Thousands of civilians have fled their homes due to attacks by helicopter gunships in Myanmar’s Sagaing region, a hotbed of resistance to the country’s military rule, according to local media.
The reported attacks over the weekend targeted 15 villages in Depayin township, the same area where about 70 supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party were killed by a military-backed gang in 2003 during a visit by the Nobel Peace laureate.
After years under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi led the NLD to a landslide electoral victory in 2015 and went on to win re-election by an even larger margin in 2020.
But the military refused to recognise the most recent poll results – instead staging a coup on February 1 that has plunged the country into 10 months of chaos. Mass protests have been met by violent crackdowns, with the military believed to have killed more than 1,000 civilians, which soon gave way to armed rebellion.
Sagaing, one of the first regions to take up arms against the military government, has been the site of frequent clashes, military-led massacres and assassinations of military-appointed local officials.
At least seven civilians were killed in the most recent air raids on Saturday, according to Myanmar Now, which cited three local sources and also reported that “thousands” have been displaced.
Armed opposition groups, known as People’s Defence Forces (PDF), have continued to fight back. The Depayin PDF claimed it bombed a military convoy on Sunday, killing 20 soldiers.
Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government, appointed by legislators elected in the 2020 polls, said as many as 20 civilians may have been killed in the air raids, but that search and identification efforts have been hampered by continuing attacks.
“Human rights and international law are totally ignored,” said a statement from the NUG’s Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, adding that the military is willing to “demolish everything on the way to a throne”.
Displaced Depayin residents have reportedly been sheltering in the forests and other villages. A report by the local Irrawaddy news outlet quoted “resistance groups” as saying that the number of people forced to flee their homes was up to 30,000 people. It was not possible to independently verify the figures.
“The junta’s attacks in Depayin may constitute a war crime and are consistent with attacks on civilian populations that we’re seeing throughout the country,” said Patrick Phongsathorn, a human rights advocacy associate for Fortify Rights, who called for an international arms embargo.
A statement issued on Friday by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States also called for the international community to “suspend all operational support to the military”.
“We are concerned about allegations of weapons stockpiling and attacks by the military, including shelling and airstrikes, use of heavy weapons, and the deployment of thousands of troops,” the statement said.
While internal conflict and mass attacks on civilians were rare before the coup in regions such as Sagaing, mostly populated by the Bamar ethnic majority, they have long been commonplace in Myanmar’s ethnic minority states, where ethnic armed groups have fought for decades for greater political autonomy.
“The fact that the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] is resorting to using helicopters, fighter jets, and heavy weapons against Bamar civilians is indicative of how widespread resistance to the coup is and the indiscriminate and illegal lengths the junta will go to in order to remain in power,” Phongsathorn said.
Air raids resumed this year for the first time in 25 years in Kayin state amid increasing tensions between the military and the Karen National Liberation Army, which opposed the military takeover. A new report released on Wednesday by the Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) outlined rights abuses, including shelling attacks against civilian targets in Mutraw district, which it says has displaced more than 82,000 people.
KPSN also accused the military of arbitrarily abducting civilians, beating them, and using them as human shields.
“Most of the IDPs remain sheltering in the jungle, not daring [to] return home in case of renewed airstrikes after the rains,” the report said, noting “frequent flyovers” by military aircraft.