmar, known locally as the Spring Revolution (Burmese: နွေဦးတော်လှန်ရေး, Burmese pronunciation: [nwè.ú.tɔ̀.l̥àɰ̃.jé]), began in early 2021 in opposition to the coup d'état on 1 February, staged by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces, the Tatmadaw.

Is Myanmar still under military rule 2022? ›

Military rule in Myanmar (also known as Burma) lasted from 1962 to 2011 and resumed in 2021. Myanmar gained its independence from the British Empire in 1948 under the Burmese Independence Army, as a democratic nation.

Is the US helping Myanmar? ›

Since the coup, the US has provided more than US$434 million (S$585 million) in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable communities in Burma and those who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, especially to Rohingya refugee communities.

What is the issue in Myanmar 2022? ›

Child trafficking and child labour are reportedly on the rise in Myanmar. According to UN figures, the estimated number of internally displaced people since the coup in the country has passed 700,000, including more than 250,000 children, as of 1 June 2022.

Is Myanmar army powerful? ›

Myanmar is ranked 38 of 145 out of the countries considered for the annual Global Firepower review. The nation holds a Power Index score of 0.5768 with a score of 0.0000 being considered exceptional in the GFP assessment.

What is Myanmar known for? ›

Previously known as Burma, Myanmar is famous for its Buddhism, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and the intriguing mix of British colonial architecture and gilded pagodas.

What are the greatest challenges faced by Myanmar? ›

  • Overview. According to the Asian Development Bank, $120 billion will be needed by 2030 to improve and expand needed infrastructure, including roads, rail, bridges, and airports. ...
  • COVID-19 Pandemic Impact. Burma's economy has been weighed down by restrictive measures taken to control the pandemic. ...
  • Reputational Risk.
Jul 28, 2022

What problems is Myanmar facing? ›

Introduction. Throughout its decades of independence, Myanmar has struggled with military rule, civil war, poor governance, and widespread poverty. A military coup in February 2021 dashed hopes for democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian nation. Where Will American History Go Next?

How is Myanmar violating human rights? ›

Accountability crucial

Ms. Bachelet said that Myanmar's military forces are committing human rights violations with the impunity that they perpetrated four years ago during the violent persecution of Rohingya, and against other ethnic minorities in previous decades.

What is the old name of Myanmar? ›

After the Myanmar armed forces crushed a nationwide pro-democracy uprising in September 1988, the country's official name (in English) was changed from its post-1974 form, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, back to the Union of Burma, which had been adopted when Myanmar regained its independence from the ...

What is the longest civil war in history? ›

The Karen conflict is an armed conflict in Kayin State, Myanmar (formerly known as Karen State, Burma). It is a part of the wider internal conflict in Myanmar, the world's longest ongoing civil war.

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China and Russia are reportedly the main suppliers of weapons to the Myanmar Army. Chinese foreign direct investment in Myanmar totalled $19 billion in 2019, compared with $700 million from the EU. The Financial Times argues that Russia is supportive of the junta in order to sell more arms to them.

Who controls Myanmar today? ›

Executive branch
OfficeNameSince
Chairman Prime MinisterMin Aung Hlaing2 February 2021
Vice ChairmanSoe Win2 February 2021
PresidentMyint Swe1 February 2021

Who is supplying Myanmar military? ›

Myanmar's military is producing a vast range of weapons to use against its own people thanks to supplies from companies in at least 13 countries, former top UN officials say. The US, France, India and Japan are among those named, despite Western-led sanctions intended to isolate Myanmar.

Is Myanmar allied with Russia? ›

In 2008, alongside China, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning alleged human rights abuses and atrocities at the hands of the Myanmar government. In August 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described Myanmar as a "friendly and longstanding partner."

Is USA an ally of Myanmar? ›

The United States supports a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of all its people.

What is the US position on Myanmar? ›

Due to its particularly severe violations of religious freedom, the United States has designated Myanmar a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act.

