Losing the Ground Battle, Myanmar Junta Takes to the Skies  

By Yuzana 28 October 2022

Myanmar’s junta forces have committed another war crime, deploying three fighter-jets to bomb a crowd in the north, resulting in heavy casualties and nationwide mourning. Nearly 80 people were killed and many others seriously injured by the junta airstrike at a village near Hpakant Township, Kachin State, where a music concert was being held to mark the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)’s 62nd anniversary.

Wreckage left after a deadly junta airstrike on a Kachin concert in Hpakant last Sunday. (Photo: CJ)

Among those killed were prominent Kachin musicians and officials of the KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The Kachin concert airstrike was the deadliest attack perpetrated by the junta since last year’s coup. The slaughter took place five weeks after the junta’s Let Yat kone village airstrike in central Myanmar killed 13 civilians including seven children.

It also came four days after the regime’s deadly airborne raid on a village in Yinmabin Township, Sagaing Region.

On October 19, two fighter-jets and four helicopters suddenly appeared over Yin Paung Taing village. As the fighter jets fired on the village, the helicopters dropped soldiers at its perimeter. Two civilians, a pregnant woman and her mother-in-law, were shot dead in the raid. Two days later, junta troops deployed in Yin Paung Taing killed about a dozen People’s Defense Force (PDF) members and a civilian resident.

The junta’s airstrikes deliberately and indiscriminately targeting civilians were condemned as war crimes and crimes against humanity by the United Nations, Myanmar’s shadow civilian National Unity Government (NUG) and rights groups.

Junta’s aerial campaign 

Since late March last year, the junta has been launching airstrikes across the country to crush local resistance forces it designates as “terrorist” groups. The aerial bombing campaign is concentrated on the resistance strongholds of Sagaing and Magway regions and Kayah, Karen and Chin states.

The regime has used helicopters, jet-fighters and surveillance drones to indiscriminately attack civilians in those areas, brazenly violating the Geneva Convention and international law. Both prohibit aerial attacks that terrorize civilians, kill or injure non-combatants and destroy or damage private property.

According to the parallel civilian government, the regime has carried out almost 240 airstrikes targeting the civilian population across Myanmar, including in ethnic areas. The strikes have killed over 200 civilians and destroyed houses and religious buildings.

More than a million people across the country have been forced to flee their homes because of the junta’s aerial and arson campaigns.

 Airstrikes spiking 

Victims killed by the junta’s airstrike in Hpakant. / CJ

The frequency of junta airstrikes has grown sharply as the end of the rainy season approaches. A total of 28 aerial attacks were launched in five regions from Oct 1 to 28, leaving 111 dead and injuring at least 126 civilians, according to data collected by The Irrawaddy.

The now-daily airstrikes have almost doubled in number compared with December 2021, when the junta launched a total of 15 aerial attacks.

This month saw the regime conduct airstrikes in Sagaing and Magway as well as Karen, Rakhine and Kachin states.

Sagaing Region was worst-hit, suffering 18 of the 28 junta airstrikes this month.

Junta aircraft have focused their fire this month on townships in upper Sagaing, on the border with Kachin State. The regime bombed two hospitals in Bankmauk Township last week, killing two civilians and injuring a dozen more – half of whom were children. Bankmauk has suffered seven junta aerial attacks so far this month.

Neighboring Indaw Township was the junta air force’s second-biggest target, as the KIA and People’s Defense Forces clash with regime soldiers in the area.

“Whenever the regime suffers heavy casualties in clashes, fighter-jets drop bombs even on the hospital and villages” said a spokesperson of Bankmauk PDF.

After Sagaing, Kachin State is the second-worst hit with four airstrikes. The regime launched a massive three-day aerial bombardment of Momauk Township amid local reports of fighting between junta troops and combined PDF and KIA forces.

Reasons for the rise 

The junta military has changed strategy and reduced its reliance on infantry, said Captain Zay Thu Aung, a Myanmar Air Force pilot who defected soon after the February 2021 coup.

They use drones to gather information on the enemy and then deploy soldiers by helicopter to raid target areas, he added.

“After their offensive plans were apparently frustrated, they have switched to deploying the air force as their main strategy,” Zay Thu Aung told The Irrawaddy.

Daily clashes with ethnic armed forces and local resistance fighters across the country have sapped the regime’s military strength, according to Black Peacock Guerrilla Force (BPGF). Junta troops have also proved vulnerable to mine attacks by resistance forces. Therefore, the regime is increasingly relying on aerial attacks, the Sagaing-based BPGF said.

Junta troops no longer use the area’s main road after suffering mine attacks at least twice a day over recent months, a representative of the Myanmar Royal Dragon Army resistance group in Sagaing told The Irrawaddy.

“They only use helicopters and a mobile system,” he said.

Air campaign set to escalate 

Regime forces are dropped by helicopter during a drill. / Military regime website

Ex-captain Zay Thu Aung expects more regime airstrikes in the coming dry season as the skies clear for drone reconnaissance missions. Junta missions will likely target base camps of local resistance forces with continual aerial bombardment, he said.

U Yee Mon, the defense minister of civilian National Unity Government, also predicts an increase in aerial attacks on both civilian and military targets as the junta loses out to resistance forces on the ground.

Meanwhile the regime is boosting its aerial firepower. The Myanmar Air Force has ordered several FTC-2000G midrange fighter-jets from China. It also took delivery five months ago of two new Russian SU-30SME jets, capable of carrying up to eight tons of bombs and thus far more destructive than other planes in its fleet.

Russia has also delivered four Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters to the junta’s air force. The regime would deploy them as land-based attack craft, Zay Thu Aung told The Irrawaddy.

Hence, local resistance forces should be constantly alert to the danger of aerial attack and draw up response plans, the defector warned.

“Helicopters often fail to hit their targets. The number of casualties will depend on the awareness of resistance force members,” he said.

NUG Defence Minister U Yee Mon also warned People’s Defense Forces to remain on high alert and fight with maximum intelligence against the junta. Airstrikes may be disruptive but they would not decide the result of the war, he said.

Man-portable air-defense systems (Manpads) were just one of the defensive options, he said. However, sourcing was difficult and it would take time to deploy them in sufficient numbers, he added.

“That’s why we have to be smart and find innovative ways to combat the enemy’s aerial campaign,” the minister said.

Meanwhile, many worry that failure to combat the airstrikes will result in a growing civilian death toll over the coming months.

Rights groups including the Women’s League of Burma and Burma Campaign UK have urged the international community to impose sanctions that cut the junta’s supply of aviation fuel to reduce the civilian toll from airstrikes. They are also urging the world to cut direct and indirect supplies, sales or transfers of all weapons and other equipment to the Myanmar military.