Landmine clearance in southern Myanmar’s Kayah State has still not begun despite a 2012 ceasefire between the main armed groups and the government. While negotiations between the ceasefire parties are ongoing, deep distrust remains, and there is little immediate prospect for the launch of clearance operations, experts and activists say.
Kayah (also known as Karenni) State, Myanmar’s smallest, with a population of around 250,000, is one of several heavily landmine-contaminated areas of country.
Non-Technical Surveys (NTS), or “collecting and analyzing new and existing information about a hazardous area… to confirm whether there is evidence of a hazard or not”, are the first step in landmine mapping. However, despite a 2012 Memorandum of Understanding to begin such survey work in Kayah State, the process has not been launched.
“Currently, no group offering mine risk education in Kayah State has done the necessary technical survey, or even a non-technical survey to determine if the community in which they are offering this is mine-affected,” said Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, research coordinator with the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBL).
Residents face daily danger
The lack of progress in Kayah State leaves residents in daily danger as they navigate an unknown number of mine fields.
“Pilot Non-Technical Surveys or mapping have been conducted by actors in Mon State and may at some point be able to be replicated in Kayah when conditions are favourable and it will not disrupt the peace process,” Janet Ousley, community liaison manager at the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) Myanmar, told IRIN.
“As a result of civil war, unknown numbers of landmines are lying under the earth, threatening the life of our people,” said Dee De, a member of the Union of Karenni State Youth.
The areas of Kayah State near Lawpita power dam, which generates a quarter of Myanmar’s hydroelectric power, and along the route of its power lines, are known to be heavily contaminated.
Though no comprehensive data are available, Stephen Tino, field coordinator with Maggin Development Consultancy Group (MDCG), a Burmese humanitarian organization, estimated that 15-20 people are injured annually by landmines in Kayah. The number of fatalities is unknown. According to Tinto, demining will require further political cooperation.
“It’ll take time to establish trust between the government and armed groups of Kayah State. For the moment, no side shows willingness to remove the landmines,” said Tino.
“We’ve been waiting to get a `green signal’ from them. At the moment, what we can only do is just raise mine awareness and render risk education,” he said. “We don’t know when mine-mapping or surveying will be allowed in our area.”
According to Lawrence Soe, head of the health department of the Karenni National Progressive Liberation Front (KNPLF), one of the armed groups in Kayah State, the numbers of landmine-related injuries and fatalities have been decreasing since the ceasefire.
Others point out that the more than 34,000 internally displaced people in Kayah are at greatest risk owing to their movement in unfamiliar areas.
“Landmines are also a major threat for those who want to return to their [Kayah] villages from the border areas,” said U Plureh, regional coordinator with the Shalom Foundation, a peace promotion organization.
Local leaders told IRIN that in some areas, armed groups give people information about the location of landmines so that they can avoid them, but mine mapping and removal required a higher level of agreement between the armed groups and the government.
Dee De said: “Though we can do mine risk education without interference of both the government and armed-groups, it’ll take time to get their approval to start mine-mapping and surveying.”
False sense of security?
In an effort to reduce risks while demining is negotiated, local groups in Kayah have been providing mine risk education - either by teaching village leaders how to identify threats or holding seminars for the entire village.
However, some warn, such moves might do more harm than good.
“[Mine risk education] is not a solution,” said Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, research coordinator with ICBL, arguing that the only real solution to mine contamination is mine clearance.
“Problems can occur when mine risk education is actualized outside of survey and clearance - it may lead to a false sense of security or it may be useless,” he said, explaining that mine risk education is crucial between periods of surveying risks and establishing the boundaries of risky areas, and demining.
“Between technical survey and the scheduled removal there is usually a gap in time. During that time, as an interim measure, it may be determined that marking and fencing should occur, or that mine risk education may be beneficial,” Moser-Puangsuwan said.
An estimated five million of the country’s 60 million people live in mine-contaminated areas, according to a 2011 report by Geneva Call, a Swiss rights organization.
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, including Kayah State, according to the Landmine Monitor.
Activists say both government forces and non-state armed groups have laid mines throughout the country which have resulted in at least 2,800 dead or injured people over the past 10 years, according to ICBL. De-mining activities have begun in some areas.