In Kachin, Civilians Fall Victim to a Hidden Danger

By Lawi Weng 25 January 2013

RANGOON—Zaw Htay, a day laborer from Hpakant Township, had been putting up with the unrest in Kachin State for years, but one recent night the conflict dramatically changed his life.

As he drove his motorbike on a local dirt road, a sudden blast shook the ground beneath him and an exploding landmine ripped through his body.

Zaw Htay lost both his hands and was severely injured in his legs, while his face was hit by pieces of shrapnel, causing him to lose sight in his left eye.

After an arduous journey and much effort by his family and friends, he now lies, heavily sedated, in a ward in Rangoon General Hospital.

“First, the family attempted to get treatment for him at Mohnyin Township Hospital, which provides better treatment than Hpakant Township Hospital, but there is fighting and all roads have been blocked and we could not travel there,” said Khaing Ne Min, a friend of Zaw Htay.

“It took ten days to reach Rangoon,” he said, adding that his friend had spent three days in Hpakant Hospital before being transferred to Mandalay Hospital and finally to Rangoon.

Khaing Ne Min said the incident at Ah Mikepon village on Jan. 13 was a great tragedy for Zaw Htay, 37, a poor day laborer with a wife and two young children.

“We cannot think about what will happen to him in his future,” he said. “He is the main breadwinner for the family.” “We still haven’t told the children what happened to their father,” Khaing Ne Min added miserably.

Zaw Htay’s story is just one of many cases in which civilians have become victims of the conflict in Kachin State, where the Burmese army has been fighting the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since June 2011.

Much of the fighting occurs in northern Kachin, but in other areas under government control, such as in Hpakant Township, there have been regular clashes as KIA guerilla’s attack army convoys through ambushes, landmines and bombs.

Throughout Burma’s dozen or so ethnic conflict zones both the army and rebel groups have been using landmines for decades.

In 2011 at least 84 people were killed and 297 injured in recorded landmine explosions in Burma, a recent report by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor said. The real casualty rate is likely to be much higher.

The group noted that Burma has no specific policy to support to landmine victims during treatment and rehabilitation, while emergency services in conflict areas are “extremely limited.”

Khaing Ne Min said the daily fighting in Hpakant Township exposed civilians to great danger and made it difficult for them to carry on with their daily lives and make a living.

“Fighting should stop because the people in Hpakant are afraid of it and they do not dare to go far from their homes because they are afraid of landmines,” said Khaing Ne Min.

“The children could not attend school for many days because of fighting in Hpakant Township.”

He said that the government has a responsibility to help victims like Zaw Htay, adding however, that no support was forthcoming and the family did not know how it could pay for the hospital bills, which rose to about US $3,500.

The treatment at Rangoon General Hospital has also been poor and doctors made Zaw Htay wait for three days before he could be operated on, Khaing Ne Min said.

He added, “But, I don’t want to complain to them as I worry that they will then treat him poorly.”

Around 11 am on Thursday, some 11 days after the explosion, Zaw Htay was finally brought to the operating room for surgery on his wounds.