The junta’s reliance on “terror-from-the-air” has proven effective on the battlefield but defectors say it has destroyed the prestige of Myanmar’s air force, amid a conflict that has also frayed relations with other branches of the military.
When infantry Captain Zin Yaw was marching through the jungles and mountains of Kachin State’s Tanai Township, a military jet screamed overhead and dropped a bomb right beside his troops.
“The bomb didn’t explode, but we were furious,” he said. “They justified it by claiming our position was too close to the enemy.”
That was in 2018, during a campaign against the Kachin Independence Army, but the military’s reliance on airpower has only multiplied since the 2021 coup, which sparked armed uprisings across the country.
Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s years-long focus on building up the air force has paid dividends in the post-coup civil war, using Russian and Chinese aircraft to remotely target enemy positions.
But the preferential treatment and alleged arrogance of the air force has deepened existing tensions with infantrymen, who are often used as cannon fodder, and air strikes against civilians have tarnished the branch’s image with the general public, which used to view its members as more intelligent and sophisticated than the rest of the military.
When Min Aung Hlaing took over as commander-in-chief in 2011, Myanmar had begun a now-aborted democratic transition and Ko Zeya was a labour rights activist. He joined the air force as an office clerk in 2013, believing the military would become more professional under semi-civilian rule and would treat the people better than under the previous junta.
“But I was completely wrong. Min Aung Hlaing’s military is worse than the previous one. The infantry, navy and air force are being destroyed by Min Aung Hlaing. I mean the mentality of those soldiers is being destroyed,” said the former sergeant, who like Zin Yaw deserted soon after the coup.
“If China or Thailand attacked our country, the military would be defeated quickly,” Ko Zeya added.
Upgrading the air force
But the Myanmar military has had few clashes with external enemies, instead spending decades trying to crush ethnic armed groups demanding autonomy within Myanmar or suppress pro-democracy uprisings.
Dr Mary Callahan, author of Making Enemies: War and Statebuilding in Burma, said the navy and air force were established under British colonial rule, which ended in 1948, but by 1951 both branches had been “purged” by factions aligned with General Ne Win, who would go on to become Myanmar’s first military dictator.
“For the next 60 years, the military was an infantry-dominant army” with little attention given to the other branches, Callahan said. This only began to change in 1988.
“The next 20-30 years saw the addition of MiGs, air defence systems (including MANPADS), MiG29s, at least 100 jets and aircraft from China, plus more from Yugoslavia, Russia, Belarus and Israel,” she said.
Taking the reins during a period of optimism about Myanmar’s democratic future, Min Aung Hlaing initially had easier access to international weapons markets than his predecessors, who faced Western sanctions and arms embargoes.
According to a major-general in the air force, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the focus on air power really accelerated under Min Aung Hlaing, who increased military expenditure across the board but always prioritised the air force.
He said under Min Aung Hlaing, air force bases in Hmawbi Township in Yangon, Magway Township in the region of the same name and southern Shan State’s Nansang Township were upgraded to air force command headquarters. He added that new bases were built in the capital Nay Pyi Taw and the Coco Islands off the coast of Yangon Region.
Russia and China have been the junta’s main backers since the coup, selling it helicopters and fighter jets that have been used in air strikes against armed groups and civilians alike, but other countries have also allegedly helped.
Investigative activist group Justice For Myanmar has regularly accused Indian state-owned defence company Bharat Electronics Limited of transferring equipment to the Myanmar military since the coup, including an air defence station.
Ko Zeya said Min Aung Hlaing may have made physical upgrades to the air force but believes the mentality and professionalism has deteriorated under his watch.
“He’s always talking about creating a standard military, but to become a standard military, it must undergo physical and mental transformation,” he said.
‘They’ve never been on the ground’
While Zin Yaw’s experience in the jungles of Kachin illustrates resentment between branches of the military, this has likely been exacerbated by the post-coup conflict.
“Every military in the world has significant degrees of inter-service rivalry,” said Callahan.