Does Myanmar have human rights issues? ›

The junta security forces' mass killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, and other abuses against protesters, journalists, health workers, and political opposition members amount to crimes against humanity. Free speech and assembly face severe restrictions.

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Which are the top 5 armies of the world? The Largest Armies in the World Include China>India> The United States>North Korea>Russia In Decreasing Order.

What are 3 interesting facts about Myanmar? ›

Amazing Facts About Myanmar
  • The major religion followed in Myanmar is Theravada Buddhism. ...
  • The largest city of Myanmar is Yangon, in which the famous Shwedagon Pagoda temple is situated.
  • The country was earlier known as Burma until 1989. ...
  • The capital of Myanmar was changed from Yangon to Naypyidaw in 2006.

Why is Myanmar so popular? ›

Myanmar, the official name of the Southeast Asian nation commonly known as Burma is a must-visit destination for travelers who like beaches and Buddha. This beautiful country is dotted with thousands of Buddhist temples. Besides, it has serene white beaches along the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

Why is Myanmar important to China? ›

Access to Myanmar's ports and naval installations provide China with strategic influence in the Bay of Bengal, in the wider Indian Ocean region and in Southeast Asia. China has developed a deep-water port on Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal.

Is Myanmar a high risk country? ›

Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has added Myanmar to the list of high-risk countries, known as 'Black List' with 'strategic deficiencies in regimes to counter money laundering, terrorist financing, and proliferation financing'. Myanmar is the third country to be added in this list along with North Korea and Iran.

What is the most important thing in Myanmar? ›

The Shwedagon Pagoda is Burma's most famous shrine

One of the interesting facts about Myanmar is its iconic Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It is the oldest and the most visited Buddhist temple in Myanmar, which was built about 2500 years ago.

Why is there so much violence in Myanmar? ›

The ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar is incredibly complex; the traumas of colonialism, poverty, the recent transition from a military government to a more democratic state, and the global war on terror all play major roles in shaping the conflict.

What is Rohingya issue in Myanmar? ›

They are the world's largest stateless population. Without recognition as citizens or permanent residents of the country, the Rohingya have limited access to education, jobs, and health services, resulting in chronic poverty and marginalization.

What is the situation in Myanmar 2022? ›

In 2022, WFP has assisted 2.6 million conflict-affected people across Myanmar with emergency food, livelihoods and nutrition support. Humanitarian situation: UNOCHA estimates that 1.3 million people are internally displaced by conflict in Myanmar – 974,000 since February 2021 and 653,000 in 2022 alone.

What is the current crisis situation of Myanmar? ›

2023 situation overview

Current displacement trends indicate that 1.35 million IDPs may be in urgent need of protection and humanitarian assistance in 2023. Humanitarian actors' access to the newly displaced has been obtained only incrementally and remains unpredictable.

What is the significance of the Rohingya crisis? ›

Almost a million Rohingya are currently living in refugee camps in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. The Rohingya rely entirely on humanitarian assistance for protection, food, water, shelter and health, and they are living in temporary shelters in highly congested camp settings.

What is the US doing about the Rohingya crisis? ›

With nearly $138 million for programs specifically in Bangladesh, it provides life-sustaining support to the over 940,000 Rohingya refugees, many of whom are survivors of a campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and 540,000 generous host community members in Bangladesh.

Why is the Rohingya crisis important? ›

How did the Rohingya crisis start? In 1982, Myanmar passed a citizenship law that denied Rohingya people nationality and left them stateless. Over the years, the Rohingya people experienced continuous violence and persecution and were denied rights granted to Myanmar citizens.

Is it OK to go to Myanmar now? ›

Avoid all travel to Myanmar due to the risk of politically motivated violence and civil unrest. If you are in Myanmar, you are at risk of arbitrary enforcement of local laws, which could lead to arrest and detention.

Is Myanmar allies with China? ›

China and Myanmar have active bilateral relations with each other. In recent years, the relations between China and Myanmar have faced some problems due to ongoing clashes between ethnic Chinese rebels and the Myanmar military near the China–Myanmar border.

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