As world leaders travel to Southeast Asia for a summit this week, activists in Myanmar are hoping for progress towards a sweeping arms embargo.
“Some of the types of weapons that are used to kill people in Ukraine are used to kill people in Myanmar,” Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, said in October. “And they come from the same source – they come from Russia.”
Over the past month, Myanmar’s military has deployed Russian-made Yak-130 jets and MI-35 helicopters across the country, dropping unguided and inaccurate munitions that have killed dozens of people, according to rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
In September, two military helicopters opened fire on a school in the central region of Sagaing, where fighting was intense, killing at least 11 children, according to the UN children’s agency. Weeks later, military planes targeted an outdoor concert in northern Kachin state, controlled by a separatist ethnic group. The attack killed up to 80 people, according to local authorities, and sparked international condemnation, including from the United States. Dozens of civilians were among the dead, said Colonel Naw Bu, spokesman for the Kachin Independence Organization.
The junta denied the airstrike killed civilians, saying instead it targeted known “enemies and terrorists”, including soldiers from the Kachin Independence Organization, which has long demanded the independence from Myanmar.
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But Human Rights Watch Asia researcher Manny Maung said there is mounting evidence that the airstrikes are “indiscriminate and disproportionate uses of violence” that are likely to have violated the laws of the war.
The attacks are “not just a physical threat”, she added, “but a psychologically terrifying threat”.
In Sagaing, a resistance stronghold where conflict has been fierce, villagers have built makeshift bunkers or moved to temporary camps in the jungle to protect themselves from airstrikes, said Lwan Thu, an activist from the region. Because the junta, also known as the Tatmadaw, blocked internet access in parts of Sagaing, community leaders were unable to share information about the movement of military aircraft or send warnings when attacks appear imminent, said Lwan Thu, 33.
“We have no weapon or defense system to protect us,” he added. “We have no alternative but to flee.”
While the Kachin and Sagaing airstrikes were the largest, smaller attacks occur almost daily, said U Yee Mon, defense minister of the opposition National Unity Government, which has been operating in exile since the Coup d’Etat. After months of fundraising, the NUG recently purchased anti-aircraft weapons, U Yee Mon said. “But I have to admit that our reach and capacity are insufficient to counter the [junta’s] air attacks right now,” he added.
To arm its army, Myanmar relies on imports, traditionally from Russia, China and India. The latter two countries, which border Myanmar, have grown cold towards the junta as the civil war drags on, analysts say. But the junta sought to tighten its alliance with the Kremlin last year, including by expressing support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Myanmar’s military leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, who has visited Russia three times since coming to power in a coup, reportedly told the Russian Defense Minister in June 2021 that “thanks to the Russia, our army has become one of the strongest in the region.” During his last visit, in September, the general met with President Vladimir Putin and visited a factory producing fighter jets.
In return, Russia supported the junta’s attempt to be recognized as the legitimate government of Myanmar, calling Min Aung Hlaing “Prime Minister”. Despite its losses in Ukraine, Russia has promised to follow through on arms deals signed before the Myanmar coup, including for missile defense systems and fighter jets. He also signed new agreements to provide Myanmar with oil and military training.
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Many of the junta’s airstrikes were carried out by Yak-130 jets, two-seater aircraft originally designed to train pilots but used in Myanmar and elsewhere for counterinsurgency operations. Myanmar has at least 20 Yak-130 jets, including six it received last December from Russia, said Myanmar Witness, a nonprofit organization that investigates rights abuses.
From this year, Russia has also started delivery of six Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets, Myanmar Witness said. Matt Freear, a spokesperson for the organization, said researchers recently verified evidence, including satellite images, showing that at least one such jet is already in Myanmar. These machines have twice the payload and twice the “potential lethality” of the Yak-130, Freear added.
Facing multiple insurgencies, the Tatmadaw’s ground forces have “scattered” over the past year, leaving air power as one of its only remaining advantages, said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College of Washington which studies security problems in the southeast. Asia. Despite the junta’s advantage in the air, its airstrikes do not appear to be part of a clear military strategy, Abuza said. Aircraft operated in isolation rather than in tandem with ground forces, often targeting civilian buildings such as churches, schools, and hospitals.
“When I watch a helicopter gunship fire 30 millimeter cannons into a primary school…it’s hard to discern any military strategy other than terrorizing the civilian population,” Abuza said. The army “signals to people that ‘we are ready to do anything’. But in terms of military strategy, I don’t see any.
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Human rights groups are calling on the UN Security Council to impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar. But grounding the plane he already owns would require cutting the supply of aviation fuel, and that would involve countries far beyond Russia, said Amnesty International researcher Montse Ferrer.
In a report released last week, Amnesty identified companies in Singapore, Thailand and elsewhere that have helped supply aviation fuel to Myanmar’s military. After receiving Amnesty’s findings, one such company, Singapore-based Puma Energy, announced that it would begin withdrawing its investments from Myanmar. Others need to follow suit, Ferrer said.