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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 4, 2006
Myanmar, the world's landmine capital
By Clifford McCoy

MAE SOT, Thailand - Myanmar contains along its insurgent-contested international borders some of the most heavily landmined areas in the world. Russia, Nepal and Myanmar are the only three governments that admit to still using anti-personnel mines, of which Myanmar's military is the most extensive user. Casualties from landmines average about 1,500 per year in Myanmar, most of them civilians.

These facts alone should put Myanmar at the top of the world's most-wanted list of indiscriminate landmine users, though that is

usually not the case. Such countries as Cambodia, Afghanistan and Angola usually earn that dubious distinction. The low-intensity nature of the various ethnic insurgencies along Myanmar's borders, the government's denial that it has a landmine problem, and the lack of media attention have conspired to keep the issue out of sight, out of mind.

In the Thai border towns of Mae Sot and Mae Sai it is difficult to overlook the one-legged beggars from Myanmar or the Karen and Shan day laborers walking to work with the distinctive limp caused by a prosthesis. The victims of landmines are even more apparent in the refugee camps along the Thai border or in the villages just across the border inside Myanmar.

The Backpack Health Worker Team, a group of relief workers based out of the Mae Tao clinic near Mae Sot, provide aid to villagers inside Myanmar. The group estimated in a recent report that up to 1,500 people are killed or injured every year by landmines in Myanmar, with the caveat that the figure is probably an underestimate.

A 2004 survey by the group revealed that 13.4 of every 10,000 people inside Myanmar's border areas were injured by landmines that year, though the research was only conducted in the conflict-ridden areas of eastern Myanmar that they were able to access. In 2005 according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), there were 845 new landmine-related casualties recorded in Afghanistan, 875 in Cambodia and at least 96 in Angola. The ICBL estimates that there are 15,000-20,000 new mine casualties around the world every year.

Currently 10 of Myanmar's 14 states and divisions are contaminated by landmines. Both the government and ethnic insurgent armies use them. The highest concentrations of landmines are in border areas, especially the borders with Thailand, India and Bangladesh, where the government has been battling armed ethnic and political insurgent groups for decades. Insurgent groups opposed to the Indian government who have camps across the border in Myanmar also use landmines to protect their camps.

Landmine contamination in eastern Myanmar has become so heavy that farming is often a life-threatening activity. Refugees in Thailand told Asia Times Online that when they thought of how heavily mined the area had become they were afraid of returning to their villages in Myanmar and working their land.

ICBL's 2004 Landmine Monitor reported that Myanmar's Ministry of Home Affairs sent a mission in 2003 to inspect sites proposed by Thailand for joint economic development north of the border town of Malady that were so heavily mined that "extensive mine clearance would need to take place prior to any development of the area". In May, a Thai-Karen engineer working for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) lost his leg after stepping on a landmine while surveying the site for the proposed new Hat Gyi Dam on the Salween River in Karen State.

Myanmar's military regime has not acceded to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, sometimes referred to as the Ottawa Convention, and has only attended one meeting related to the treaty, in Bangkok in 2003. During a vote in December 2005 on the UN General Assembly Resolution calling for a universal and full implementation of the Mine Ban Treaty, Myanmar was one of only 17 countries that abstained.

Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the annulled 1990 elections and is considered by many to be the country's rightful ruler, has stated publicly that it would make the country's accession to the Mine Ban Treaty a national priority. Several ethnic armed groups have also said they would be willing to halt the use of landmines, but because of a shortage of funds and intensifying army operations against their positions they still use them out of strategic necessity.

In Myanmar's latest statement on the use of landmines, the country's ambassador to the United Nations said in October 2005, "Myanmar is, in principle, in favor of banning the export, transfer and indiscriminate use of anti-personnel mines." He went on to say, "At the same time, Myanmar believes that all states have the right to self-defense ... as no state would compromise its national security and sovereign interests under any circumstances. But at the same time, we oppose the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel mines, which cause death and injury to innocent people all over the world."

This statement is at odds with the military regime's policy of manufacturing and using ever increasing numbers of mines, not for reasons of national security so much as for establishing internal territorial control. Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), through the state-owned Myanmar Defense Products Industries, has produced its own landmines since the 1960s and, according to the ICBL, is one of only 13 countries in the world still to be doing so.

Australian military analyst Andrew Selth states in his 2002 book Power Without Glory: Burma's Armed Forces that a factory was established near Meiktila in central Myanmar in 1992 with Chinese assistance for the sole purpose of producing landmines. The MM-1 and MM-2 anti-personnel mines produced there are copies of Chinese-made mines and have been used extensively by Myanmar's army. Selth further states that China is still believed to be providing technical assistance, spare parts and some key components used in the manufacture of the mines.

The SPDC's arms factories also produce a copy of the US M18 claymore command-detonated mine. Under the Mine Ban Treaty, these extremely deadly devices are only considered allowable if they remain command-detonated and are not attached to trip wires that allow them to be left without human supervision.

Recent reports by the relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) and the independent Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) indicate that Myanmar's military is making extensive use of a copy of the US-designed M14 anti-personnel mine. These appear also to be produced by government-run arms factories and are appearing in increasing numbers.

A former American military officer who has seen the mines claims that the markings are different than on the US-made version, and they are not as reliable or as well made. Resistance sources claim that the mines are produced at the Defense Industry No 13 factory, along with, apparently, anti-ship mines to repel a possible seaborne invasion.

