A major Norwegian demining NGO says it is ready to begin mine-clearing in southeastern Myanmar once it receives a green light.
“As soon as we get the go-ahead from both the government and relevant ethnic groups, we can start doing a survey, and then clearance,” Andreas Indregard, country director for NGO Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) in Myanmar, told IRIN. “From our side, we’re ready to act.”
On 26 September NPA signed an agreement with the Burmese government for the clearance of landmines in Kayah State (eastern Myanmar), Karen and Mon states, as well as the Tanintharyi and Bago regions (all in southern Myanmar).
"But for each area covered by our MoU [memorandum of understanding], we need all relevant groups in the area to agree," Indregard said, adding: "Mine action is a new kind of intervention in Myanmar, and it takes a little bit of time to get everyone on board."
Currently there is no organized demining activity in Myanmar and no one is sure if and when it may begin. In June the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) reportedly made its first visit to Myanmar in a decade and discussed the possibility of mine clearance with senior officials.
There is little available data on the extent of landmine contamination in Myanmar, though reports indicate the country has one of the highest death and injury rates from landmines in the world.
An estimated five million people live in townships that contain mine-contaminated areas, and are in need of mine risk reduction education, a 2011 report by Geneva Call, a Swiss-based rights group, reported.
However, recent peace initiatives with various ethnic militias have included demining as part of the peace process.
“Mine clearance is very important for the future of Myanmar, especially in the context of the peace process," said Indregard. "In many areas, it will be impossible or very dangerous for IDPs [internally displaced persons] and eventually also refugees to return to their original areas of residence unless demining takes place first.”
According to the Thai-Burmese Border Consortium, an umbrella group of NGOs working along the 1,800km Thai-Burmese border, there are over 400,000 people who are either internally displaced or living in refugee camps across the border in Thailand.
Many of these would return to their places of origin if security permitted, the NPA believes.
Landmines are believed to be concentrated on Myanmar’s borders with Bangladesh and Thailand, but are a particular threat in southeastern parts of the country as a result of post-independence struggles for autonomy by ethnic minorities in Kayin (Karen) State, Kayah State, the southern part of Shan State, Mon State and Tenasserim/Thanintharyi, according to the Landmine Monitor.
Demining could take years
Photo: Nyan Lynn/IRIN
|Demining could allow many IDPs to return to their homes|
Activists say both government forces and non-state armed groups use landmines heavily, and anti-personnel mines have resulted in at least 2,800 dead or injured over the past 10 years, according to the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBL).
IDPs are particularly vulnerable to landmine accidents because of their frequent movement. In the most mine-contaminated areas, both IDPs and residents sometimes abandon fertile agricultural land because of the threat.
ICBL’s Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan said all parties should publicly commit to achieving a complete ban on landmines, including the destruction of mine stocks and production facilities.
"The first step in mine clearance is a verified halt in any new use of mines by all combatants in a given area," Moser-Puangsuwan said. "If the concerned entities do not put in the appropriate resources and make it a high priority, Myanmar will remain mine-affected for decades."
NPA’s Indregard said that, based on what they know already, demining will take several years.
"One challenge will probably be the lack of adequate minefield maps," he said, "as many actors have laid landmines without accurate records of where the mines are."
Landmines in Kachin State
Meanwhile, in Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin State, aid groups report the continued use of landmines by both sides in the conflict, more than 16 months after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting for greater autonomy for the past six decades.
According to the UN, there are some 75,000 IDPs in Kachin State, up from 70,000 in August. More than half of the IDPs are in 36 camps in KIA-controlled areas.
"Even if the war comes to an end now, it won't be safe for the IDPs to return to their villages because of landmines,” warned Zau Jar, director of Light Bamaw Development Organization, a local charity helping the displaced.
Myanmar is not a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, an international agreement banning the use, stockpiling and production of anti-personal mines.