Myanmar: Why is the junta ramping up airstrikes?

Myanmar's military is increasingly using airstrikes to counter a fierce armed uprising against its rule

Myanmar: Why is the junta ramping up airstrikes?
Myanmar: Why is the junta ramping up airstrikes?


This week saw one of the deadliest airstrikes in Myanmar since the 2021 coup.

At least 130 people — including children and other civilians — are now known to have been killed when Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, attacked the remote village of Pa Zi Gyi in the Sagaing region — a hotspot for anti-coup resistance.

Tuesday's assault targeted a ceremony being held there by the People's Defense Forces (PDF).

UN human rights chief Volker Turk accused Myanmar's military of disregarding "clear legal obligations ... to protect civilians in the conduct of hostilities."

Myanmar's UN envoy, Kyaw Moe Tun, called on the United Nations to end military impunity and save the lives of people in Myanmar.

What are the People's Defense Forces?

The PDF is the armed wing of the so-called National Unity Government, which was formed by ousted politicians and regional leaders in reaction to the Myanmar military coup in 2021.

The shadow government and its armed resistance forces are in an ongoing conflict with the military, which is morphing into a full-scale civil war.

Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a prominent pro-democracy activist from Myanmar, said the airstrikes are a "desperate" attempt from the junta to retain control over Myanmar.

"The junta [is blatantly] killing civilians with indefensible airstrikes," she said.

"They are still attempting to grab the power [but the] people are refusing to [give in]. People tried to have ditches [to evade air attacks] in their own communities, but you know airstrikes coming with exact coordinates are indefensible."

Changing tactics

Myanmar has been in turmoil since military leader General Min Aung Hlaing and his military forces seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the recent airstrikes suggest Myanmar's military is rapidly changing its tactics to target those who are opposing its rule.

Dave Eubank, founder of the Free Burma Rangers, a Christian humanitarian group, said the shift of tactics has been clear.

"That change came midway through last year, when the Burma army were starting to feel they weren't winning this war and they couldn't go anywhere they wanted with impunity," Eubank told DW.

"And they couldn't fight the resistance very well. The shift went from bombing military targets, resistance camps, roads, vehicles, to clinics, schools, starting last year, but then pretty soon it became frequent. I believe it's an attempt to demoralize any kind of resistance."

Eubank, who founded his humanitarian group in 1997, said that since says the recent influx of air attacks, nearly two dozen team members have been killed.

"The Burma military is coming at a speed and force I've never seen before. [The resistance] have nothing that I know to stop the aircrafts, only small arms," Eubank said.

"They have nothing to stop helicopters or jets bombing, striking, rocketing, attacking people. The main thing people to do is move and try to hide."

According to Nyan Lynn Thit Analytica, an NGO based in Yangon, military air attacks — using fighter jets and helicopters — have been common since the turn of the year.

Information seen by DW shows that there have been at least 25 military air strikes across regions in Myanmar in 2023 alone from January to March. The number of civilian deaths is now up to 47, including 3 children. This data does not include the Sagaing attacks.

Military lowering its risk

Activist Khin Ohmar, founder of rights group Progressive Voice, said airstrikes pose less risk for junta troops than fighting on the ground.

"[The military] are doing this because they are losing on the ground (...) and air force is the only power they are left with to try to succeed [in] their attempted coup," Ohmar told DW.

"They are even having to use airlift of their troops to commit atrocity crimes like burning down villages and killing and raping because they dare not to send in their troops from land and that is how they've lost rapidly on the ground control."

The activist says the UN Security Council (UNSC) needs to do more, with the measures including economic sanctions against the junta complete with an arms embargo and a bloc on aviation fuel. Ohmar also believes the situation in Myanmar should be referred to the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal.

"If the UNSC doesn't act now, we fear the Myanmar crisis will rapidly reach the point of no return," Ohmar suggested.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights watchdog based in Thailand, 3,420 people have been killed by the military, with over 17,000 people have been imprisoned for political reasons.

The UN says over 1 million have been displaced because of the conflict.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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