According to the ICBL's 2006 report, "in November 2005, Military Heavy Industries reportedly began recruiting technicians for the production of the next generation of mines and other munitions." If that is true, then the SPDC apparently has no intention of halting its use of anti-personnel mines, but rather is preparing to produce, and presumably use, even more of the deadly devices.

Myanmar is also a large importer of landmines. Anti-personnel mines made in China, the US, Italy, India, Russia and possibly Singapore have been acquired directly and cheaply from these governments or alternatively bought on the black market. In the ICBL's 2000 Landmine Monitor report it is estimated that an M14 cost US$5, an M18 $11 and a Chinese Type 72 was $1-$3. And the prices have not risen much since.

Most of the insurgent groups, whether or not they have ceasefires with the junta, have used landmines and maintain stockpiles. ICBL claims to have identified at least 17 armed groups that have used landmines in Myanmar since 1999, although it recognizes that some of these groups have stopped using them while other groups have simply ceased to exist.

Insurgent groups that are still fighting the regime are active users, often because of shortages of funds that preclude them from buying proper weapons. This is particularly the case with the Karen National Liberation Army and the Karenni Army, both of which have suffered serious territorial and military setbacks in the past decade. Insurgent mines are generally home-made, although some have been acquired on the black market or captured from Myanmar's military.

Most insurgent groups are capable of producing simple blast and fragmentation mines, while some groups have even developed claymore-type mines. Most home-made mines consist of a length of bamboo or plastic pipe or a glass bottle packed with explosives and sometimes metal shavings, nails or ball bearings. According to resistance-group sources, most of these are battery-operated and have a short life span of about six months.

Mines are used by both the Myanmar army and resistance groups to defend temporary and permanent camps and to initiate ambushes. The army also lays them around development projects, such as dams, power stations and roads, that it has recently initiated in captured territories. For example, a very extensive minefield was laid along the border with Bangladesh to prevent the movement of people across the border except through established, guarded crossing points.

Military operations always result in an increased use of landmines. According to a relief worker who recently visited the area, the use of mines is currently more prevalent in Karen and Karenni states than in Shan state because of ongoing military operations there, although, he went on to say, this may change if the SPDC's expected offensive against the Shan becomes a reality.

According to a former US military officer, the concept behind the use of mines is very simple: "They are used to wound enemy soldiers so that the attacker must slow down or stop to take care of mine casualties. This causes an extra burden on the attacker and the hidden nature and sudden shock of the exploding mine significantly lowers the morale of the soldiers in the unit." This is why most anti-personnel mines are designed to maim rather than kill.

The SPDC's use of landmines, however, goes beyond military expediency and protecting infrastructure: the devices are also often used to target civilians. Reports by organizations such as the Karen Human Rights Group, the Chin Human Rights Organization and the Shan Human Rights Foundation, as well as international rights monitors such as Human Rights Watch, have documented the repeated laying of mines in villages and in rice fields to keep villagers from returning to an area to harvest their crops.

Paths that are known to be used by villagers are also mined to keep them from foraging for food and to prevent them from fleeing military-controlled areas. Roads that cut across territory where insurgent groups operate are often mined on both sides to prevent not only the flow of resistance fighters, but also civilians fleeing army columns and to interrupt supply flows to help displaced villagers. Insurgent groups say that, without enough ammunition, they use mines in an attempt to protect themselves and displaced villagers from advancing troops as well as to keep lines of communication open.

No matter how the devices are used, neither side keeps accurate maps of where they have laid their mines. Nor are markers usually left to indicate to villagers areas that may be mined. Insurgent groups claim they do sometimes tell villagers that there are mines in an area, but these warnings are usually vague so that villagers don't report their whereabouts to the army.

Insurgent sources, human-rights reporters and health officials all agree that most of the casualties from landmines are civilians. Villagers in areas where counterinsurgency operations are ongoing are particularly at risk of stepping on mines laid by either the army or insurgent groups. Rights organizations, relief workers and village medics in areas where no military operations are happening frequently report incidents where civilians step on mines while working their fields or taking their buffaloes to graze.

The Landmine Monitor report identified at least 51 casualties, two of whom were killed, through May of this year. The International Committee of the Red Cross's annual report for 2005 indicated that 3,612 Myanmar nationals, including 3,246 amputees, received services at ICRC-supported rehabilitation centers. There were also 1,129 new patients fitted with prostheses and 125 with orthoses.

According to the ICBL, there are no mine-risk education programs inside Myanmar. Surveys to determine the extent of the problem have been carried out by the ICRC, Mines Action Group, Handicap International, DanChurch Aid and Norwegian People's Aid. However, because of lack of accessibility to the mine-contaminated areas, these surveys are necessarily limited and very little action has been carried out on the ground.

Nor are there are any humanitarian mine-clearance operations under way inside Myanmar. Soldiers from ethnic armed groups are sometimes called on to de-mine fields and villages by hand after army columns have passed through. Human-rights groups have documented a simpler method used by Myanmar's army: civilian or convict porters are forced to walk in front of the soldiers to act as human minesweepers. The army hopes this will also deter insurgents from laying them.

There is also the documented use of villagers to clear mines from roads by sweeping them or driving bullock carts over them while dragging a heavy log. The International Labor Organization in its report by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations in June deplored the use of civilians in this way.

Tragically, mine use is set to increase inside Myanmar for the foreseeable future. Mines have become an integral part of the military's strategy of clearing areas of civilians to destroy support for ethnic rebels. For the insurgent groups, they are still the cheapest, most effective way of defending themselves. The real losers, however, have and always will be the civilians who step on them.

Clifford McCoy is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist.

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