Myanmar's military is increasingly turning to airstrikes with deadly results to try to crush stiff armed resistance, two years after it seized power and plunged the country into a prolonged civil war, said a report Tuesday by a human rights monitoring group.
The military is heavily reliant on fighter jets and helicopter gunships supplied by its allies Russia and China, according to the non-governmental organization Myanmar Witness and other experts. The group's compilation of 135 “airwar incidents” from July to mid-December says the number of airstrikes has been on an upward trend since since September.
“As the Myanmar military struggles to exert control over areas of resistance, airstrikes have become a key part of their offensive,” the report says. The military "is putting the population of Myanmar in a precarious position, destroying homes, schools and places of worship — sites which should be safe for civilians.”
According to a January statement by the National Unity Government, an underground group that calls itself the country’s legitimate government and serves as an umbrella organization for opponents of military rule, 460 civilians, mostly children, have lost their lives in airstrikes.
Myanmar’s army has defended its actions as meant to fight what it calls terrorist activities and legitimate military targets.
The army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, 2021, and immediately was met with widespread public protests that security forces suppressed with lethal force. The futility of nonviolent protest drove opponents to armed resistance, which U.N. experts and others have characterized as civil war.
According to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a watchdog group that tracks killings and arrests, 2,901 civilians have been killed by the authorities since the army takeover. The actual death toll is likely to be much higher since the group cannot easily verify casualties in remote areas and combat zones.
The army has long contended with ethnic minority rebel groups in frontier areas fighting for greater autonomy but now finds its forces stretched thin as it also battles pre-democracy guerrillas in Myanmar’s heartland.
In many cases, ethnic rebels have teamed up with pro-democracy guerrillas in the loosely organized armed wing of the National Unity Government. They have effectively denied the military government control of large swaths of the country, undermining its claims to legitimacy. But they lack the resources to deliver a knockout punch on the battlefield.
Although the military is demoralized and has been losing control over many parts of the country, its increasing use of air power is a major challenge for the resistance, Christina Fink, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said at a Jan. 19 online seminar organized by the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C.
The military has an air force capability they didn’t have 20 years ago, she said.
“They have been able to purchase planes from both Russia and China. They’ve been able to get the training in Russia, for instance, and are now using those to great effect,” said Fink.
Members of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief organization that offers hands-on medical assistance to ethnic minority villagers in Myanmar’s border regions, were among the rare outside witnesses who were able to see the effects of an airstrike when a Myanmar jet fighter dropped two bombs on the village of Lay Wah in northern Karen state on Jan. 12. They observed its bombing run from a distance and rushed to the village to offer assistance.
“The bombs destroyed two churches and the school as well as other structures,” the Rangers said in an account circulated to their supporters.
The victims included a 3-year-old and her mother, a Catholic deacon, another pastor, and a villager who was helping at the church "and was disintegrated by the blast and only the stumps of his legs could be found.”
David Eubank, a former member of U.S. Army Special Forces and founder of the Free Burma Rangers, told The Associated Press in a text message last week that since the 2021 takeover, Myanmar's military “has come with a speed and a force we have never seen in our 30 years of humanitarian relief work here.”
“We witnessed the first airstrikes right after the coup d’état in Karen state in villages around us, killing and maiming civilians, many of the women and children we treated in our clinic," said Eubank. Then last year, he saw almost daily airstrikes by Yak-130 and MiG-29 as well as K-8 jet fighters that bombed, strafed and rocketed villages and clinics.
"I saw firsthand 10 people who were killed in different bombing events and came up on other areas where many more were killed before we arrived. We also saw Hind attack helicopters in February. Almost every day shooting rockets, and machine gun into villages, he said.
The opponents of military rule have virtually no access to sophisticated weapons to combat air attacks. Their supporters are urging an embargo on the sale of aviation fuel to Myanmar to stop the air attacks.
The European Union has imposed an arms embargo on Myanmar as well as a ban on equipment that can be used for internal repression or for monitoring communications. The United States bars any commercial transactions with Myanmar's military and its major cronies and agents.
“These airstrikes have devastated families, terrorized civilians, killed and maimed victims. But if the planes can’t fuel up, they can’t fly out and wreak havoc," Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnès Callamard said in November. “Today we are calling on suppliers, shipping agents, vessel owners and maritime insurers to withdraw from a supply chain that is benefiting the Myanmar Air Force.”