Junta’s Airstrikes: Time to Stop Normalizing it

by mohingamatters

On April 11, 2023, the world saw the deadliest aerial attack by Myanmar junta air forces in the village of Pazigyi in Sagaing Region’s Kanbalu Township, in which over 160 casualties were reported. It was the highest number of reported casualties in an airstrike conducted by the State Administration Council (SAC)’s forces since the Myanmar military seized power in the February 1, 2021, coup. But airstrikes by the junta forces are not a new incident for the people of Myanmar.

“Before the coup, there were military drones and helicopters flying above us in Karen State, but I have never experienced airstrikes. But after the coup, there were many airstrikes happening in our state,” said a civilian who worked as a fixer in Karen State. [He requested anonymity for security reasons.]

A member of the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) who requested anonymity also said that since the first time she experienced an aerial attack between December 2021 and January 2022, she has seen and experienced countless airstrikes and can’t even give the exact number of airstrikes.

“I remember being so terrified back then to see the SAC plane flying over us for the first time. Now, it’s more of… oh, okay it’s flying over us, let’s see what is going to happen. It’s so normalized for us on the ground now, and we would say, ‘Okay, let’s run only after they have dropped bombs.’ We are still scared of the planes, but it’s so frequent now that we are not very fazed by it anymore,” said a KNDF member based in Demoso Township, Karenni State.

Reported Airstrikes Since February 1, 2021 coup

According to a BBC analysis of data from the conflict-monitoring group Acled (Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project), there were at least 600 air attacks by the Myanmar military between February 2021 and January 2023. The first reported aerial attack after the coup was on March 27, 2021. It was in Karen State during a clash between Karen National Union’s Brigade 5 and junta forces after the junta lost control of Theemuhta Station. The incident displaced 3,000 civilians. Since then, there have been several airstrikes reported during clashes between ethnic resistance forces and the junta forces in Karen and Karenni States.

A Karen fixer said that there had been 105 airstrikes by the Myanmar military in Karen State, according to the data collected by the central committee of the Karen National Liberation Army between February 2021 and March 2023.

The Director of the Karenni Human Rights Group, Ko Banya said there have been about 20 airstrikes conducted on the civilian areas by the junta troops in Karenni State since January 2022.

“The airstrikes against the civilians by the junta forces occurred for the first time in January 2022. There were airstrikes before this also, but they were mostly aerial attacks during fighting and armed clashes,” Ko Banya said.

The first aerial attack in a non-ethnic area and non-military target occurred in Sagaing Region on September 16, 2022. A school located in Letyetkone village, Depayin Township, Sagaing Region was attacked by military helicopters firing rockets and machine guns for several hours, killing at least 12 people, including seven children.

According to the statement by the Ministry of Defence under the National Unity Government of Myanmar on November 17, 2022, the junta forces conducted a total of 268 aerial attacks—190 attacks on civilian targets and 78 times on military targets between October 1, 2021, and September 30, 2022. The statement also detailed that the civilian death toll from these attacks is around 155, including women and children, and 187 people were also injured.

These are just reported data from 11 months between October 1, 2021, and September 30, 2022, and there are estimated 14 civilian deaths and 17 injuries by junta’s airstrikes every month on average. Imagine how many civilians’ death toll and injuries would be among the 600 air attacks recorded by Acled, and many more that went unreported.

Deadliest Aerial Attacks by Junta Forces

The first deadliest aerial attack by junta forces before the Pazigyi Massacre occurred on October 23, 2022, in Kachin State. During the 62nd anniversary of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in Anang Pa village, Hpakant Township, Kachin State, the junta aircraft dropped bombs on the ceremony, killing at least 80 people and most of the casualties were civilians attending the ceremony.

The death toll in the recent attack in Sagaing Region’s Pazigyi Village on April 11 was double the casualties reported during the concert attack in Kachin State. According to the news reports, military aircraft bombed a crowd of hundreds attending an administration office opening ceremony by the resistance forces where over 800 villagers were in attendance.

On the evening of April 11, junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun confirmed the attack and justified that the attack was against a ceremony held by the National Unity Government and People’s Defense Forces, and it was aimed to restore peace and stability in the region. On the civilian casualties, he said, “According to our ground information, we hit the place of their weapons’ storage, and that exploded, and people died due to that. Some people who were forced to support them probably died as well.”

Ko Banya said, “We can’t argue anymore that the airstrikes by the SAC are just part of an internal conflict, and that the SAC targeting civilians is not intentional.”

He explained that the SAC is deliberately targeting civilian areas where they no longer have administrative control and retaliating against the efforts of the people mobilizing and setting up their own administration.

“The SAC can’t accept that they lost control in some of the areas, and the aerial attacks are their new tactics to curb the increasing efforts of the people. I see this in my state as well. The SAC troops would target hospitals and civilian areas where they have no administrative control. The more they lose administrative control, the more their military system is failing, and they are desperately trying to curb it with airstrikes,” the Director of the KnHRG, Ko Banya added.

Civilians’ Responses to Airstrikes

The fixer from Karen State said that the junta would always target the villages in Karen State where the civilians are the majority.

