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Treading Lightly in Shan State: The Civilian Casualties of Myanmar’s Landmines

By Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 16 December 2019

KYAUKME, Shan State—When the land mine blew up, it knocked Hkawng Dai into the air. He was herding buffalo on a pasture by the road between Samsik Village and Hinkyein Village in Mongngawt Subtownship in Shan State’s Kyaukme District on Sept. 8.

Fortunately he didn’t lose consciousness and realized that he had stepped on a mine. But he was injured and he phoned his relatives in his home village of Samsik and told them to come out and help him.

Though his leg was bleeding, he then fled the scene as best he could.

“I was afraid I would be discovered by them. They will come out if they hear a mine explosion. So I ran as far as I could,” said Hkawng Dai, referring to the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group operating in the area. Conflict between the TNLA and the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has increased recently, impacting communities across northern Shan State.

U Htun Oo, who was injured by a landmine near Namtwe Village. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

Civilians in Mongngawt are afraid of land mines for two reasons beyond the obvious: the first is that if they step on them and are not killed instantly, they will be murdered. They won’t be sent to the hospital. The TNLA does not want outsiders to know that civilians in the area are victims of their mines. There are local rumors that TNLA troops have injected something into mine victims in order to kill them.

The second reason is that civilians have to give the TNLA 500,000 kyats (US$331.45) in compensation for any exploded mine—even if they’re killed or injured in the blast or if one of their cattle steps on the mine.

When local residents are injured or their family members killed, they blame it on the bad luck of life in an unstable conflict zone. But they do fear being murdered, and they dread having to compensate the TNLA for a mine.

Two days after Hkawng Dai was injured by the landmine, some TNLA fighters came to his village to investigate the explosion. According to TNLA fighters, the group had planted three mines near where Hkawng Dai was injured. The location isn’t in the forest or near outposts of armed organizations; it’s just near a road.

Hkawng Dai’s injuries turned out to be minor. He’s recovered and is now back at work on his farm. But Hkawng Dai’s eldest brother Kyaw Than and his nephew Dau Hkong were also hit by a blast from a landmine, on Sept. 16. The two were not as lucky as he was—both died in the blast.

Kyaw Than was killed on the spot but TNLA fighters say Dau Hkong died after they had arrived at the scene.

The sign for Mongngawt Subtownship. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

TNLA members carried the bodies through the forest to their village. They warned local residents to bury the bodies immediately and not to take any photos.

“It appears that they don’t want outsiders to know that the two were killed by their mine. They didn’t allow their family members to make preparations for the funeral. [The TNLA] asked them to do the burial immediately while they watched,” said a female villager who asked not to be named.

Hkawng Dai asked TNLA fighters to allow them to change the clothes of the two victims for a proper burial but the TNLA denied the request.

“As he was our eldest brother, we wanted to give him a proper burial in a proper coffin. But they didn’t even let us change the clothes. They asked us to bury them immediately,” Hkawng Dai said, fighting back his tears.

“Luckily, somebody said Tatmadaw soldiers are coming. The Palaung [TNLA] soldiers fled and we could put their bodies into coffins and bury them properly,” he said.

Though local residents and family members of the victims dared not take photos of the bodies, a visitor to the village took pictures and gave them to a local resident.

Hkawng Dai was injured in a mine blast. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

According to the photos seen by The Irrawaddy, it appeared that Kyaw Than had died on the spot of serious injuries, but Dau Hkong only sustained non-fatal injuries to his right shin, contradicting rumors in Mongngawt that he died of excessive bleeding after losing his legs in the mine blast.

“The village head and our village will be in trouble if these photos spread online. I have shown them to no one. And I will delete them now,” said the local resident who showed the pictures on his phone.

Hkawng Dai believes his nephew died unnecessarily. Some believe the TNLA fighters injected something into Dau Hkong.

“Even those who have both their legs amputated can survive. Dau Hkong’s injuries were not that serious,” said Hkawng Dai.

After the reports of a fatal bomb blast spread outside the area, the TNLA gave 200,000 kyats (US$132) each in compensation to the families of Kyaw Than and Dau Hkong.

Landmines pose a threat not only to the lives of local residents, but also to their livelihoods.

U Calina was injured in his legs in a mine blast. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

At least seven cattle were killed from January to the end of September in villages in Mongngawt. Local resident Sai San also said three of his buffalo have died so far in mine blasts this year.

“The TNLA said we have to give them compensation when either humans or cattle hit a mine. We have only buffalo for farming. When my buffalo were hit by land mines, I didn’t even go to see. I just kept silent,” said Sai San.

The roads linking villages in Mongngawt are no longer safe and locals have to be careful even on the main motor road through the mountains, said Sai San.

U Calina, a resident of Kwinsalin Village-Tract in Mongngawt, was injured in his right leg in a mine blast while riding a motorbike on the motor road on Sept. 25. He was returning from his tea farm after collecting tea leaves.

“If I were not on the motorbike that day, I would have been killed. My motorbike was broken,” said U Calina.

U Calina and his wife make a living as tea farmers. As he lost his motorbike and his harvest from the farm in the mine blast, they are struggling to make ends meet.

“We are poor. We have to ask for money from our children whom we have sent to work in Thailand,” said Daw Aye Kham, the wife of U Calina.

