Myanmar: Air strikes
Smoke rises over Thaketa township in Yangon on March 27, 2021, as security forces continue their crackdown on protests against the military coup. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Zin Nwe Phyo, nine, was overjoyed when her uncle gave her a new pair of sandals just before she departed for school on the afternoon of September 16, last year.

She made him a cup of coffee, put on his shoes, and walked the 10-minute trek to school in the central Myanmar village of Let Yet Kone. Her uncle recalls seeing two helicopters circling the village shortly after. They suddenly began shooting.

Zin Nwe Phyo and her students had just arrived at school and were settling down with their professors when they heard the aircraft approaching.

As rockets and ammunition struck the school, they began rushing for cover, terrified and pleading for rescue.

“We had no idea what to do,” claimed one instructor who was inside a classroom when the air raids began. “At first, I didn’t hear the helicopter; instead, I heard gunfire and explosives hitting the school grounds.”

“Children inside the main school building were hit by the weapons and began rushing outdoors, attempting to hide,” another instructor explained. She was able to hide behind a large tamarind tree with her class.

“They shot right through the school walls, hitting the kids,” one eyewitness said. “Children in the neighbouring building were harmed when pieces of the main structure flew out. The ground floor had large holes blown out of it.”

Their assailants were two Russian-built Mi-35 helicopter gunships, dubbed “flying tanks” or “crocodiles” due to their ominous look and protective armour. They are armed with a formidable arsenal of armaments, including powerful rapid-fire cannons and pods that launch numerous rockets that are lethal to people, cars, and all but the strongest buildings.

In the two years since Myanmar’s military deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, air strikes like this have become a new and lethal tactic in a civil war that has now devolved into a brutal stalemate across much of the country, conducted by an air force that has recently grown to around 70 aircraft, mostly Russian and Chinese-made.

It’s difficult to quantify how many people have perished in such air raids because much of Myanmar is now inaccessible, rendering the full toll of the fighting mostly opaque to the outside world. The BBC conducted a series of phone interviews with eyewitnesses, villagers, and families to learn more about the school attack.

Eyewitnesses said the firing lasted about 30 minutes, blasting chunks out of the walls and roofs.

The survivors were then instructed to come out and crouch on the ground by soldiers who had landed in two additional helicopters nearby. They were instructed not to look up for fear of being killed. The troops started questioning them about any opposition forces in the village.

Three youngsters were found deceased inside the main school building. Zin Nwe Phyo was one of them. Su Yati Hlaing, seven years old, and her older sister were being raised by their grandma. Their parents, like many others in the region, had travelled to Thailand in search of job. Others were severely injured, with several losing limbs. Phone Tay Za, also seven years old, was among them, sobbing in pain.

To collect body pieces, the soldiers utilised plastic bin liners. At least 12 injured children and teachers were carried into two military trucks and driven to the nearest hospital in the town of Ye-U. Two of the children died subsequently. Soldiers had shot dead a teenage boy and six people in the countryside surrounding the settlement.

This is a country that has been at odds with itself for a long time. Since the country’s independence in 1948, the Burmese military forces have been fighting several insurgency groups. However, these were low-tech conflicts involving mostly ground soldiers in a never-ending battle for land in contested border regions. They were frequently reminiscent of trench combat from a century ago.

The military initially utilised airborne weapons extensively against terrorists in Kachin state in 2012, shortly after receiving its first Mi-35 gunship. Air strikes were also utilised in some of the other internal conflicts that raged in Shan and Rakhine states during Myanmar’s 10-year democratic transition.

However, after the February 2021 coup, the army has suffered high deaths as a result of road ambushes carried out by hundreds of so-called People’s Defence Forces, or PDFs – volunteer militias formed after the junta crushed nonviolent anti-coup protests.

As a result, it has been obliged to rely on air support, such as bombing by aircraft designed for ground attack or air mobility operations like the one at Let Yet Kone, in which gunships strike sites before soldiers arrive to kill or capture any opposition forces they encounter.