A helicopter pilot who defected from the Myanmar military has told how junta pilots attacked a village school in Sagaing Region last week, killing 11 children. “They [the pilots] dropped bombs despite seeing kids running on the ground,” said the defector.
Some 11 children, including some as young as seven, were killed and more than a dozen were wounded when two Russian-made military regime Mi-35 helicopters opened fire on a school in Let Yet Kone Village in Sagaing’s Depayin Township on the afternoon of September 16. Junta soldiers then attacked on the ground. Around five adult villagers were also killed in the assault.
In an exclusive interview with The Irrawaddy, Captain Zay Thu Aung, a Myanmar Air Force pilot who defected from the military soon after the February 2021 coup, talked about how he thought the attack on Let Yet Kone Village unfolded.
He said that, given the situation on the ground, the helicopters wouldn’t have flown higher than 300 to 400 meters. And as the village school was surrounded by fields, and not hills or forest, the helicopter pilots would have clearly seen the children in the school compound.
“There is no reason that they [the pilots] wouldn’t see the children below them,” said Zay Thu Aung.
A volunteer teacher at the school also told The Irrawaddy that children were playing in the schoolyard when the helicopters arrived. The teachers shouted to the children to come into the classroom to stay safe. But as the children were running inside, the teacher heard a loud explosion. The blast was from a rocket fired by one of the regime helicopters.
Photographic evidence of the attack
Zay Thu Aung explained that photos of the aftermath of the attack give clues about how the school was targeted.
He said the helicopters would calmly aim at the school building, as there was no fire directed at them, and open fire with rockets and machine guns.
“In the photos, we can see roofs ripped off, concrete pillars destroyed and we can also see pieces of human bodies. All these prove that the school was hit by rockets,” said the defector.
Teachers and villagers said the helicopters fired at least three rockets, as well as firing machine guns for nearly an hour. At the time of the attack, about 200 young students were attending classes.
“I feel ashamed to say that I flew Mi-35. People who were once friends of mine are committing such disgusting crimes,” Zay Thu Aung wrote on his Facebook immediately after the incident.
While denouncing the attack as a war crime during his interview with The Irrawaddy, Zay Thu Aung said the major culprit responsible for the carnage was the regional commander who ordered the attack and the pilots themselves.
No one has identified the pilots responsible for the attack. But the military currently has 13 Mi-35 helicopters and there are only 26 pilots who can fly them, said the defector.
Why was Sagaing targeted?
Mi-35 helicopters are mainly used to support infantry columns involved in heavy fighting. Now, though, the regime is using them along with MI-17 helicopters to launch surprise attacks in Sagaing Region, one of the strongholds of the resistance movement.
Right after the Mi-35 helicopters make their surprise attacks, Mi-17 choppers are then used to drop junta soldiers into the target area. The regime troops then kill and detain villagers and torch houses.
That is exactly what happened in Let Yet Kone Village.
“They [the Myanmar military] don’t launch such raids in Kayah and Chin states and areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations. The military fears that, even after the Mi-35 attacks, the 75-odd soldiers that are usually dropped by the Mi-17 helicopters won’t be able to survive on the ground in those areas,” said Zay Thu Aung.
But in Sagaing the regime believes that 75 soldiers is enough to combat People’s Defense Forces (PDF) so the troops can easily exit the target area, added the defector.
How to prevent such attacks in the future
Captain Zay Thu Aung suggested that resistance groups in Sagaing come together as a collective force to control the territory strategically.
“What we need to understand is that for the military, they have only one combined force regardless of the fact that the military is divided into the army, navy and air force. They all operate as one,’” he said.
“While PDFs need weapons that can shoot down helicopters, what is more important is that they need to form a collective force under a strong chain of command and operate strategically,” added Zay Thu Aung.
“National Unity Government leadership is also important for this,” he noted.
A big new threat—SU-30SME fighter jets
Zay Thu Aung also warned of the threat of two newly-arrived SU-30SME jets, which arrived in Myanmar five months ago but have yet to be used in action. Russia delivered the multi-role jets to the regime in March.
Russia used Su-30SME in Syria in 2015. Zay Thu Aung said that the SU-30SME can carry up to eight tons of bombs, and so have far more destructive power than other planes used by the Myanmar military.
He said that the junta could use the SU-30SME to target PDF bases.
“For the junta, they will use all ways to crush the PDFs. International sanctions haven’t worked on them [the military] since 1988 and now they have Russia to provide them with weapons,” he said.
Words for those who are still serving in the Myanmar military
“You will have seen the news that innocent children were killed. All the people of Myanmar now know that military pilots will even kill innocent children. Be aware that you can’t even call yourself a human being if you continue to follow the barbaric regime and harm innocent civilians. See the truth, get out quickly and avoid committing crimes that will haunt you all your life,” said Zay Thu Aung.