Children look at a mine awareness poster. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

Regarding the mine blast that struck U Calina, the Office of the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar military said in a statement on Sept. 26 that the explosive was a tripwire mine planted by the TNLA.

U Calina was treated at Kyaukme Township Hospital. Beside him in the hospital was U Tun Oo from Namtwe Village in Namhsan Township, located on the border of Mongngawt and Namhsan. The village is also facing impacts from landmines.

U Tun Oo had been looking for his missing buffalo with his friend U San Hla and his dog. “I didn’t think landmines would be planted near the creek. It was my dog that stepped on the mine. As the mine exploded, both of us were hit,” said U Tun Oo.

The dog died on the spot. U San Hla lost his right foot and U Tun Oo’s right heel was blasted off.

They phoned members of their village, who came and rescued them on foot. It is a five-hour walk from Namtwe Village to Mongngawt.

As there was no car and it was difficult to travel at night, their neighbors carried them to Namtwe where their wounds were first bandaged by the local nurse. The two were sent to the hospital in Mongngawt the following morning.

U Calina of Kwinsalin Village-Tract, who was injured in a mine blast near Yunsalin Village, receives treatment at Kyauke Hospital. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

With the help of local civil society organizations in Mongngawt, the two were sent to Kyaukme Township Hospital. U Tun Oo got his heel replaced with flesh from his thigh. U San Hla was transferred to Lashio Hospital as his injury was more serious. He later had his right leg amputated below the knee.

U San Hla’s wife Daw Nan Kham said that transportation, medical service and meals have cost around 1 million kyats.

“But those 1 million kyats are not all our money. We have borrowed some. Some people came and helped, but the amount [they gave] is not that large, and transportation costs are very high,” she said.

“This is our fate. I want to blame no one. If he can’t work any longer, I will have to work on the tea farm. But I am afraid after all these experiences,” said Nan Kham.

On Oct. 14, three monks were injured after they stepped on a landmine near the village of Lwelpyet in Mongngawt.

The TNLA isn’t the only armed group active nearby: the Myanmar military and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) also operate in the area. But locals point their fingers at the TNLA for planting the landmines, saying only that the TNLA has asked for compensation for the mines.

They may have good reason to suspect the TNLA: only TNLA fighters have come to enquire in villages after a mine blast is reported.

In several interviews with TNLA spokesman Major Mai Ai Kyaw, he denied using landmines. He said the armed group only uses remote-detonated mines, which will not explode when someone steps on them.

Myanmar has not ratified the international Mine Ban Treaty or the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines has urged the Myanmar government to ratify both treaties. But the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry said in June 2017 that Myanmar had no plans to sign the treaties for the time being, and wouldn’t establish a timeframe to do so.

U Tun Oo and U Calina receiving treatment at Kyaukme Hospital. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

The Myanmar military continues to use landmines in areas where it is clashing with ethnic armed organizations. The Landmine Monitor, the research arm of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, has said the Myanmar state-run ordnance factory in western Bago Region is producing mines that cannot be detected with mine detectors. According to the group’s report from 2018, the Myanmar military is the only government army in the world that is still using antipersonnel mines.

The report also says that the Myanmar military not only produces different types of mines, but also buys mines from China, India, Italy, Russia, the US and other countries.

TNLA allies that have provided military training to the group—the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army—also produce anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines at their own factories. All three ethnic armed groups have units specialized in mines, including improvised explosive devices.

According to the Ta’ang Women’s Organization, a civil society organization promoting human rights and the rights of women in northern Shan State, at least 10 people were killed and more than 20 were injured in explosions from mines and war remnants in Kyaukme, Kutkai, Namhsan and Mantong townships in August and September.

U Sai Tun Win, a lawmaker representing Kyaukme Township in the Shan State Parliament, said it is irresponsible of armed groups to plant mines in ethnic areas.

“None of the armed groups has ever informed local people about where they have planted [mines]. Only in some areas, they ask local villagers not to go in particular directions,” he said.

He accused the Myanmar military of abducting 10 civilians from his constituency and forcing them to march to the frontlines of the conflict carrying military equipment in 2018.

“I would call this using human shields,” said U Sai Tun Win. He said he had seen members of the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), also known as the Shan State Army-South, planting a landmine within walking distance of a village in his constituency.

“That time the villagers showed me the mine. It was planted just outside the village,” he said.

U Sai Tun Win said that ethnic armed groups tend to plant landmines when military tensions are high, but they do not bother to remove them after clashes have ceased. As a result, local residents suffer the consequences.

But members of Parliament are not in a position to give the help civilians need when it comes to military issues. As residents of conflict areas themselves, they have to be careful not to offend any side.

U Sai Tun Win did say that the risk from landmines will be reduced if, or when, the military and the TNLA can work out a bilateral ceasefire agreement.

U Calina, U Tun Oo and U San Hla said they don’t understand politics and had no comments on what the government or lawmakers might do to help the situation. They said they fear that they will say something wrong that offends one side or the other. They said they want only to lead a peaceful life in their community.

U Calina and U Tun Oo have hopes to go back to their normal lives after they’ve fully recovered from their injuries. But life will never be “normal” again for U San Hla, who lost his leg. When he recovers, he will have to go back to work with his wife to repay the money they borrowed for his hospitalization.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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