Landmines in a militarised culture: Threat or security?

In Myanmar, landmines are used by the military, non-state armed groups – and even civilians.

YAUKTAN, MYANMAR - MAY 14: Burmese children wait for aid supplies at the refugee camp as aid begins to arrive following last week's Cyclone,, on May 14, 2008, in Kyauktan (south east of Yangon),
Accidental explosions in communities riddled with land mines may continue up to 100 years from now [GALLO/GETTY]

Chiang Mai, Thailand – Sakatwey was running away from his village in Karen state, Eastern Myanmar, under attack from the state military, when he accidentally stepped on an unexploded mine. He was only 13 years old. His life changed forever. He now resides at a rehabilitation centre named the “Care Villa” in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border. The villa receives civilians and rebel fighters, maimed by landmine accidents, on a regular basis.

Such harrowing accounts of children and adults who have been targeted as part of the military’s forced displacement strategy exemplifies the daily risks faced by civilians amid a protracted mine warfare between the Myanma military and non-state armed groups.

More than 14 per cent of mine victims in Myanmar stepped on landmines within half a kilometre from the centre of their villages. Of Myanmar’s 14 states and divisions, ten are contaminated with land mines. Evidence[PDF] suggests that, in 2010, in Karen State alone, there was one land mine victim each and every day. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), 10.5 per cent of Myanmar is mined, with the most contaminated townships in ethnic minority communities along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Karen landmine survivors at choir practice [clip]

Landmines have been regularly used by the military since the start of the civil war in the 1940s, but the splintering of ethnic armed groups into ceasefire and non-ceasefire parties led to the continued use of the weapons by both the military and as rival ethnic armed groups – against the military and each other.

A protracted conflict scenario in ethnic minority states has, in many ways, normalised the use of landmines, where, according to mine risk reduction educators, even civilians feel that they are the only way they can protect themselves from attacks by the military and against the destruction of their livelihood. Landmines have become both physical and psychological weapons that render a sense of security to those living in conflict areas. But the indiscriminate nature of the weapon and rudimentary methods for installing, detecting, mapping and removing them have meant that the Karen often fall prey to landmines planted by people from their own communities.

Despite the latest ceasefires that have been signed between the state military and Karen National Union (KNU), a Karen political organisation with an armed wing, there are no stipulations that ban the use of landmines. Even in the case of a comprehensive and permanent resolution to the ethnic conflict, the communities riddled with landmines may continue to experience accidental explosions up to 100 years from now. Specialised assistance with de-mining operations, risk reduction and education about mines is a necessity for these remote communities, whether in conflict or at peace.

Latest findings

A comprehensive report launched by Geneva Call in 2011 in partnership with international NGOs working in the field presents the most extensive literature on the humanitarian impact of landmines on Myanmar. Due to the controversial nature of their work, the NGOs and their staff have remained anonymous since launching their project in 2006. Working under the radar has been crucial for these groups in order to gain access to contaminated areas.

On the basis of data collected on mine victims in Myanmar for the past five years, Geneva Call concludes that the country “faces one of the most severe landmine problems in the world today”. The report emphasises that the government’s denial of access to NGOs specialising in mine action programmes has meant that accurately determining the extent of the “landmine problem”, its impact on communities and any means of implementing mine risk reduction has been something of a struggle.

10.5 per cent of Myanmar is affected by landmines, most contaminated areas are along the Thai-Myanmar border [Preethi Nallu/Al Jazeera]

In such a restricted humanitarian space, where the government has exercised an aggressive policy of preventing information of human rights abuses from leaking to the outside world, international NGOs have managed to collaborate with local civil society organisations in undertaking education and risk reduction programmes for remote communities in Karen State – areas that have been perpetual fighting zones.

In the absence of government efforts to curtail the use of landmines, alliances between international groups and local civil society organisations have created greater awareness in local communities of the dangers of landmines, and assisted victims with prosthetics and rehabilitation. Local organisations, such as the Committee for International Displaced Karen People (CIDKP), staffed with young Karen trainers, also hold periodic meetings with ethnic rebel groups to convince them to allow educational programmes and to altogether stop using landmines. These same groups are also trained to identify trends and patterns in usage of the weapon.

‘Free for all’ use of landmines

State use

Jens Andersen*, an NGO official based on the Thai-Myanmar border, who has helped local groups undertake mine risk reduction programmes since 2006, explains the complexities of an environment where all stakeholders view landmines as valid, defensive weapons. 

He elaborates that the military government justifies the use of landmines as a means of protecting their infrastructure such as military bases, power lines, bridges etc. But there has also been documented evidence of intimidation tactics and psychological warfare, whereby the military uses landmines to demoralise ethnic minority communities – and their armed groups who have been waging an insurgency against the government for the past few decades.

The latest report published by The Woman and Child Rights Project explains that, while laying land mines alone does not constitute a violation of international humanitarian laws, the use of mines in largely civilian areas to target inhabitants and force them to flee, violates “the principles of distinction and proportionality”.

