When Myanmar military helicopters opened fire, first-graders Phone Tay Za and his cousin Lin Lin rushed to take cover behind a tamarind tree in their school yard, located on the grounds of a monastery, in Let Yat Kone village in central Sagaing. region.
It was a little after noon on September 16. The children huddled together for the last few minutes of play before class.
The shooting from the helicopter continued for almost an hour, according to witnesses, and at one point Phone Tay Za decided to take his bag from his classroom.
The seven-year-old reached the bag, but was shot as he tried to run back.
“He called me from where he was lying in a pool of blood… ‘come and take me away, I’m hurt’,” Lin Lin, who survived the attack, told the Irrawaddy website.
“I warned him not to go get the bag.”
A teacher at the school told Radio Free Asia that when she saw Phone Tay Za, “his arm was missing and there were holes in his feet.” The boy’s mother soon arrived at the scene. He kept repeating ‘Mother, I’m in a lot of pain. I just want to die,’ said the teacher.
Phone Tay Za was among the seven children killed in Let Yet Kone that day. Six adults also died.
The Myanmar military described the school as a legitimate target. Since taking power in a coup two years ago, the military has been battling a range of groups opposed to its rule, including ethnic armed groups, civilian militias known as the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) and an administration of elected politicians it deposed so-called. National Unity Government (NUG). It said the PDFs and the rebel Kachin Independence Army, which it called “terrorists”, were using the school building to attack their forces.
But United Nations investigators said the airstrike could amount to a “war crime”.
According to UN figures, the Let Yet Kone attack was one of at least 670 airstrikes carried out by Myanmar’s military last year – a number that marks a 12-fold increase from the 54 airstrikes recorded the year before.
Other attacks include a bombing of a rebel training camp, which killed five fighters in Chin state on the Indian border in January, and an airstrike on a music concert in KIA territory in October, which killed around 80 people.
Meanwhile, a Myanmar fighter who bombed the Thai border last June caused panic in Thailand when he crossed the border, and officials ordered the evacuation of villages and schools in the area.
At least 460 people died in last year’s raids, according to the Irrawaddy, while the two-year conflict killed a total of 31,022 people – civilians and combatants – according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project.
The UN estimates that another 1.1 million people have had to flee their homes, mostly due to bombings.
As tolls rise, NUG and human rights campaigners have called for a total ban on jet fuel sales to Myanmar, even if it means grounding civilian flights. In a statement after the bombing of the Chin rebel camp in January, the NUG called the ban “an urgent and necessary step that will potentially save thousands of lives.”
As the military ramped up its air campaign, its air force flew about every two weeks, said Zachary Abuza, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the National War College in the United States.
The military relies on a number of aircraft for these missions, he said, including the Yak-130 trainer aircraft and some 30 MIG-29 fighter jets from Russia. It recently imported two more advanced SU-30 fighter jets, also from Russia, and delivered long-range artillery from China, including mobile howitzers and multiple-barrel missile systems.
“This will give the military a long-range strike capability. Now they can attack from a distance with a certain degree of certainty, which they simply could not do before,” said Abuza. “At the moment, the NUG has no way to counter it – it’s not easy. AND [the air raids] they have a psychological effect there. They kill people. They increase the level of terror.”
Still, the increase in airstrikes indicates “weakness,” Abuza told Al Jazeera. “It’s a tacit admission that I can’t always put boots on the ground. That there are simply a lot of forbidden zones, where they don’t have enough manpower to go in and fight and win.”
Indeed, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, estimates that two years after the coup, the military controls “well under half of Myanmar”.
Since the seizure of power by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s various ethnic armed groups – many of which have fought with the military in border areas since independence from the British in 1948 – have expanded their range of operations, Andrews said. in a recent report.
The newly formed PDFs also “significantly challenged” military control in Myanmar’s central plains, he said, including the regions of Mandalay, Magwe and Sagaing, where the village of Let Yet Kone is located.
The violence now ruling the Dry Zone, as the region is known, is unprecedented, said Shona Loong, a lecturer at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. In addition to increased airstrikes, the military has stepped up destruction of infrastructure there, mostly by razing homes and villages, according to an analysis by Loong in October.
The PDFs, numbering 654 in the dry zone alone, responded with bombings, targeted killings and ambushes of military convoys.
“Both sides see this as an existential kind of struggle,” Loong said. “And as for the resistance, the airstrikes and brutality of the counter-insurgency campaigns have only reinforced the perception that the military is not the rightful ruler of Myanmar.”
‘Unacceptable and insufficient’
Amnesty International is one of the human rights groups supporting the NUG’s call for an embargo on the sale of jet fuel.
The prominent human rights group, in a report published in November, said its investigation found that Myanmar’s military was diverting jet fuel intended for civilian aircraft for its own use. The companies supplying the fuel are said to include PetroChina’s wholly-owned Singapore Petroleum Company, Russia’s Rosneft, Chevron Singapore and Thai Oil. US ExxonMobil was also linked to a separate shipment.
The United Kingdom and Canada subsequently responded with sanctions on the aviation fuel sector.
Ottawa on Wednesday banned the export, sale, supply or shipment of jet fuel to Myanmar’s military, while the British government froze the assets of two companies and individuals linked to Asia Sun, a local company involved in handling, storing and distributing jet fuel in the country.
Montse Ferrer, a business and human rights researcher at Amnesty, called the U.K. and Canadian sanctions “an important step” but said more countries needed to join — especially the U.S., given that several suppliers of jet fuel to Myanmar were American .
Action also needed to be more comprehensive, she said, to target the entire supply chain.
“Two years of airstrikes have passed. But the global response was unacceptable and insufficient,” Ferrer told Al Jazeera.
“We have Canada banning jet fuel and the UK has designated two companies and two individuals in an industry where we have already identified more than 30 actors playing a role over the last two years,” she said.
“From our side, it all seems quite insufficient.”