Myanmar Govt Could Start Demining Program 'Tomorrow,' Researcher Says

By Nyein Nyein 20 December 2018

YANGON — Since 2007 Myanmar has suffered the third highest number of antipersonnel landmine casualties among Asian countries and is now fifth in terms of landmine use globally. There were 202 landmine victims across 78 townships over the past year alone, according to the latest Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor report, launched in November.

Since Myanmar’s peace process begin in late 2011, almost 1,200 people have been killed or injured by mines, more than 90 percent of them in Kachin, Shan and Karen states or eastern Bago Region, according to Landmine Monitor Myanmar, which shares data with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is the Landmines Monitor’s research coordinator. He said there have been at least 4,193 landmine casualties in Myanmar since 1999 but suspected the true number to be higher.

This year’s report says the latest casualty numbers were exacerbated by the military’s continued use of landmines for defense and the forced labor of civilians in conflict zones. It says Myanmar’s myriad ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) also continued to use antipersonnel mines and that the country still lacks any formal mine clearing operation despite mention of it in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

Myanmar was also the top recipient of international funding for mine action in 2017 with $6.2 million earmarked for non-technical surveys, risk education and victim assistance.

Irrawaddy reporter Nyein Nyein spoke with Moser-Puangsuwan in Yangon about his work in Myanmar and how best to reduce mine casualties.

How do you gather information on injuries or deaths caused by landmines? 

There’s no formal record, so we can count what we can count, but we don’t believe that’s comprehensive because there’s things, obviously, that we’re missing. So we ask for people to open records. Under the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People, the government should be doing more surveillance of landmine disability as well as every other kind of disability. They honestly lack the capacity to do so. They need to ask for more help.

How do you verify that these people are still using landmines?

We have these allegations, and the more detailed the allegations, the more confident you could have in it. Many of them come from local people; they’ve been warned by one side or the others, “Don’t go to that area.” Everybody knows what the code means; it means there are mines there. And so this is one of the ways in which we know it. The other way is, there’s a casualty, a red flag that mines are there. We might know who’s operating in that area, which gives us an idea about it. There may be allegations by the local community that that was the last unit through. So you have to make assessment on this. It’s very difficult to do.

A landmine victim in Zawti Village in Kyaukki Township, Bago Region, in 2013. / Reuters

How can we improve the situation not to have more landmines?

There will be elections coming up soon and this is something that should be asked [of] every political candidate. What is their stand on continued use in the country? Do they want to see Myanmar become a party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which comprehensively bans the mines and have remediation effects of victim assistance and mines clearance? This is the solution to the problem. Even the Myanmar government said so in their statement of November of this year, three weeks ago in Geneva. They have said that the Mine Ban Treaty is the solution to the problem of landmines contamination. So of course this is the direction that we encourage them to go in every opportunity that we have to encourage them. But we’re from outside the country. We can help in many ways, but ultimately it’s the people of the country here that need to hold the leaders to account, and one of the opportunities you have is the upcoming election, of asking political candidate, “Well, where do you stand on this? Do you want to see Myanmar join the Mine Ban Treaty?”

In the NCA there is a section for demining and protecting the civilian. But I heard that some of the [armed] groups, they’re starting to do mine awareness and starting to learn about demining things. They cannot really do that yet. Why do you think it is? The government is not allowing them?

You would have to ask each and every one of them that question to get a clear picture. Several groups have asked for assistance with mines clearances, and within the NCA framework it doesn’t seem that they’ve been able to get that. Different people have different readings for that — we have to wait for JMC [Joint Monitoring Committee], various other things. But there is no reason why the authorities could not put together a civil, not a military, but a civil mine clearance entity now and start working on the areas that are solely under its responsibility, that doesn’t deal with the NCA. And once you start, it’s easier to expand that program into other areas.

If they [EAOs] do demining, would it [have an] effect on the peace process?

I think it would build confidence, because immediately you’d have a peace dividend. People get their lands back. They have a safer environment. If it’s done together, it builds confidence. So it’s a double win. It is only a good thing. It’s called for in the NCA. They should mobilize it and it will strengthen the peace process. And it will show that there’s commitment to the peace process. Some people are questioning that [commitment] now. So that’s really important to do.

You said all the mines here, they haven’t [been] demined yet.

That’s correct. There’s been no formal mine clearance program. There have been some haphazard attempts at clearing mines that we have seen over the years, and usually what happens is an ethnic armed group or the Tatmadaw [military] said they mine clear and area, they go in, they have a casualty, and they stop.

[Do] you work closely with the EAOs and Tatmadaw and everyone else for the documentation?

We talk to everyone. And of course we encourage them in the direction of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty or, in the cases of ethnic armed groups, who can’t sign an international convention, that they put their practices in alignment with those types of legal restrictions. So this is something that we always ask them to do. There are a variety of types of systems out there even [for] ethnic armed groups, and I know some of them are interested in moving forward. But that just doesn’t seem to be happening.

Which groups are really interested in demining? 

Karenni and the Karen.

But the progress [does] not seem [to be] a lot.

That’s correct. There’s no formal clearance program going on.

So from you experience, the information gathering has always been difficult. That we know. We can see from your presentation. So how does this change, from the military, to the quasi-military, to the current [administration]? Is it getting [harder] to gather information?

No. I would say that it’s better than it had been in the past, partly because there is now formal acknowledgements that there’s a problem. So it’s easier to have the conversation. When people are denying that there’s even a problem, it’s very difficult. So now there’s formally been an acknowledgement that there is indeed the problem. But the discussion is, what do you do next at this point?

We would like to see them [the government] start now, but we want to see that they do the mine clearance to international standards. If they do secretive mine clearance, that’s not going to help. Nobody’s going to know what’s safe and what’s not.

About civil society participation in mine clearance, we know that civil society groups in Myanmar [are] strong and willing to do that. But in terms of their awareness and technical advancement, what level are we at?

Before zero.

Where in Myanmar can demining begin?

Have you ever been on the road out to Hpa-an [in Karen State]? Ok, so the south side of that road, there’s a big concrete factory or whatever it is. There are mines in that area. The local people would love to have them removed. There’s been no conflict there for 20 years. That area could be cleared tomorrow. It wouldn’t make any different to anybody except the local community. They would love to have that land back. There are lots of places like that.