he villagers by then had either been killed or had managed to seek refuge elsewhere. But nine days after Myanmar’s junta on 11 April conducted airstrikes on the residents of Pa Zi Gyi, Sagaing, the military was at it again, dropping bombs on the now empty village.
The first attack had already killed at least 168 civilians, including 40 children and 46 women. Unlike previous official denials regarding military attacks that resulted in civilian fatalities, the junta’s spokesperson, General Zaw Min Tun, admitted that it had carried out that air operation — by far its bloodiest yet. But the general said that the target was a gathering sponsored by the shadow administration National Unity Government (NUG), although he was also quoted by media reports as saying that “some people who were forced to support them probably died as well.”
As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) prepares for its latest summit (scheduled for 9-11 May in Labuan Bajo, Indonesia), rights advocates and civil-society organizations are once again calling on the international community for more decisive action against Myanmar’s military leaders. Two years ago, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, grabbed power and has since been using violence to force the country’s people to support its rule. Although the current ASEAN chair, Indonesia, issued a statement condemning the 11 April airstrike on Pa Zi Gyi, many say that more needs to be done to stop the Tatmadaw from committing one atrocity after another against its own people.
“Enough is enough,” says a Myanmar political activist, visibly angry and upset. “The military has been showing its evil face more and more. The international community should no longer ignore such war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is the time to stop the silence over the crimes of military generals.”
“These condemnations are pointless, and we need real help and assistance to alleviate our suffering,” the activist adds. “We want the international community to help us to stop this madness of the military junta and bring justice for all of us who suffered.”
Interestingly, it had been Indonesia that called for an emergency ASEAN meeting shortly after the Myanmar military made its power grab in February 2021. At the time the ASEAN chair was Brunei. But the most that the 10-nation regional body was able to muster was a five-point consensus, to which the junta initially agreed, but then quickly reneged on.
A growing bloody trail
According to the human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 3,430 people have been killed in Myanmar since the 1 February 2021 coup. The number includes civilians, among them victims of airstrikes, which have been used more frequently by the junta since last year.
A BBC analysis of data collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) puts the number of airstrikes by the military between February 2021 and January 2023 at some 600. Myanmar’s Peace Monitor, a conflict data collection and monitoring project run by Burma News International, meanwhile says that the Sagaing region in the country’s northwest has suffered the highest number of airstrikes — with nearly 90 days of these — followed by the states of Kachin, Karenni, and Karen. These data indicate that all of Myanmar’s seven states (Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan) and four (Sagaing, Magway, Mandalay, and Bago) out of its seven regions have been attacked by the country’s air force since the coup.
While armed combatants seemed to be the initial targets of such airstrikes, more and more civilians have been among the more recent casualties. Just last October, three military jets bombed a concert in A Nang Pa Region, Kachin State, killing at least 75 people, including performers, activists, and civilians. A month earlier, the military conducted airstrikes targeting the schools and killed 11 children during school hours in Depayin, Sagaing region. A day before the massacre at Pa Zi Gyi, there was an airstrike against a school in northern Chin state, killing nine civilians.
“Air strikes have been an integral part of the civil war in Burma since its independence in 1948,” comments Thureing Naing, an independent observer and historian in training. “Oftentimes, it changes the outcome of the battle in Myanmar since it can overcome terrain difficulties, provide rapid response, and avoid and mitigate the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushes, typical features of insurgency and small wars.”
“A bitter truth is neither the National Unity Government nor most revolutionary groups currently fighting with the military possess anti-aircrafts launchers or anti-aircraft equipment,” says a Myanmar political researcher based in Chiang Mai. “Whenever an airstrike occurred, all we could do was run and hide.”
Early last year, the NUG launched Project DragonFly to raise funds to purchase anti-aircraft weapons; it was able to collect US$ 2.2 USD million. Some observers, though, note that there are many limitations to purchasing the weapons that may not even be enough to comprehensively cover all the resistance and conflict-affected areas.
The main problem, however, is that the junta no longer makes any distinction between armed combatants and people who are just trying to get on with their lives under military rule. As a result, says Thureing Naing, “proper education and awareness” of the Tatmadaw’s air power is now necessary. So is “developing open-sourced early-warning intelligence systems and security protocols to avoid mass casualty incidents,” he adds.
Some rights advocates are even pushing for people from the targeted areas to have access to airstrike-preparation training, awareness, and technical support to scout and track military air routes. Indeed, there is already the Enemy Air Route Telegram channel that now has more than 10,000 subscribers. The channel collects information from scout networks and shares the military aircraft routes information with the relevant actors.
“There have been local and digital information or intelligence networks to track and notify the information about aviation routes of the military aircraft,” says the Chiang Mai-based political researcher. “Though the information is not strong enough, if they have access to technical support from the relevant organizations and international actors, they can quickly access more information and prepare for the airstrikes.”
Challenge for Indonesia
In his speech on the second anniversary of the formation of the National Unity Government last 16 April, NUG Acting President Duwa Lashi asked the international community as well as civil-society organizations for training programs to prevent more civilian deaths. While he admitted that the NUG was not yet ready to set up an air-defense system, he urged the international community not to sell aviation fuel and military equipment to the junta.
The United Kingdom, United States, and Canada have already announced sanctions against the junta’s aviation fuel and military equipment suppliers. But the Burma UK Campaign has also called on British insurance companies to stop insuring aviation fuel deliveries to Myanmar. In addition, the Blood Money Campaign, in collaboration with the #MilkTea Alliance ‘Friends of Myanmar,’ is urging the United States to impose sanctions against Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which it says is the junta’s main source of hard currency.
“The gas revenues that the Junta receives from MOGE keeps their army equipped, their air force flying, (and) with this they commit atrocity (and) crimes against the peoples of Myanmar,” the Campaign argued in a statement. “Continued delay to cut this source of cash will extend the peoples of Myanmar’s suffering.”
Six days after the Pa Zi Gyi massacre, 546 Myanmar, regional and international civil-society organizations wrote an open letter to the United Nations Security Council, urging it to adopt firm measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter “to enforce the military junta’s compliance” with an earlier resolution for it to stop all violence. The groups also called for coordinated economic sanctions and comprehensive arms embargo, including on aviation fuel, on the junta, as well as a referral of the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal.
“If the Security Council does not act now,” said the groups in their letter, “we fear the crisis in Myanmar will rapidly reach the point of no return.”
Yet, the UN Security Council was not even able to issue a statement condemning the Pa Zi Gyi attack because of objections of China and Russia to a draft prepared by the United Kingdom.
It remains to be seen what ASEAN will do about it most problematic member in its upcoming summit. Already, the heat is on Indonesia as the body’s current chair.
In an article posted on the Human Rights Watch website on 13 April, researchers Shayna Bauchner and Andreas Harsono said, “Jakarta should encourage other governments to toughen sanctions on the junta’s revenues – first and foremost from oil and gas – and to enhance their enforcement of existing measures.”
“It should welcome more concrete action by the Security Council, with steps toward a resolution imposing a global arms embargo, targeted sanctions against the military, and a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court,” they also said. “Indonesia cannot present itself as a broker or envoy between junta authorities and the outside world unless the punitive actions that the world is imposing are serious enough to get the junta’s attention.”◉