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Myanmar’s landmine legacy continues to destroy lives

The brutal legacy of Myanmar’s decades-long series of civil wars continues, after a foreign tourist was killed, and his companion injured, in a suspected landmine explosion in northern Shan State in late November. 

The blast occurred on the outskirts of Hsipaw town which is close to the scene of recent fighting between the Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw, and a coalition of armed groups calling itself the Northern Alliance. However, it’s not clear if the landmine that exploded was laid during the current skirmishes, or is a remnant of a conflict that goes back to at least the 1950s. 

The Hsipaw incident happened days after the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) published its Landmine Monitor 2019, which established that Myanmar is the only country in the world where government forces were found to have used antipersonnel landmines in the last year. 

The report also found that non-state armed groups, including the Kachin Independence Army, the Arakan Army, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, the Karen National Defense Organization, and the Karen National Liberation Army had laid mines in the past year. 

Citing media reports, the Landmine Monitor alleged that Tatmadaw forces had laid mines in Kachin State’s Waingmaw Township in separate incidents in July and September 2018. The Tatmadaw “allegedly warned the population” during August of that year of having laid mines in local villages in Shan State’s Muse Township. In addition, the Arakan Army has regularly published photographs online of antipersonnel mines allegedly produced by the Myanmar Defense Products Industry, known as Ka Pa Sa. 

“While these photographs do not specifically identify new landmine use, they do indicate that antipersonnel mines are part of the weaponry of frontline units,” the report said. 

Representatives from the military’s True News Information Team couldn’t be reached for comment. 

This picture was taken on May 10, 2011 shows an ethnic Mon woman from Myanmar posing for pictures at the Mae Tao clinic in the western Thai border town of Mae Sot. The woman, whose name was not disclosed for safety reasons, stepped on a landmine in 2001 in eastern Myanmar and was taken to the frontier several hours away where she crossed over to Thailand where she was amputated. (Photo by Christophe Archambault/AFP)
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A history of landmine use 

Myanmar is not party to the Mine Ban Treaty, nor the Convention on Conventional Weapons, or the Convention on Cluster Munitions. ICBL said that since the publication of its first annual report in 1999, it had every year documented the use of antipersonnel mines by the Tatmadaw, and non-state armed groups in Myanmar. 

The Landmine Monitor places further scrutiny on the conduct of the Tatmadaw, which has faced considerable criticism in recent years for its human rights record, particularly the treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State. On Dec. 10 The Gambia, a Muslim-majority nation in western Africa, will open a case in the International Court of Justice against Myanmar for its 2017 “clearance operations” against the Rohingya. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court is investigating the Rohingya crisis, and a third lawsuit has been opened against Myanmar by human rights activists in Argentina. 

In a 2018 report, the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said it had “reasonable grounds to conclude that landmines were planted by the Tatmadaw” during the Rakhine State crackdown, “with the intended or foreseeable effect of injuring or killing Rohingya civilians fleeing to Bangladesh”. 

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, a researcher on the Landmine Monitor report, said that globally there is a strong stigma towards the use of antipersonnel landmines, something that is evidenced by the fact that no governments except Myanmar are using them. 

“We want to make the stigma so that no country will consider [using them]. Therefore it is important to us that Myanmar’s armed forces halt any use of the weapon,” he told LICAS News. “We continue to ask them to halt any use of antipersonnel landmines in order to demonstrate commitment to the country’s peace process.” 

He added that the continued presence of landmines in northern Shan and Kachin states had been a factor in why many people displaced by conflict there could not return home. 

“The only thing that stops Myanmar from undertaking mine clearance is the will to do so,” Moser-Puangsuwan said. “Of course, it makes no sense to remove mines if you are still laying them. Clearly halting use should occur with the start of clearance.” 

A file image taken in 2012 of a prosthetic workshop for landmine victims at the Mae Tao clinic Thailand providing medical assistance to refugees from Myanmar. (shutterstock.com photo)

Affecting people’s lives 

The report found that globally in 2018, 3,059 people were killed, and 3,837 injured by mines or “explosive remnants of war,” and casualties were mainly in countries currently involved in conflict, including Afghanistan, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Syria and Ukraine. The country with the most recorded casualties in 2018 was Afghanistan, with 2,234, followed by Syria with 1,465 casualties reported. There were 430 casualties reported in Myanmar. 

Jason Bender, an independent prosthetist based in Myanmar’s Shan State, said that it is not only people directly involved in war that are affected by landmines, but also farmers, loggers and merchants. 

“These victims of landmine accidents often face additional challenges compared to others in the limb-loss community,” Bender told LICAS News. “Accidents often occur in hard-to-reach rural areas, making access to adequate, ongoing prosthetic care difficult.”

“Many observers naively believe that applying a prosthetic limb will suddenly help users go back to their ‘normal’ way of life,” Bender said, adding that people often face difficulties in learning how to use their new prosthetics. 

“But the challenges are not just physical. Even expert users face social stigmas in their community, less access to employment and the reality that their mobility will be dependent on regular access to a prosthetic clinic for regular adjustments, repairs, and replacements, as their limb and their activities change.”

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