Yangon, Myanmar – After serving in the army for 23 years, U Thant Zin feels he has blood on his hands. He’s responsible for laying countless landmines in conflicts that have engulfed Myanmar for decades.
From his home in Yangon, he recalls his time in Myanmar’s army, the Tatmadaw. “Everywhere we marched we carried landmines and used them to counterattack the enemy. At that time I had not noticed how dangerous it was for the people, but when I became a commander I saw too many civilian casualties and deaths.”
Nine of Myanmar’s 14 states are contaminated by landmines and millions of people here are in danger. Many had hoped the situation would radically change after the first democratic election in more than five decades of military rule as, once-persecuted Aung San Suu Kyi led her party to an overwhelming victory last November.
Dr Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, Landmine Monitor researcher, however, explains that “mine warfare continues, but at a lower level compared with five years ago” in Myanmar. “There has been no mine clearance. None,” he says.
With a mountain of issues to deal with, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy has been fighting an uphill battle against a weapon that has become ubiquitous in Myanmar.
Cheap weapon of choice
The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor has reported that between 1999 and 2014, 3,745 people fell victim to landmines – including those killed and injured, with 251 in 2014 alone.
According to figures provided to Al Jazeera by UNICEF, which has been working in collaboration with Myanmar’s national Mine Risk Working Group, only 101 casualties were recorded in 2015, with the same number recorded so far in 2016. They rank the country third after Colombia and Afghanistan for the highest landmine casualty rates in the world.
Moser-Puangsuwan says that Myanmar has not signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and “is the only country where mines have been used by state forces, every year, since [the treaty] came into force”.
There is a long history of landmine use, Zin explains. After losing his leg to a landmine he set up the Peace Myanmar Aid Foundation, which campaigns for demining in the country. He says that the civil war in Myanmar, which started in 1948, has forced the outnumbered ethnic armed groups to use guerilla warfare tactics, “and landmines are one of the most effective ways to engage in that”.
Melissa Andersson, programme manager at Norwegian People’s Aid, a humanitarian organisation that also works on landmine clearance, further explained that eventually landmines became entrenched in the culture, approach to conflict and perceived need for protection.
“Look at the places that have larger contamination problems, such as Colombia and Afghanistan and the similarities arise: a long-running, complex civil war, and a cheap weapon of choice that creates the status quo,” Andersson said. “They’re cheap, easy to produce and they work. It becomes part of the problem.”
A lifetime of trauma
Fighting continues in the northern states of Shan and Kachin, while conflict has in the past month flared up in the south-eastern state of Karen. NGOs working in the region believe landmines are still being laid and continue to threaten the lives of innocent civilians.
The damage caused by landmines is not only physical for the unfortunate victims. Their families and society at large also suffer a burden as a result of the debilitating injuries.
Poe Toe Toe is one such victim. He has lost a leg and his family is left on the verge of destitution because he can no longer work as before to support them.
At a rehabilitation clinic run by the Myanmar Red Cross in Hpa-An, a town in Karen, Toe practises walking on a prosthetic leg.
“There’s no government support. I can’t provide for my family any more,” Toe explains, saying that he feels guilty he cannot support his family.
“I used to earn 6,000 kyat ($4.73) a day collecting vegetables, but since I lost my leg I can’t access the remote areas and can make just 500 kyat a day by selling chickens from my home. My children are suffering because I can’t send them to school, and they have lost their friends because they’re scared of my injury,” he tells.
Another landmine victim, Kyaw Win, lost his leg in 2007 in his village in the Eastern Bago region, a former conflict front. He recalls the trauma he has experienced since he triggered a landmine that blew off his left leg.
“Because I lost my leg my children had to take responsibility for me. They’ve had to leave their home and go to Thailand to work to earn more money to support us,” he explains.
But Win knows he’s one of the lucky ones, thankful for having received help at the rehabilitation clinic, while an unknown number of people in the country are out of reach of any support.
But the trauma is a part of his daily life. “I’m embarrassed to even go out as people look down on me, and it’s impossible to see a positive future,” he says.
War and peace and landmines
But, it seems discussions of large-scale demining may be delayed until the fighting stops and the ceasefire negotiations yield results.
“If there’s to be a solution to clearing landmines it has to be in partnership with the army, government and ethnic armed groups,” Andersson says. “So clearing mines, which are laid in the most contested areas where the conflict has been, is still linked to the long-term peace process. The problems that need to be resolved are huge; landmines are a smaller drop in a larger ocean.”
Ultimately, Andersson says, the delay comes down to a lack of trust between the warring factions.
As a former participant in the fighting, Zin adds that “the conflict between the government and ethnic groups has been going on so long, there is still a lot of hatred toward each other, so nobody wants to be the first to take a step back. It’s a stalemate and it won’t be easy.”
But there has been progress. Back in 2012, the government officially denied that there were landmines, according to Matthew Walsh, programme manager at Danish Church Aid, another humanitarian organisation with demining projects. Now the position has shifted and the government acknowledges the existence of the problem, he says.
“The fact that at meetings, including the 21st-Century Panglong Conference, there have been high-ranking staff in uniform from both the armed groups at the same table as the Tatmadaw to discuss issues is quite impressive, all things considered,” says Walsh.
“You can say there hasn’t been much tangible progress made in terms of demining, but when history is considered it is a monumental step.”
Earlier this month the Tatmadaw proposed setting up Karen as a pilot area for the removal of landmines, with ethnic armed groups in agreement.
“This is a hugely significant step that hasn’t happened before,” Zin says. “Aung Sun Suu Kyi, ministers, MPs and the people all want demining. The army is the last player, so their suggestion is momentous.”
As a former army colonel, Zin is optimistic about change, believing the most significant progress has come since April, when the new government took over.
UNICEF believes the pilot scheme provides an opportunity to start tackling landmines. In states such as Karen, where parties signed the 2015 ceasefire and where trust has been gradually built among different stakeholders, there could be an opportunity to act more immediately, compared with in Shan and Kachin, where armed groups did not sign the ceasefire.
“In Kachin and Shan, the areas with most documented victims this year, and where demining is not likely to happen in the short term, we have started to scale up mine risk education and victim assistance. But where possible, regional demining should be considered,” explains Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF representative to Myanmar.
But for many like Zin, Toe and Win this progress is too slow to come and the trauma and stigma of their experience will define the rest of their lives.