While infantry soldiers trudge through jungles and mountains, facing ambushes and roadside IED attacks, the air force hovers above the battlefield, unleashing hell from relative safety.
Zin Yaw said air force personnel are widely disliked by the infantry, because foot soldiers feel they make greater sacrifices that aren’t appreciated by the pilots.
“The air force members act like they always assist the infantry soldiers in the fighting through airstrikes, and that if they didn’t, there would be no more infantry soldiers. But they’ve never been on the ground, so they don’t understand what it’s like,” he said.
Zin Yaw said in 2019, there was a food shortage when he was deployed along the border between Rakhine State and Bangladesh, and the air force said it couldn’t deliver supplies because of poor weather conditions.
“However, we observed numerous Bangladeshi helicopters arriving to bring food supplies to their soldiers at the time. It infuriated every single one of us,” he said.
In contrast, when air bases have been attacked by anti-junta resistance groups, broadly known as People’s Defence Forces, Zin Yaw said infantry soldiers are forced to defend them.
“That’s not fair. They’re soldiers too. They should be responsible for their own security,” he said.
It has also long been rumoured that members of the air force syphon and sell jet fuel, a practice Zin Yaw said creates more envy and resentment among the infantry.
“I have heard the jet fuel rumours for years, as well,” said Callahan. “To be honest, I doubt there’s a military garrison, outpost, plantation or factory that doesn’t have resources going out the back door onto the black market.”
But the major-general strongly denied that this happens.
“If you have evidence, provide it now. We will take action,” he said.
However, a pilot who deserted in April 2021 said he had stolen jet fuel regularly during his 20-year career in the air force. He explained that it’s usually either mixed with other types of fuel and sold at gas stations or used in paint.
‘It’s become notorious’
Since last year, the Myanmar military has shifted gears from using occasional air strikes, to flying near daily sorties against enemy combatants and civilian targets, to devastating effect.
“Previously, the approval of the deputy commander-in-chief was required for an airstrike,” said Ko Zeya. “Now, regional commanders have the authority to approve airstrikes.”
The air force has also demonstrated increasing precision, striking high-level targets belonging to resistance forces or allied ethnic armed groups.
Late last year, the regime pummelled the KIA, killing 45 members of the armed group including its Brigade 9 commander in an airstrike that also left a number of civilians dead, before hitting Brigade 8 headquarters a month later.
In January, the military killed a PDF column commander and seized the group’s base in Mandalay Region’s Mogok Township after the air force reportedly rained down 30 bombs on it. That same month, an aerial raid on the Chin National Front’s headquarters in Chin State’s Thantlang Township killed five of its members.
But while reliance on the air force may be a winning strategy on the battlefield, it has tarnished the reputation of what was once considered the most prestigious and educated branch of the armed forces.
In air strikes as in ground assaults, the military has made little effort to differentiate between armed combatants and civilians. Nearly 200 people were killed in an airstrike in Sagaing Region in April, targeting the opening of a civilian administration office affiliated with the National Unity Government, a parallel administration opposed to the coup. Dozens of children were among the dead.
“We don’t kill civilians, only enemies,” insisted the major-general from the air force. “Let’s skip that question.”
These kinds of mass atrocities have long been part of the military’s combat strategy on the ground. Following attacks by a Rohingya insurgent group in 2017, the army unleashed a campaign of rape, murder and arson on Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine. Since the coup, a similar strategy has been employed in Sagaing.
Callahan said air force pilots were previously “popularly viewed with respect and as more sophisticated than the infantry”.
“My personal experience over the years was that retired air force and navy officers were well read, polite and had a sense of perspective on their places in history,” she said. “The transition to a strategy of terror-from-the-air has undoubtedly destroyed any respect the population had for pilots.”
An air force captain who retired in 1990 said it has been painful to watch Min Aung Hlaing ruin the branch’s public image.
“People back then respected the air force more than the army because they recognised it was more professional, but now the air force is also seen as being unprofessional,” he said. “It’s become notorious.”