Anti-personnel landmines in Myanmar: a cause of displacement and an obstacle to return
by Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, International Campaign to Ban Landmines December 2008

Mine warfare has taken place in Myanmar for more than two decades. Anti-personnel mines are used by both the formal military forces of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and by armed groups opposing the junta. Landmine Monitor has documented anti-personnel mine contamination in ten of the country’s 14 States and Divisions, mostly in border areas where opposition armed groups maintain their bases. Kayin and Kayah States and the eastern areas of Bago and Tanintharyi (Tenasserim) Divisions have suffered the most contamination by anti-personnel mines, and it is no surprise that these areas are also the source of the majority of the refugees living in camps on the Thai side of the border. As of mid-2008, there are no humanitarian demining programs within the country.

Official indicators of the impact landmine contamination will have on any post-conflict development or resettlement are cause for deep concern. A mission from the Myanmar Ministry of Home Affairs sent to inspect sites proposed for border area development returned with the news that the area was saturated with landmines and extensive clearance would be needed prior to any development. The plans were quietly shelved. Thai contractors hired to work on a controversial dam on the Salween river opposite Mae Hong Son province in Thailand reportedly were prohibited from moving equipment across the border due to mine infestation, and an employee of Thailand’s state-owned power authority was killed by a landmine while inspecting a future dam site.

The scale of the problem

Mines have been laid extensively in eastern Bago Division, as well as the Dawana mountain range, areas near Myawaddi and areas in the Dooplaya District of Karen State bordering Thailand. Hillsides around the Lawpita hydroelectric power station in central Karenni State have been surrounded by minefields to secure the station from sabotage by rebel groups. The Yadana Mountain in central Karenni State has experienced heavy use of landmines by rebels and Burmese army units, both of whom maintain gem mines on the mountain.

Anti-personnel mines planted by both government forces and ethnic armed groups injure and kill not only enemy combatants, but also their own troops, civilians and animals. Interviews with mine survivors reveal that more than 40% of the Karen National Liberation Army mine casualties were self-inflicted (while laying, lifting or stepping on combatants’ own mines or those of their comrades). Some marking of mined areas takes place within the country. Survivors of a mine incident have also reported seeing some indicators of mine danger, such as dead bodies and parts of mines and wires. Although combatants have repeatedly stated to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and others that they give ‘verbal warnings’ to civilians living near areas which they mine, no civilian mine survivor interviewed by the ICBL has mentioned or reported such warnings.

Mines are laid close to areas of civilian activity by the Burmese army. Mines are allegedly used by the army to dissuade people from returning to their native villages after a forced eviction during counter-insurgency campaigns. Interviews records with mine survivors show that more than 14% are injured within half a kilometre of the centre of a village, while 63% of civilian survivors had been to the area frequently before they stepped on mines. An NGO worker who visited villages in Hpa-an District with public health officials stated that mined areas were pointed out to him within a five-minute walk of all the villages visited.

Some Karen villages in Pa-an District have had to move three times after each previous settlement was burned and mined. In those areas, villagers were able to identify six different types of mine. Out of 30 heads of households assembled for interview, only five, all male, could state that they knew the danger areas, even though the entire village regularly visited mined areas for foraging and farming. In mid-March 2002, villagers were warned that all paths except the motor road were mined to prevent insurgents from attacking a military base within the town.

In 2007, the New Light of Myanmar, a newspaper issued by the military junta, reported 107 people killed or injured by landmines, all of them civilian. Most incidents occurred when people entered forests to forage for food, while hunting or during travel to neighbouring villages or agricultural plots.

Mined areas and the return of refugees and the internally displaced

Eventually conditions will be such that the armed conflict will end. To enable the safe return to their home areas of up to three million displaced people, some activities should be done now, or prepared for.

First, prior to any future resettlement programme, all concerned organisations must lobby and demand that all combatants within the country unambiguously mark all mined areas under their control. A condition of future ceasefires must be the surrender of maps of mined areas. Without this, movement by advance teams, let alone returnees, will be extreme risky. Marking of mined areas should be achieved prior to the date of commencement of any cessation of hostilities pact between the SPDC and ethnic armed organisations, which includes or allows for the relocation of internally displaced persons or refugees.

Second, once a cessation of hostilities agreement is in place, verification teams, preferably under the supervision of the United Nations Mine Action Service, should commence the mapping and planned removal of all mines which will directly affect the lives of returnees. Roadways, relocation villages and areas for schools, markets and religious buildings should be mine-free, as these will be key areas of activity and congregation by returned displaced people and refugees. Prior to movement, a programme which educates refugees on the marking of mine dangers must take place so that the marking method is recognised and the danger understood.

Third, movement should only take place to designated mine-free areas, or areas where mines are clearly marked and fenced off. All authorities in charge of movement should be briefed on this, and updated. No changes in the destination of returnees should be made without consultation with those in charge of marking and clearance.

Fourth, within mine-affected communities a programme of Mine Risk Education should continue until the mined area is reduced to the point of no longer causing casualties. Focus after return should be on school children, though the community as a whole must be involved in order to understand the localised activities which put people at risk of mine victimisation.

To achieve these aims, humanitarian mine action organisations need to be involved within the country, which the authorities currently have not authorised.

Reality check

The sketch above sounds nice and orderly, but the reality is that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of internally displaced people are going to return to their home areas as soon as they think it may be safe to do so. Many formerly inhabited areas are now ‘ownership free’ due to the long armed conflict, and people will hurry back in order to obtain the best lands. This is one of the reasons why some people have chosen to remain internally displaced rather than go into refuge in a neighbouring country. Although they may know where the mines are near their current location, they will leave that location and most likely will leave no mark of where the mines are. There will be many casualties, and they will swiftly overwhelm the paltry health services currently available in those areas. When this tragedy occurs, word of it will probably halt any movement by people in refugee settlements in neighbouring countries.

References and further reading

Chutimas Suksai, ‘Participatory Research on Sources of Insecurity in Gho Kay Village, Karen Liberated Area’, in Whose Security Counts?: Participatory Research on Armed Violence and Human Insecurity in Southeast Asia, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2002.

Karen Human Rights Group reports, www.khrg.org.

Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments (Annual), Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, www.internal-displacement.org.

Internal Displacement in Eastern Burma (Annual Surveys), Thailand Burma Border Consortium, www.tbbc.org.

Landmine Monitor Report, International Campaign to Ban Landmines, www.icbl.org/lm.

It may be that the combatants have moved us past the point of avoiding this catastrophe. However, it can be minimised by concerted action, and it is not too late for the United Nations Country Team to develop contingency plans for this foreseeable event. Relentless insistence that all areas be marked, in a similar and unambiguous way, by all combatants and those non-combatants with knowledge of mined areas of the country, must begin now. This will have both a preventative and an awareness-raising effect. If emphasised, in the same way by all concerned actors, it would help reduce to the lowest possible level the number of casualties, while simultaneously making it more likely that a system to care for the casualties is better suited to respond.

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is a researcher and editor for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ annual report, Landmine Monitor(see http://www.icbl.org/lm). He has co-authored the ICBL’s annual report on Myanmar since 1999. Information in this article comes from country reports on Myanmar between 1999 and 2007.

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