Devastating Air Strikes In Myanmar Civil War

Just before she left for school on the afternoon of 16 September last year, nine year-old Zin Nwe Phyo was thrilled to be given a new pair of sandals by her uncle.

She made him a cup of coffee, put on the shoes and headed off to school, a 10-minute walk away in the village of Let Yet Kone in central Myanmar. Shortly afterwards, her uncle recalls, he saw two helicopters circling over the village. Suddenly they started shooting.

Zin Nwe Phyo and her classmates had just arrived at the school and were settling down with their teachers, when someone shouted that the aircraft were coming their way.

They began running for cover, terrified and crying out for help, as rockets and ammunition struck the school.

"We did not know what to do," said one teacher, who had been inside a classroom when the air strikes began. "At first I did not hear the sound of the helicopter, I heard the bullets and bombs hitting the school grounds."

"Children inside the main school building were hit by the weapons and began running outside, trying to hide," said another teacher. With her class she managed to hide behind a big tamarind tree.

"They fired right through the school walls, hitting the children," said one eyewitness. "Pieces flying out of the main building injured children in the next building. There were big holes blown out of the ground floor."

Their attackers were two Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships, nicknamed "flying tanks" or "crocodiles" because of their sinister appearance and protective armour. They carry a formidable array of weapons, including powerful rapid-fire cannon, and pods that fire multiple rockets, which are devastating to people, vehicles and all but the strongest buildings.

In the two years since Myanmar's military ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government, air strikes like this have become a new and deadly tactic in a civil war that is now a brutal stalemate across much of the country, conducted by an air force which has in recent years grown to about 70 aircraft, mostly Russian and Chinese-made.

It's hard to estimate how many have died in such air attacks because access to much of Myanmar is now impossible, making the conflict's true toll largely invisible to the outside world. The BBC spoke to eyewitnesses, villagers and families over a series of phone calls to find out how the attack on the school unfolded.

The firing continued for around 30 minutes, eyewitnesses said, tearing chunks out of the walls and roofs.

Then soldiers, who had landed in two other helicopters nearby, marched in, some still shooting, and ordered the survivors to come out and squat on the ground. They were warned not to look up, or they would be killed. The soldiers began questioning them about the presence of any opposition forces in the village.

Inside the main school building three children lay dead. One was Zin Nwe Phyo. Another was seven-year-old Su Yati Hlaing - she and her older sister were being brought up by their grandmother. Their parents, like so many in this region, had moved to Thailand to seek work. Others were horribly injured, some missing limbs. Among them was Phone Tay Za, also seven years old, crying out in pain.

The soldiers used plastic bin liners to collect body parts. At least 12 wounded children and teachers were loaded on to two trucks commandeered by the military and driven away to the nearest hospital in the town of Ye-U. Two of the children later died. In the fields skirting the village, a teenage boy and six adults had been shot dead by the soldiers.

This is a country that has long been at war with itself. The Burmese armed forces have been fighting various insurgent groups since independence in 1948. But these conflicts were low-tech affairs, involving mainly ground troops in an endless tussle for territory in contested border regions. They were often little different from the trench warfare of a century ago.

It was in 2012 in Kachin state - just after the air force had obtained its first Mi-35 gunship - that the military first used aerial weapons extensively against insurgents. Air strikes were also used in some of the other internal conflicts which kept burning throughout Myanmar's 10-year democratic interlude, in Shan and Rakhine states.

However, since the February 2021 coup, the army has suffered heavy casualties in road ambushes carried out by the hundreds of so-called People's Defence Forces, or PDFs - volunteer militias that were established after the junta crushed peaceful protests against the coup.

So it has relied on air support - bombing by aircraft suitable for ground attack; or air mobile operations like the one at Let Yet Kone, where gunships blast targets before soldiers arrive to kill or capture any opposition forces they find.

- Read More: BBC


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