By Than N. Oo
“Mom, it hurts so bad. I can’t bear it anymore. Just put me out of my misery”. These were the actual last words of Phone Tayza, a seven-year-old Myanmar boy, to his mom just a few minutes before he passed away from gunshot wounds by Myanmar soldiers who stormed his school. The massacre took place on 16 September 2022 at Let Yet Kone village, in De Pe Yin Township, Sagaing division where at least 10 others were killed.
Since the military coup in February 2021, Myanmar has witnessed the birth of People’s Defense Forces (PDF) all across the country. Despite their overwhelming disadvantages in weapons and ammunition, the clashes between PDFs and Myanmar military have escalated drastically in the past eighteen months afflicting significant casualty to Myanmar military troops. Given their inferior armaments, PDFs have resorted to ambushes and roadside IEDs to great effect forcing Myanmar military to use helicopter and jets to attack villages and in troop movements.
In the school attack, two Russian made Mi-35 helicopters appeared on the horizon, raining down machinegun fire and rockets toward the school and the adjacent Buddhist monastery. According to the witnesses, the firing lasted about 30 minutes. At about the same time, two other helicopters dropped infantry troops who stormed the school compound shooting indiscriminately. They also warned villagers not to approach the school. As the soldiers entered the school, instead of the armed men, they encountered crying school children with fatal or near fatal gunshot wounds. The soldiers ordered everyone to come out of the school with hands above their heads. Terrified, many children despite their wounds, dragged themselves out of the building, crying and moaning.
When a teacher tried to help a girl, whose thigh was shattered and bleeding, the soldiers threatened to shoot the teacher if she moved. Many villagers whose children were in the school came running only to be blocked by the soldiers at the school entrance. When the mother of Phone Tayza recognized her son’s moans and cries she pleaded to be allowed in.
Finally, the soldiers relented. And when she found her son, those were his last words before he died a few minutes later in her hands. Later the dead and the wounded were taken away by the military. The village wasn’t even given a chance to retrieve or bury the bodies of the loved ones. At the end of the hellish episode, eleven students and villagers were killed while another twenty were wounded that day.
Sadly, for Myanmar such a tragic event is not the first or the last of its kind. The only thing certain is these atrocities are going to become worse as long as the military junta remains in power. Hasn’t the world learned yet? This is the same military command who committed genocide towards Rohingya population in 2017. And the one who fired indiscriminately time and again into unarmed protesters on the city streets in 2021 when people rose up against the coup. It also is responsible for the murder of unarmed NGO workers and civilians on Christmas 2021.
The people of Myanmar tried to protest the coup through peaceful civil disobedience, but the brutal crackdown of the military left them with no choice. The military only understands the language coming out of a gun barrel as explained here. Myanmar military leaders don’t understand the term negotiation. In July 2022, the junta carried out death sentences on four political prisoners despite the international pleas. These were the first in more than 30 years. When the international community condemned this outrage, Britain being the loudest, the junta in turn arrested a British national Ms. Vicky Bowman, the former British ambassador to Myanmar, who is now married to a Myanmar man in Yangon on flimsy immigration charges.
All of these past instances raise a question why the international community, both the west and neighboring ASEAN countries, can’t see to the fact that the military junta will not be influenced by the usual diplomatic and political means. If what is happening in Myanmar doesn’t amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, what does? The usual targeted sanctions and the diplomatic condemnation is not working and is not going to work. How many more children need to die before the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is considered?
Thankfully some countries and leaders have reached to this conclusion as witnessed in the recent remarks by UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews, Malaysian prime minister Mr. Yaakob and the President of East Timor who questioned why no such aid has come to Myanmar (compared to Ukraine) when both are similarly fighting against tyranny.
The dictatorial Myanmar military regimen is heavily contributing to regional instability. Fighting against the ethnic armed resistant group Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar’s military has fired multiple rounds and motor shells into Bangladesh and its helicopters entering the airspace has led to tension between the two neighboring countries. The systemic torching of civilian villages by the Myanmar military has also created a large population of internally displaced people in the states of Sagaing, Kachin, Karen, Chin and Kayah with many refugees fleeing into neighboring Thailand and India. It is a humanitarian and regional catastrophe in the making.
The main arms supply to the Myanmar military is Russia. For example, Myanmar has just received two Su-30 fighter jets from Russia with four more on the way in the next few months. Many Myanmar officers get trained at various Russian military institutes yearly. The international outcast Mr. Putin has newly found an ardent supporter and a minion in General Min Aung Hlaing of Myanmar. Yet according to an air force pilot who defected from the military, Myanmar’s air force has only 13 functioning Mi-35 helicopters. It should not take much assistance to the parallel government, National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar and the PDFs under its chain of command, for a victory against the military. A recent report by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar stated that the NUG and affiliated EROs already control about 52% of the country’s territory. A dozen 1980’s era shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, like those used in Afghanistan, could quickly reset the balance of power in the Myanmar. Currently PDFs and EROs have no anti-aircraft capability. Ironically, it is the same old adversary from Afghanistan, Russia, whose helicopters are doing the killing in Myanmar. PDFs rely on homemade single bolt-action rifles and very few automatic weapons purchased at exorbitant prices. Some assistance in upgrading their small arms arsenal would go far.
A significant interruption of cash flow to Myanmar Military’s coffers, such as sanctioning the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) that serves as its lifeline of foreign currency could also be effective. The usual argument has been that such a sanction might also create hardship towards the ordinary Myanmar population. This opposition is invalidated as the energy needs and delivery of the country are already in the hands of the junta which has diverted all the available resources to the military. To think that a military regimen that slaughters children considers the needs of the citizens of the country over its own is delusional. Finally, removing the Myanna Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB) from the international SWIFT code banking system should also be used to punish the junta. The U.S. has done this to some Russian banks.
Myanmar is withering away while the world silently watches. The world needs to wake up and think outside of the box when dealing with this murderous Myanmar military regimen. Being a beacon of democracy, the U.S. should take a leadership role in rallying international action. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Time is running out before we hear a repeat cry of a Myanmar child asking to be put out of his misery.
Author Than N. Oo is one of the co-founders of advocacy group Free Myanmar.