‘Monster from the sky’: two years on from coup, Myanmar junta increases airstrikes on civilians | Myanmar

‘Monster from the sky’: two years on from coup, Myanmar junta increases airstrikes on civilians | Myanmar

It was early evening and people had gathered at a local pandal in the village of Moe Dar Lay, in Myanmar’s Sagaing region, to prepare for a Buddhist novice ordination ceremony the next day. Just as they started cooking, fighter jets appeared in the sky. Then the sound of explosions boomed through the air.

“The jets dropped the bombs out of nowhere,” said Naing Ko*, who was just a few houses from the pandal when the attack took place on 19 January. He remembers grabbing his wife and son and rushing to see what happened. His parents’ house, a few kilometers away, was engulfed in flames. His mother (68) was among eight people killed. She died instantly.

Military violence intensified

Such attacks have become an almost daily occurrence in Myanmar, where the military junta, which took power in February 2021, is increasingly launching airstrikes across parts of the country in an attempt to quell a resolute opposition. A report by Myanmar Witness identified 135 “air war” incidents over the last six months of 2022 – with each most likely representing more than a single airstrike.

“The count of air war incidents in the report is almost certainly conservative,” said Daniel Anlezark, deputy head of investigations, Myanmar Witness. Frequent internet shutdowns, the remoteness of some events and the fear of retaliation all hamper the reporting of airstrikes.

The junta, which relies on Russian and Chinese aircraft, has launched airstrikes in 10 out of 14 of the country’s administrative divisions, according to Myanmar Witness. Schools, medical facilities and religious sites were all hit.

Separate data, collected by the monitoring group Acled, suggests that the military has increasingly launched attacks from the air in 2022. According to its data, which is based on local media reports and other sources, the number of asymmetric air or drone strikes by the military, meaning attacks launched outside of combat, more than tripled to 312 incidents in 2021. Each incident could involve multiple airstrikes. include.

People live in a constant state of fear, said Aung Myo Min, human rights minister of the National Unity Government, which was set up to oppose junta rule. “They call them some kind of monster from the sky,” he said of the airstrikes. Some call the planes, now a ubiquitous presence, “the deadly dragonfly”.

On Wednesday, which will mark two years since the military ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, the public is expected to find ways to show opposition to the junta, and its promise to hold elections this year. In Yangon, where military violence means it is not safe to take to the streets, “silent strikes”, where the public will stay at home, are being planned. “One vote and one round. Fight the illegal election by proving your silence,” reads the slogan of protest artwork shared online.

Since the coup, the military has faced stubborn opposition from both peaceful protesters and armed resistance groups, which have received support from some ethnic armed organizations. In September, the Special Advisory Council on Myanmar estimated that the junta has stable control over just 17% of the country – while opposition groups have effective control over more than 52%.

However, the junta’s ability to launch airstrikes gives it an asymmetric advantage over its opponents.

Myanmar’s military wedges its arms portfolio between Russia and China and has moved closer to both countries since the coup — voicing 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 said. . “They relied on their air advantage and used it indiscriminately,” he added.

Debris is strewn around destroyed wooden structures in Hpakant township, Kachin State, Myanmar in October 2022. Photo: AP

For Naing Ko, the violence of the air raid had a lasting effect on his family and his community.

His father, who was out at the time of the airstrike, was hit by shrapnel and remains in hospital. “We didn’t tell him about my mother in case he was shocked and something happened to him,” said Naing Ko. “I can’t lose both now.”

The family can barely sleep at night, afraid the army will come again. Naing Ko’s son (7) is afraid of being away from his parents. “He gets shaken as soon as he hears the sound of a gunshot or the word “Sitthar” (soldier),” he says.

Scorched earth tactics

The army’s strategy of airstrikes was deployed in tandem with scorched earth tactics. December 2022, a month with an above-average number of airstrikes, also accounted for the highest number of deliberately lit fires since monitoring by Myanmar Witness began in September 2021, with more than 132 such incidents recorded.

Sagaing region, a heartland of the Bamar ethnic majority, and now a hotbed of resistance, has been heavily targeted by both.

Shoon Lei*, who lives in Nyaung Hla village, in eastern Sagaing’s Depayin township, said her area has caught fire several times. The village was hit by an air raid last July, only to be burned down six months later on December 3, and then again on January 13 and 25.

“Our village once had 700 houses, but now there are only a hundred left. We cannot count the list of houses that have been burnt now, but only the list of the remaining houses,” she said.

According to the UN, an estimated 1.5 million people have been displaced within Myanmar. The number of people in need of humanitarian aid has risen, from 1 million before the coup, to an expected 17.6 million in 2023.

Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent anti-coup activist, said the international response since the coup had been “slow and uncoordinated”. She welcomed the aid given to Ukraine but noted that the same aid was not offered to Myanmar. “For resistance forces in Myanmar, we get no support, not even from our neighboring countries,” she said. “People are blatantly murdered in broad daylight just because they cannot defend themselves.”

May from the sagaing region in Myanmar

Shoon Lei believes the Sagaing region is being heavily targeted due to the strength of resistance there. In her village, people now live in shelters made with burnt iron sheets and palm leaves; they fear that there is no point in rebuilding in case their homes are targeted again.

“Everything is temporary in our lives now – clothes, food, shelter. We have to leave these things behind as soon as they re-enter town. Now we put our bedding in bags every morning when we wake up, just to be ready when we have to flee,” said Shoon Lei.

Despite the repeated attacks, she vows to defy the army’s efforts to hold elections. “None of us will participate,” she said. “We will make sure they fail.”

*Names changed.

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