“Most local residents in the Hpapun area stop sleeping in their homes and villages during the night in fear of airstrikes. People do this because the junta would target any areas with buildings lately so they would sleep in the bomb shelters they built in the forest about ten miles away from the villages during the night to protect themselves,” said the Karen fixer.

He explained that during the daytime, the men would go back to the village to feed their animals or to take food rations back, and at nighttime, they spend their time in the shelters in the forests where it is difficult to see them from the sky.

“This has become their norm now,” he added.

In Karenni State, the civilians tried to protect themselves by learning the patterns of the junta airstrikes.

“If a plane flew back and forth about two to three times, that’s for sure that an airstrike is happening. They would send out a plane for patrolling and then aerial bombs would be dropped soon after,” said the KNDF member.

For many of the local residents in Karenni State, they accepted that the airstrikes and attacks by the junta side were a part of the war and that the SAC would use them to retaliate against the resistance forces, Ko Banya said. But as time goes on, people become terrified as the attacks are on airstrikes on clinics and IDP camps on the east of Loikaw where the civilians are taking refuge, he added.

“All of these have instilled fear among the local residents, but these also reminded everyone to always be on alert and protect themselves in bomb shelters. People start to listen to airstrike precautions more also and learn the patterns of military planes flying over us… whether they are flying low for patrol or which height the planes are flying to drop aerial bombs,” Ko Banya said. He added that people in Karenni State have become more united and worked together to raise more public awareness of airstrikes on the ground and figure out several protection plans to stay safe and protect each other during airstrikes.

“There is always going to be fear against the airstrikes, but the more the SAC uses airstrikes to make civilians fearful, we are going to work harder to overcome this fear,” said Ko Banya,

International Responses to Junta’s Airstrikes

The Pazigyi Massacre sparked a global outcry with foreign governments and associations such as the United States, Switzerland, ASEAN, the United Nations, and so on condemning the airstrike. But nothing has changed so much on the junta’s side or on the ground.

Just a week after the Pazigyi Massacre on April 28, the junta forces carried out an aerial attack on a community health center and PDF base in Myaing, Magway Region. Myanmar Now also reported on April 24 that the People’s Administration Team office in Htilin, Magway Region, and a Chin National Army base near Chin State’s border with India were attacked by the junta forces, resulting in four casualties and injuring 17 people. On April 25, a hospital in southern Shan State’s Pekon Township was attacked with a junta airstrike, causing two people to be critically injured. Around 100 patients and staff were in the hospital at that time, a spokesperson for the Kayan National Health Council (KNHC), which operates the facility, told Myanmar Now.

The latest airstrike report was in Shan State’s Hsenwi (Hseni or Theinni) Township in the last week of April, in which one civilian was killed and 12 injured. The attack occurred in the village of Hway Tawng, where the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army’s Brigade 211 operates, at 11 pm on April 26.

All three individuals that Mohinga Matters spoke to emphasize that there should be serious conversations surrounding the use of airstrikes and aerial bombs by junta forces in the so-called internal conflicts as the international community like to keep referring to the escalating violence in Myanmar.

Ko Banya, the director of Karenni Human Rights Group, explained that he understands the nature of the war and both sides using any means necessary to win against each other, but when the attacks are on hospitals and civilian areas, it is no longer okay even if we are looking at it from the international laws also.

“So, my message to the UN agencies and the international community is that are they okay just sitting and watching the SAC forces conducting airstrikes on civilian targets and hospitals and seeing all these destructions? I think there needs to be more mobilized efforts against these acts by the SAC. This is not even a civil war. Is it necessary for them to use airstrikes against people setting up hospitals, clinics, and IDP camps to help each other out? This is beyond what should be accepted, and we need more actions from the international community. There should be accountability for these inhumane acts by the SAC.”

He added that there should be regulations or sanctions on the sales of aerial bombs. Beyond the UN agencies, the neighboring countries such as China and India and the ASEAN need to put more pressure on the SAC. “From here, there are many things we can do, such as imposing a no-fly zone. We really need to implement something concrete now,” Ko Banya said.

A civilian who worked as a fixer based in Karen State urged the international community to start having discussions on the use of airstrikes and artillery attacks in internal conflicts, even though there is no law stating that airstrikes shouldn’t be used in an internal conflict.

“There have been over 100 airstrikes in Karen State alone since the coup. This is truly vicious. As a civilian, I think it is not right that aerial bombs and heavy machinery are being used in internal conflicts because civilians are the ones who are mostly targeted in the end. The destruction happened on the civilian side, and I want the international community to pay more attention to the airstrikes happening in Myanmar, and I hope that there will be more investigation into these incidents and more advocacy around how we can put a stop to these airstrikes on civilians.”

A member of KNDF shared the same sentiment as the fixer from Karen State.

“I want the international community to know all these airstrikes conducted by the SAC troops since the coup has escalated into inhumane tactics, and whatever perspectives you want to look at if the troops are targeting civilians… I don’t think you can consider that a part of a war when aerial bombs are dropped on civilian villages and not military bases. Even for internal conflicts, I don’t think it should be condoned for the SAC troops to continue using airstrikes.”

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