The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Three years, zero landmines cleared

Half a dozen of the world’s top de-mining organisations have been working in Myanmar for the past three years. Their presence is sorely needed – the country ranks as one of the three most dangerous in terms of casualties from landmines, and more are still being laid by government forces and armed ethnic groups who have been at war for decades.

Prosthetic limbs are donated to landmine victims at a ceremony in Yangon. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)Prosthetic limbs are donated to landmine victims at a ceremony in Yangon. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

Since the Scotland-based HALO Trust started work in Afghanistan in 1988 and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) cleared its first mine in Cambodia in 1992, the two NGOs have cleared and destroyed several million landmines and explosive weapons from conflict zones around the world. Their total haul in Myanmar? Zero.

“It is very frustrating,” says Henry Leach, HALO Trust representative in Yangon. “We are the biggest operator in the world but have not cleared a single mine in Myanmar in three years of being here.”

Aksel Steen-Nilsen, NPA program manager, says he is packing his bags and heading to Cambodia where there is de-mining work still to do. However, NPA will remain in Myanmar, working on all sides in continuing efforts to unblock an impasse built on decades of enmity and distrust.

In the meantime, mines keep maiming and killing. No one knows for sure how many because there is no compilation of data by the warring parties. The NPA estimates 300 to 500 people, many of them civilians and children, are blown up each year. The southeast is perhaps the most mine-dense region in the world.

Myanmar refuses to sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and is the only state to have laid mines each year since then. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, state-owned Myanmar Defence Products Industries still produces mines in Nyaung Chay Dauk in Bago Region.

Ethnic groups are also reported to be still making landmines, including the Kachin Independence Army, the Karen National Liberation Army, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, the Karenni Army and the United Wa State Army.

What they may lack in resources they make up for with ingenuity, says Mr Leach, describing traps made out of Red Bull cans, detonators made from syringes and mines made of bamboo using designs believed to have originated in Colombia.

So given the immense needs for clearance, why have NGOs not been able to start de-mining operations?

“It all comes down to a lack of trust,” says Mr Steen-Nilsen. That lack is clearly most acute between the government and the armed ethnic groups, but also in the suspicion the military feels toward international NGOs.

It is particularly frustrating that, as conflicts have shifted over the years, there are minefields which no longer hold any strategic value and could be cleared without any loss of defensive value for either side.

In conflicts elsewhere, de-mining has played an important role in building trust between warring parties and allowing displaced civilians to start going back home. In South Sudan, for example, the UN brokered an agreement to halt mine use before reaching a negotiated settlement to the war. This confidence-building process – described by one participant as “a creeping peace” – culminated in a comprehensive peace accord.

But in Myanmar, the government – which means the military, in this case – has decided that no action on de-mining will begin until a nationwide ceasefire agreement is in place. So even in conflicts where bilateral ceasefire pacts have been agreed with ethnic groups, as in Kayin State, several hundred thousand displaced civilians are not safe to return.

Facing up to the problem for the first time, President U Thein Sein called for international help in clearing mines in 2012. However, he has subsequently defended the Tatma-daw’s continued use of mines in “self-defence”.

The Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a semi-government body facilitating the peace process, announced plans for a Mine Action Center to coordinate nationwide activities and a memorandum of understanding was signed with the NPA to set it up. But as NPA country director Emil Jeremic explained, “Nothing has happened.”

A sign warns of landmines in Kyaukkyi township, Bago Region. Photo: Norwegian People’s AidA sign warns of landmines in Kyaukkyi township, Bago Region. Photo: Norwegian People’s Aid

“Nothing has been established because the MPC says the timing is not right, because of the [stalled] peace process. We tried for three years with very limited results. It is a very challenging environment,” he said.

U Aung Min, the government’s lead negotiator in ceasefire talks, reiterated last November that de-mining would not be possible before the national ceasefire agreement was signed.

An official involved in the peace process, who asked not to be named, said the landmine issue was “highly political on both sides of the conflict”. Despite a few instances of limited cooperation between local armed groups, no one could start de-mining, he said.

“We need to start de-mining with legislation, which is being prepared now. Once this is put through parliament, combined with an effective ceasefire, perhaps then we can have effective de-mining. For now, it’s just talks among the international NGOs and locals. We need a political solution before we can actually do anything about the mines,” he said.

Hopes were raised in late March when 18 months of talks between negotiators for the government and 16 armed ethnic groups resulted in agreement on a draft nationwide ceasefire.

But the process has since stalled. Ethnic leaders want changes to the text, while the government insists that three armed groups fighting in Kokang be excluded from the “nationwide” pact.

Battling deadlock, the NPA tried to establish a dialogue with the Tatma-daw. It came to nothing.

“The army sees itself as the backbone of the country, capable of doing everything, and that de-mining is a military issue they will do themselves,” said Mr Steen-Nilsen.

What little is known about Tatma-daw de-mining efforts suggests they lack the equipment and expertise, and are more interested in clearing paths for the military using bulldozers rather than making areas safe for civilians.

Dialogue with three armed ethnic groups in the southeast is proving more fruitful for the NPA, but has not reached the point of actual de-mining.

Barely any maps of minefields exist, so the NPA has started limited work on mapping with the KNLA and the New Mon State Army. This involves collecting information and evidence to create maps that will form the basis for further investigation and eventual de-mining.

“The lack of mapping is a normal problem. We see it in numerous countries. What is highly unusual is that during the peace process they did not open up to mapping,” Mr Steen-Nilsen said.

Complex ethnic politics play a role too. Some armed groups are more ready for de-mining than others. The KNU, for example, is divided on this – and other issues – between hardliners and moderates.

HALO Trust and others are meanwhile engaged in mine awareness programs with local NGOs. Mr Leach says the Karen Mine Action Centre is doing de-mining with basic garden tools and armoured farm vehicles known as iron buffalo ploughs.

“They hardly conform to safety standards. It would be great to get permission to go and help these ethnic groups, but neither the groups nor the government trust us,” he says.

“There is even a suspicion that international organisations use Myanmar people as forced labour to go and blow themselves up,” he adds. “A big part is to convince them that we are responsible, not involved in politics or religion. We are not a rights group and not interested in how or who laid mines. We just want to clear them.”