“Employed widely as part of the government’s ‘four cuts’ campaign, land mines are effectively used as a weapon of terror by [Myanmar] forces to ensure that a depopulated area would remain so,” explains the report, published in January 2012.

The “Four Cuts” strategy was developed in the 1970s with an aim to cut access to “food, funds, information and recruitment” in ethnic minority regions, and was successfully implemented against the Karen National Union over many years.

Yet the government officially denies using landmines.

“We do not use cluster munitions, develop, produce, otherwise acquire, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited under this [Anti-Personnel Mine Ban] convention,” claims an official statement issued by the Myanmar government at the 2009 Bali conference.

“Landmines have played a two-sided role in terms of civilians’ view of security – and the same weapons that have maimed farmers on their way to work in their fields are now being used as a means of protecting their lands.”

Following this meeting, the country did not attend the conference in Chile in 2010. In 2011, Myanmar was one of only three countries in the world that actively produced land mines.

Non-state armed groups

As the country with the fifth highest casualty rate from landmine accidents, Myanmar’s case is further complicated by non-state armed groups increasingly using this indiscriminate weapon – not just against the military, but also against rival factions. But their mines often affect the very people they are trying to protect. In a situation of asymmetric warfare where the state has repressed ethnic minorities for decades, armed groups such as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, fiercely defend their use of landmines as a protection mechanism.

But interviews with mine survivors reveal that more than 40 per cent of the KNLA mine casualties in 2010 were self-inflicted (while laying, lifting or stepping on combatants’ own mines or those of their comrades), with the casualties continuing through 2011. The atmosphere of political change that has permeated urban centres of the country has not yet yielded a positive impact on civilians in these far away communities.

Related video:
Land mines: Threatening security in conflict-ridden areas


Land mines have played a two-sided role in terms of civilians’ view of security – and the same weapons that have maimed farmers on their way to work in their fields are now being used as means of protecting their lands and preventing armed forces from entering their villages. In this highly militarised environment, manufacturing rudimentary devices at home or acquiring factory-made bombs is not out of the question for civilians under constant threat of attack.

“The majority would likely use improvised explosive devices (IEDs), made with small bottles from energy drinks and household items, such as fertiliser and car batteries, or if they are able to, with materials from local armed groups,” explains another NGO worker, Matthew Perry*, who has assisted local civil society organisations, such as Care Villa, with their rehabilitation programmes.

Impact of latest ceasefire

The conflict between the Karen and the military – which lasted more than 60 years, without ceasefire – was deemed the world’s longest civil war. Given this decades-long stalemate in negotiations, the January 12 announcement of a ceasefire between the KNU and the Myanmar Armed Forces came as a surprise to observers.

But it is important to bear in mind that the ceasefire does not entail a political solution or equate to long term peace in the region. The talks were only conducted at a state level and are yet to reach a formal agreement. In fact, success in reaching a ceasefire can be attributed partly to the Karen not being stipulated to give up their arms. So the question of heavy armament in the communities, including landmines, remains an unresolved quandary.

Andersen explains that a ceasefire does not mean a halt in the use of landmines, or the granting of official permission to enter the communities. But ceasefires have borne a positive impact on other ethnic minority communities.

More than 14 per cent of mine victims stepped on devices within half a kilometre from the centre of their village [Preethi Nallu/Al Jazeera]

“We have seen in Chin State that there is a link between the ceasefire and the INGO’s increased permission to go in there,” the researcher explains.

Ultimately, the varied circumstances in which the different ethnic minority groups find themselves amid the rebel fighters, claiming to represent their interests and the state military who perceives them as the enemy, have largely determined access to these areas, the potential for successful local ceasefires and the decreasing use of land mines.

The grey lines between perpetrators and victims, the varied ambitions for use of the weapon that range from self-defence to intimidation, and the polarised divisions within ethnic minority groups has led to a clear failure in concerted efforts to ban the weapon all together.

Banning the weapon

If armed groups in high conflict settings, such as Sudan, can agree to stop use of land mines – even in the absence of reconciliation – and resort only to direct combat, the pertinent question is: can such an agreement be reached in a Myanmar context?

Some researchers point to a three-year period in the late 1990s, when Karen armed groups and the military agreed to stop using landmines in southern Karen State. Despite the agreement eventually collapsing, this period, when mine casualties were at their lowest, is proof that it is possible to prevent use of the weapon all together, provided all groups are convinced that the use of landmines is more detrimental than beneficial, and that collectively abolishing their use is the only sure means of avoiding fatalities on all sides.

Others, such as Perry, explain that the government bears the responsibility of imposing “strict codes of conduct” upon their forces and eventually withdrawing them from these areas. Such an elimination of a constant state-of-war would inevitably result in armed groups and civilians resorting to less hazardous means of security.

* All NGO workers quoted in the article have been attributed with pseudonyms for security reasons.

Preethi Nallu is currently working as a freelance producer/reporter based in Southeast Asia.

Follow her on Twitter: @preethinallu

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy. Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of third-party sites.