BANGKOK – While Russia's war in Ukraine dominates global attention, Myanmar's military is targeting civilians in air and ground attacks on a scale unmatched in the country since World War II, according to a longtime relief worker who spent almost three months in a combat zone in the Southeast Asian nation.
David Eubank, director of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief organization, told The Associated Press that the military’s jets and helicopters stage frequent attacks in the areas of eastern Myanmar where he and his volunteers operate, bringing medical and food aid to civilians caught in conflict.
Ground forces are also firing artillery — indiscriminately, he said — causing thousands to flee their homes.
Video shot by his group’s members includes rare images of repeated air strikes by Myanmar military aircraft in Kayah State – also known as Karenni State — causing a number of civilian deaths.
An analyst for New York-based Human Rights Watch said the air attacks constitute “war crimes.”
Myanmar’s military seized power last year, overthrowing the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. After security forces cracked down violently on large, peaceful street demonstrations opposing the takeover, thousands of ordinary people formed militia units, dubbed People’s Defense Forces, to fight back.
Many are loosely allied with well-established ethnic minority armed groups — such as the Karenni, the Karen and the Kachin — that have been fighting the central government for more than half a century, seeking greater autonomy in the frontier regions.
Despite overwhelming superiority in numbers and weaponry, the military has failed to crush this grassroots resistance movement. The army has now stepped up attacks, taking advantage of the dry, summer conditions.
Eubank described the fighting he had seen as probably the worst in Myanmar since World War II, when the country was a British colony still known as Burma and largely occupied by the Japanese.
There has been serious but sporadic fighting in Kachin State in northern Myanmar for a few years, he said, “but what I saw in Karenni I had not seen in Burma before.”
“Air strikes, not like one or two a day like they do in Karen State, but like two MiGs coming one after the other, these Yak fighters, it was one after the other,” said Eubank. “Hind helicopter gunships, these Russian planes, and then just brought hundreds of rounds of 120mm mortar. Just boom, boom, boom, boom.”
Russia is a top arms supplier to Myanmar’s military, keeping up supplies even as many other nations have maintained an embargo since the army’s takeover to promote peace and a return to democratic rule.
Eubank knows whereof he speaks. He was a U.S. Army Special Forces and Ranger officer before he and some ethnic minority leaders from Myanmar founded the faith-based Free Burma Rangers in 1997. Two of its members have been killed in Kayah state since late February: one in an air strike, the other in a mortar barrage.
Drone footage shot by the group shows the impact of the army’s offensive on Karenni settlements, with buildings on fire and smoke drifting thick in the sky. In a Feb. 24 report in the state-run Myanma Alinn Daily newspaper, the military acknowledged using air strikes and heavy artillery in order to clear out what it called “terrorist groups” near the state capital, Loikaw.
As casualties mount, people have to scramble for their lives, cowering in crude underground shelters topped with bamboo. A nighttime air raid on Feb. 23 that struck northwest of Loikaw left two villagers dead, three wounded and several buildings destroyed.
“These are war crimes,” Manny Maung, the Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch, told AP. “These attacks by military on civilians, civilian buildings, killings of civilians, public buildings like religious buildings, yes, they are no less than war crimes that are happening right now in that particular area and this is because they are indiscriminately targeting civilians.”
As well as in Kayah, the military is currently hitting hard in Sagaing, in upper central Myanmar, burning villages and heavily engaging with poorly armed militia units.
The United Nations refugee agency says 52,000 people countrywide fled their homes in the last week of February. It puts the total figure of internally displaced since the military takeover at just over half a million. Casualty figures are unclear, given the government's control of information and the remoteness of the war zones.
More than 1,670 civilians have been killed by the security forces since the army seized power in February last year, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group that monitors arrests and deaths. But its tallies are mainly from Myanmar's cities and generally lack casualties from combat in the countryside.
“In the middle of all this we have Ukraine, which is a tragedy, and I’m really grateful for the help the world has galvanized behind Ukraine," Eubank said. “But the Karenni people ask me ‘Don’t we count? ... And of course, the people of Ukraine need help. But so do we. Why? Why isn’t anybody helping us?’”