Landmines in Myanmar's southeastern Kayin and Kayah states and Bago division, and in the northern Shan and Kachin states, threaten the return of more than 450,000 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
“There will be no active promotion of return until landmines areas are identified, openly marked and cleared,” said Maja Lazic, senior protection officer at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Myanmar.
While the exact extent of landmine pollution throughout Myanmar is unknown, the army and at least 17 non-state armed groups (NSAGs) have used antipersonnel mines in conflicts over the past 14 years, according to the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Myanmar’s central government faces a number of longstanding ethnic-based insurgencies by groups demanding greater autonomy.
“Anti-personnel mines are used as terror weapons by both sides... [Some] are not marked because the combatants want to strike fear into the enemy. This results in both sides terrorizing the [civilian] population with mines,” said Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, ICBL’s research coordinator for Myanmar.
The decline of active conflict in southeastern Myanmar in the past year has led to a slight decrease in reported incidents of mine accidents, according to the ICBL and Geneva Call, a Swiss NGO that specializes in mine-risk education. But no armed group has yet officially committed to ending mine use, said Moser-Puangsuwan.
Mine clearance cannot take place until there is durable peace, say the UN and NGOs. Meanwhile, unreliable information about the location of mines continues to kill, restrict villagers’ movement and stall preparation for the return of displaced populations.
The government has signed ceasefire agreements with five NSAGs since January 2012, but trust and collaboration between the various NSAGs and government forces - preconditions for mine removal - are still needed, according to the UNHCR Myanmar.
“The process requires agreement, cooperation and support from conflict parties,” said Lazic and Patricia Treimer, a field officer with UNHCR Myanmar.
The ceasefires have not significantly reduced the use of landmines, as NSAGs, government forces and even civilians continue to employ landmines to defend and reclaim territories and protect themselves.
A spokesperson for the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), which authored a May 2012 report on landmines in the east, said that in Kayin State “the ongoing presence of [military] troops means that even though there is a ceasefire, communities and armed groups still take defensive measures, including the planting of landmines”.
Active conflict since June 2011 in Kachin State has displaced upwards of 83,000 people from Kachin and parts of neighbouring Shan. All those displaced are at risk of landmine injuries upon their return, say aid workers.
“[Landmine] incidents have been reported in many regions of Kachin where there has been active fighting,” said Carine Jaquet, the head of the UNHCR’s Myitkyina field office.
Fighting has decreased in recent months in Kachin (with ongoing skirmishes in Shan), but “people are in danger once they attempt to return to their villages,” she added.
“Before the IDPs have a chance to return back, there has to be humanitarian mine action, a security guarantee from both sides and durable peace,” said La Rip, the coordinator of the Laiza-based Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees, a network of 12 NGOs providing relief to displaced persons in both government and rebel-controlled areas.
Fears of casualty spike
No mine mapping has been conducted in mine-riddled southeastern Myanmar. Signs marking mined locations are rare and local knowledge about landmines is unreliable, resulting in the frequent landmine incidents, say experts. But it can be even worse for those who have been away.
“Refugees have not had to live with mine risk concerns for many years now, so their awareness of the risks is much lower [than those who stayed],” explained Sally Thompson, executive director of The Border Consortium (TBC), an NGO consortium providing aid to Burmese refugees in Thailand.
Many cross-border routes into southeastern Myanmar are known by locals and NGOs to be contaminated with mines, according to Geneva Call.
Nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border urgently need more mine-risk education, said TBC. “People will be moving as soon as they feel armed conflict has really ended, and we expect there will be a spike in mine casualties as a result,” Moser-Pangsuwan said.
Because peace processes and mine clearance may take years, education is the most practical way of decreasing accidents, according to TBC.
Mine action plans underway
Humanitarian agencies clearing mines, including the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Danish Church Aid, have been working with the government since November 2012 on mine issues.
The first Mine Risk Working Group meeting in Myanmar was held in January in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, with UNICEF, Danish Church Aid, the Department of Social Welfare, and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.
“All of the agencies are ready to begin demining activities but are waiting for the government and armed groups to reach an agreement,” said Chris Rush, senior programme officer for Geneva Call in Asia.
In addition, the Myanmar Peace Centre, a government initiative established last October, includes the Myanmar Mine Action Centre, which is currently developing removal standards.
“There is a real push to clear mines, but it is not sensible without understanding where the problem is,” said Rush.
The Myanmar government is among the 20 percent of all governments that have not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Along with Syria, it is the only country whose official forces continue to plant mines, according to Moser-Puangsuwan.
“Landmines are one issue, of many issues, affecting return for the displaced. The first measure is an agreement between government and armed groups to stop laying landmines,” said Thompson.