Myanmar fighter jet crashes that killed pilots and girl cast spotlight on accident-plagued army flight record

The planes apparently struck a broadcast tower in the Magway region of central Myanmar on Oct 16, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
The planes apparently struck a broadcast tower in the Magway region of central Myanmar on Oct 16, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK (NYTIMES) - Two Chinese-made fighter jets flown by Myanmar's air force crashed on Tuesday morning (Oct 16), killing both pilots and a young bystander and drawing attention to the accident-plagued record of one of Asia's largest armed forces.

Officials said the planes, both single-seat F-7 fighters, apparently struck a broadcast tower. One plummeted into a rice paddy, while the other nose-dived near a famous Buddhist pagoda in the Magway region of central Myanmar. Both jets broke into pieces upon hitting the ground at around 7.30am, said Aung Moe Nyo, the chief minister of Magway.

An 11-year-old girl, Thwal Zin Nyein, was killed when debris from one of the jets struck her as she was studying outside at a private school. The chunk of the aircraft, which had instructions for the installation of a bomb affixed to it, scattered notebooks, rulers and pencil cases decorated with cartoons.

"The doctor said she passed away but I still can't believe my daughter died like this," said Khin Maung Phyu, her father. "She will always be alive in my heart."

The bodies of the two pilots, Captain Phyo Maung Maung and Captain Hein Thu Aung, were in the wreckage, Aung Moe Nyo said.

"It was heartbreaking to see," said Aung Moe Nyo, who visited the scene of the crashes and said one of the pilots had tried to eject by parachute.

Myanmar's air force has suffered a string of fatal accidents over the past couple of years, even as the top brass have gone on an overseas spending spree. Around 13 per cent of the nation's Budget is spent on its military.

In April, another F-7 crashed during training because of what was described as a "technical failure". Last year, 122 military personnel and their relatives, along with aircraft crew members, were killed when a Chinese-made Y-8 military transport aircraft flew into a storm cloud and plunged into the Andaman Sea.

"We can see from the frequency of the plane crashes that we have some problems with Chinese planes," said Ye Myo Hein, the executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies in Yangon.

"A lot of the Chinese jet fighters in Myanmar are not actively flying because some are out of date and some need major overhaul," he added.

On Tuesday morning, four planes took off in bad weather from a military base in Magway but only two returned to base, said a statement posted on the website of the office of Myanmar's commander-in-chief.

Aung Moe Nyo, the Magway chief minister, said that the planes had collided with a broadcast transmission tower that was obscured by the poor weather.

Myanmar purchased around 60 F-7 fighter jets from China in the early 1990s. The F-7 is considered a clone of the Soviet-era MiG-21 and was built for export to countries including Pakistan, Iran, Sudan and North Korea, among others.

In August, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's commander in chief, attended a military fair in Moscow and signed contracts for new weaponry and military hardware.

"Since the early 2000s, the Myanmar military was not happy with China so it tried to diversify and buy from Russia," Ye Myo Hein said.

The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar's military is called, ruled the country for nearly half a century before ceding some power to a civilian government. But its stark record of human-rights abuses endures. United Nations experts say the military's brutal campaign last year to evict around 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state, in Myanmar's far west, should result in top generals being tried for genocide.

Persecution of other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, like the Kachin and the Shan, continues, rights groups say.

Over the weekend, hundreds of people, including Buddhist monks, marched in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, in support of the military. The protest was designed to condemn foreign nations and international groups that were pressuring the military and "interfering in internal affairs", according to the event's organisers.

Apart from international organisations that have urged legal action against Myanmar's top generals for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Western nations have also begun imposing targeted sanctions on individual officers and severing military links with the Tatmadaw.

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