Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Kayin landmine scare sparks tourism fears

A tripwire triggered landmine set off on January 4 and believed to be a remnant of recent skirmishes that subsided in November, has injured two and sent shockwaves through the Kayin State tourism industry, as well as buttressed displaced residents fears that it is still too soon for a homecoming.

The tripwire contraption was set off in the Mae Tha Wor area of Hlaingbwe township. It was believed to have been set by a splinter faction of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).

The road where the mine exploded is commonly taken to get to the Kyone Htaw Waterfall, popular among both domestic and international tourists.

U Kyaw Kyaw, a peace negotiator for the DKBA, confirmed to yesterday that the tripwire mine was set by his group. He added that two Tatmadaw soldiers were injured in the January 4 explosion.

Fighting flared between the DKBA faction, the Tatmadaw and an aligned Border Guard Force last August. The clashes, which were centred around the Mae Tha Wor area, ceased in November.

“The situation is good. The fighting has stopped for a significant amount of time. And also, after the explosion, the fighting didn’t not reemerge,” said U Kyaw Kyaw.

While the active skirmishes may have subsided, the impact on the tourism industry has not.

U Win Naing, managing director of Dawnmin Travels and Tours Company, said that he has not sent groups to the Kyone Htaw Waterfall since the initial outbreak of fighting last year, fearing instability and problems.

“We won’t go to the waterfall because of fears for the travellers’ safety,” he said.

The Domestic Pilgrimage and Tour Operator Association instructed tour companies to stop going to the Mae Tha Wor area last year, but since active fighting ebbed, some tour groups began to return to the famed falls.

U Kyaw Min Hlaing, the general secretary of the association, said yesterday there are no plans to lift the instructions any time soon, or to issue any further clarification guidelines in the wake of the mine explosion. He added that travellers should prioritise safety.

“I think the security forces won’t allow anyone access to anywhere in the area except the waterfall because of the danger of the mines there,” he said.

But local security forces have banned access to the waterfall in the wake of the January 4 explosion, as a recent convoy of tour buses found when they were turned around to Yangon.

Kayin State government officials expressed fear that the mine incident could have negative repercussions on the local tourism industry, which serves as a source of livelihood for many Kayin ethnic people.

U Min Tin Win, state minister for social affairs, said yesterday that the state government is concerned about the potential impact of the state’s image as tourism destination, especially if access to the popular waterfall continues to be blocked.

“We thought we had completed landmine clearing [from the Mae Tha Wor area]. I don’t understand why more explosions happened even after the clearing operation,” he said. “But since we have again cleared this area, we hope travellers can go to the waterfall without fear.”

For villagers who were displaced in the clashes last year, the second sweep is still not a strong enough promise to see them home. According to the state government, there are 300 IDPs sheltering at the Myaing Gyi Nguu monastery and they afraid to return to their homes because of landmines.

Myanmar has not yet signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and is the only state to have continued to lay mines each year since the convention. In April last year, two German tourists and their guide were injured in a landmine blast while trekking in Kyaukme township, Shan State. It was the first such accident known to have involved foreign tourists, although Myanmar ranked third on the Landmine Monitor’s global list for mine injuries in 2014.