Mass funeral held for victims of military plane crash as storm slows search

By HLA-HLA HTAY | AFP

DAWEI — Heartbroken relatives gathered Friday for the funeral rites of the first victims of a military plane crash off Myanmar’s southern coast, as search teams battled heavy rains and churning waves to find scores more people presumed lost at sea.

Most of the 31 dead retrieved from the Andaman Sea so far have been women and children after a fraught search by navy ships, planes and helicopters hampered by sweeping rains.

A total of 122 people were on board the Chinese-made Shaanxi Y8 military aircraft when it crashed on Wednesday during a routine flight from Myeik to Yangon.

Hundreds gathered in a cemetery outside Dawei on Friday afternoon to bid goodbye to loved ones whose bodies had been pulled from the water the previous day on San Hlan beach, a two hour drive away.

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Chanting from Buddhist monks filled a hall used for the ceremonies as 10 flimsy wooden coffins were laid out.

One woman fainted and had to be carried out and many others broke down wailing as the service went on.

Mourners then moved outside and watched as black smoke from the cremated coffins poured out of nearby towers, drifting across the sky.

“My husband identified my nephew’s body. I’m so sorry,” said a tearful Khine Zar Win, who lost her youngest brother, his wife and two-year-old nephew in the plane crash.

Another mourner, Aye Aye, said five members of her friend’s family were killed in the crash.

“I couldn’t sleep when I heard about them,” she said. “We lived together like a family for 15 years in the military before my husband retired.”

“I have no words,” added one woman, whose daughter and grandson were on the plane. “We are so sad.”

More than half of the passengers on the aircraft were from military families, including 15 children, according to the army. The rest were soldiers and flight crew.

The military said on Friday it had identified 16 of the dead so far.

There has been no official explanation for the cause of the crash, one of several deadly incidents involving Myanmar military aircraft in recent years.

Monsoon season brings heavy rains and strong winds every year, but there were no reports of major storms along the plane’s flight route when it went missing.

Storms hamper search

Fishing boats helped navy vessels and military aircraft as they continued to hunt for the wreckage on Friday, despite tides reaching over 2.5 metres, the military said in a statement.

But by the afternoon officials had not announced the retrieval of any more bodies. 

“We are having difficulty because of the strong winds and tide,” Major Aung Win, police chief of Launglon township, told AFP.

The military said the aircraft was flying above 18,000 feet (5,486 metres) when it lost contact with air traffic control at 1:35 pm (07:05 GMT) on Wednesday.

The military has described the captain as a “seasoned” pilot with more than 3,000 hours flying experience.

Gerry Soejatman, an independent aviation expert based in Jakarta, said initial information indicated something went wrong “not long after or just before reaching cruising altitude”.

Myanmar’s former junta bought several Y8s — four-engine turboprop jets used for medium range flights — during their 50 years of isolated rule, when they were squeezed by Western sanctions.

The plane’s maker, China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation, has pledged to assist with investigations into the crash.

Several pieces of debris that appeared to be from the wreckage, including tyres, life jackets and some luggage, have also been salvaged.

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