Why Myanmar's opposition wants jet fuel banned

Soldiers repel down from a helicopter during a parade to mark the 74th Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyidaw, Myanmar March 27, 2019 (Photo: Ann Wang/ Reuters/File)

Phone Tay Za and his cousin, Lin Lin, hid behind a tamarind tree in their playground in the village of Let Yat Kone in the central Sagaing district as the Myanmar military helicopters opened fire.

The time was shortly after noon on September 16th. The children were squeezing in a few final minutes of play before class.

According to witnesses, the helicopter shooting continued for over an hour, at which point Phone Tay Za decided to get his luggage from his classroom.

The seven-year-old reached for the bag but was struck while attempting to return.

"From where he was laying in a pool of blood, he summoned me... Lin Lin, who survived the attack, told the Irrawaddy news website, "come and take me; I'm hurt."

I had cautioned him about retrieving the bag.

A teacher at the school reported to Radio Free Asia that when she first saw Phone Tay Za, "his arm was missing, and his feet had holes in them." Soon after that, the boy's mother arrived at the scene. "He repeatedly stated, 'Mother, I am in so much pain. I want to die,'" the instructor responded.

Phone Tay Za was one of seven youngsters killed that day in Let Yet Kone. Also, six adults perished.

The military of Myanmar deemed the school a valid target. Since seizing power in a coup two years ago, the army has been fighting a variety of groups opposed to its rule, including ethnic armed organizations, civilian militias known as the People's Defence Forces (PDFs), and the National Unity Government, an administration of the elected politicians it removed (NUG). It claimed that PDFs and the insurgent Kachin Independence Army, which it deemed "terrorists," were using the school building to launch attacks against its forces.

However, United Nations investigators stated that the airstrike could constitute a "war crime."

The Let Yet Kone bombing was one of at least 670 air attacks carried out by the Myanmar military in 2017 — a 12-fold increase from the 54 air attacks recorded in 2016.

Other raids include the January bombing of a rebel training camp in Chin state on the Indian border, which killed five combatants, and the October bombing of a music festival in KIA territory, which killed approximately 80 people.

In June of last year, a Myanmar fighter on a bombing mission on the Thai border crossed the border, causing panic in Thailand and prompting the evacuation of towns and schools in the vicinity.

According to the Irrawaddy, at least 460 individuals were killed in last year's raids. At the same time, the Armed Battle Location and Event Data Project estimate that the two-year conflict has resulted in the deaths of 31,022 people — civilians and combatants (ACLED).

The United Nations believes that an additional 1,1 million people have been forced to abandon their homes due to air raids.

As the death toll continues to increase, the NUG and human rights activists have urged a total embargo on jet fuel sales to Myanmar, even if it means grounding civilian flights. In a statement issued after the January bombing of the Chin rebel camp, the NUG referred to the prohibition as "an urgent and necessary step that could save thousands of lives."

'Increased terror'

According to Zachary Abuza, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the United States National War College, as the military has increased its air campaign, the air force has been conducting missions around every two weeks.

According to him, the military uses a variety of aircraft for these operations, including Yak-130 trainer aircraft and approximately 30 Russian MIG-29 fighter jets. Recent imports include two more modern SU-30 fighter jets from Russia and long-range artillery from China, including mobile howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems.

These will provide the military with a capacity for long-range attacks. They may now attack from a distance with a degree of safety that was before impossible," Abuza explained. "And currently, the NUG has no easy method to fight this. And there is a psychological impact from the air raids. They do kill individuals. They do heighten the level of terror."

Abuza told Al Jazeera that the uptick in aircraft raids reflects "weakness." "It is an implicit admission that they cannot always send ground troops. Simply put, there are many no-go zones where they lack the workforce to fight and win."

Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, thinks that the military controls "substantially less than half of Myanmar" two years after the coup.

Since Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power on February 1, 2021, Myanmar's various ethnic armed groups – many of which have fought the military intermittently in the border regions since independence from the British in 1948 – have expanded their operational area, according to a recent report by Andrews.

He added that the newly established PDFs have "substantially challenged" the military's power in Myanmar's central plains, including Let Yet Kone village's location in Mandalay, Magwe, and Sagaing.

Violence in the Dry Zone, as the region is known, is unprecedented, according to Shona Loong, a lecturer at the University of Zurich. In addition to increasing air attacks, the military has increased the destruction of infrastructure there, primarily by levelling homes and communities, according to an October report by Loong.

654 PDFs in the Dry Zone have retaliated with bombs, targeted assassinations, and ambushes against military convoys.

"Both sides view this conflict as an existential struggle," Loong explained. And for the opposition, the air strikes and savagery of the counterinsurgency tactics have only strengthened the notion that the military is not the legitimate ruler of Myanmar.

‘Unacceptable and insufficient.’

Amnesty International is among the rights organizations that support the NUG's demand for a ban on jet fuel sales.

In a November report, the international rights group stated that its research revealed the Myanmar military was diverting jet fuel intended for civilian airliners for its use. It was said that PetroChina's wholly-owned Singapore Petroleum Company, Russia's Rosneft, Chevron Singapore, and Thai Oil were among the fuel suppliers. ExxonMobil of the United States was also tied to a different cargo.

Since then, the United Kingdom and Canada have imposed restrictions on the aviation fuel industry.

On Wednesday, Ottawa banned the export, sale, supply, and shipment of aviation fuel to the Myanmar military. At the same time, the UK government froze the assets of two companies and individuals associated with Asia Sun, the local company responsible for handling, storing, and distributing aviation fuel in Myanmar.

Amnesty's business and human rights researcher, Montse Ferrer, referred to the United Kingdom and Canada's sanctions as an "important step" but stated that additional nations needed to join in, especially the United States, given that several of Myanmar's jet fuel suppliers were American.

She also stated that broader action was required to attack the supply chain.

"It's been two years since the beginning of the air attacks. "However, the international response has been unacceptable and inadequate," Ferrer said to Al Jazeera.

"Canada has banned aviation fuel, and the United Kingdom has designated two companies and two individuals in an industry where we've already identified more than thirty actors in the past two years," she said.

"It all seems quite insufficient from our side."

Publish : 2023-02-03 11:57:00

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