Tools of terror

In November last year, Myanmar officially became the only government in the world still actively laying landmines

January 31, 2011

In Andrew Selth’s 2001 report, Landmines in Burma: Forgotten Weapons in a Forgotten War, the author documents rampant usage of landmines by both government and non-state armed groups throughout the country. The report notes a reluctance of both sides to “show any sign of restricting their use of these weapons”.

Paul White, a senior field coordinator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who is monitoring the landmine situation from within the country, noted in October last year that, of the findings in Selth’s report, “little has changed in nearly a decade.” Statistics gathered by the UN in Myanmar using public records and other sources from February until July 2010 identified 11 deaths and 47 injuries from landmines – on average nearly two deaths and eight injuries per month.

True statistics are hard to come by, but this estimate is considered conservative. Over a four-year period between 2005 and 2008, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) identified 118 deaths and 849 injuries; on average more than two deaths and 17 injuries each month. The push to ban landmines is driven by the deadly munitions’ indiscriminate ability to maim and kill the civilian population, often years after conflict has subsided.

The regime continues to mystify the international community with its flat refusal to adhere to international frameworks intended to eliminate landmines. Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, an editor at the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which produces annual country reports on landmine usage, told the Southeast Asia Globe the government has given his organisation several justifications as to why it continues to lay mines. “They have previously stated to us that they need mines because their country has long borders,” he said. “We have responded that other countries with long borders have signed the treaty and do not use mines for those purposes, including two of their neighbours, Thailand and Bangladesh. “We offered to set up meetings with the military from those countries to inform Myanmar how they deal with border protection without mines, butthe offer was not taken up. “Most of the stated reasons do not appear to us as serious obstacles or well-thought-out rationales,” Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan.

At a 2008 landmine convention in Bali, a representative of the Myanmar foreign ministry said: “To establish mine control schemes in the remote and delicate areas, peace is the most essential element for us.”

Moser-Puangsuwan said that he understood this to mean that until the civil war is declared over, the government will continue to rely on mine warfare to curb internal insurgency. “The ICBL calls for an immediate and unilateral halt to new mine use by all combatants within the country,” he said. “A genuine nationwide ceasefire which includes a mine ban should be pursued.”

Kim Jolliffe, an information and advocacy manager for the global human rights group Worldwide Impact Now, says the government’s reluctance to change its policy on landmines exists simply because ministers “see little reason to accede to international norms that don’t suit them, so feel no obligation to follow the [international] trend”.

The government’s inability to change was nowhere more apparent than during the 2010 national elections, the first in more than two decades. The process was widely criticised as undemocratic, with widespread reports of vote tampering, intimidation and electoral fraud tainting the process in the eyes of the international community.

The whitewash ended with the military proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, claiming more than 80% of all contested seats. For the generals still in military attire, 25% of parliamentary seats had already been reserved under the 2010 election laws.

As the November results began to trickle in, conflict in the east flared up once again. A fragile 20-year ceasefire agreement was finally dismantled when a majority of the armed rebel groups refused to cede power to the Burmese Army, also known as the Tatmadaw, under the proposed Border Guard Force scheme. Rebel groups, who had until November 7 to sign the agreement, claim the scheme would have destroyed their ultimate goal of achieving autonomy.

Fighting consequently erupted in early November, when a brigade from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) attacked and occupied the Myanmar border town of Myawaddy. The conflict prompted almost 35,000 Karen villagers to flee to safety across the Salaween River into Thailand.

“The situation is serious and the [Myanmar] regime seems to be very angry,” said Win Min, a national security expert currently living in exile. “It is a show of force that they can fight all [ethnic insurgent] groups at the same time and pressure other armed groups not to make coordinated attacks against the regime.”

Kim Jolliffe believes that, as things heat up on the borders once again, the government will continue to view landmines as legitimate counter-insurgency tools. “As ceasefires come to an end and conflict escalates, so will the use of landmines,” he said. “The state uses them to compartmentalise, divide and destabilise the ethnic communities.”

On the flip side, armed rebel groups also use these ordinances as an effective and terrifying form of defence against the Tatmadaw. “The rebels use them most when they are outnumbered or to slow down Tatmadaw troops,” says Jolliffe. “Sometimes they are used by the rebels to stop them entering certain regions altogether.

In this vein, the rebels persevere to warn villages of where they have left landmines. In fact, many of those who lay landmines in areas where rates of extortion, looting, arrest, forced portering and the like are common are non-combatants trying to stop the Tatmadaw from entering villages.”

Semo Wah, whose real name has been changed for security reasons, is a 21-year-old Karenni refugee who fled across the border and into Thailand last year.

She told aid workers of her struggle living in a conflict zone littered with landmines and unexploded ordinance. “My 25-year-old cousin stepped on a landmine,” she said. “He was working on the road from Mawchi to Pu Ko Kwaki [for the government] at the time. They forced him to walk along the road and then he stepped on it and lost his leg. “My uncle had to cut part of his leg off and then the wound became worse so he went to the Tatmadaw commander and got angry. He made such a scene that they admitted my cousin to hospital and cleaned it up but he still has no leg, nor does he have a prosthetic.”

Later the same year, her brother-in-law was killed by a landmine when returning home from working in a field.

Landmines remain a “huge hindrance to everyday lives” in the eastern states, says Kim Joliffe. “They make travelling to plantations and farms very slow and dangerous. For children, they make it impossible to go out and play. They kill people every year, and injure many more.” The problem is made worse by a lack of community welfare groups and emergency support programmes, which Joliffe says, are under-funded and even considered insurgents themselves.

Read more articles