With Ceasefire, Land-Mine Removal Begins in War-Torn Karen State

By Saw Yan Naing 28 June 2013

For more than 60 years, ethnic Karen rebels and the Burmese government have waged war in Karen State, with both sides guilty of planting countless land mines in the war-torn region to gain a combat edge.

Since the signing of a ceasefire agreement in January 2012 between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the government, the long and dangerous task of identifying and removing that legacy has begun to take place in some regions of Karen State, one of Burma’s most mine-populated states. The task includes surveying, mapping, mine risk education and de-mining activities.

Aung Min, a President’s Office minister, told reporters at a press conference in Rangoon on June 21 that a de-mining program had been started in Papun District, where local residents can now travel freely without fear of land mine danger.

“Land mines started to be removed in Papun and people can travel freely now. Media don’t know about it because we didn’t tell you. Actually, it [de-mining] is happening around there,” Aung Min told reporters.

Papun is one of the most densely mine-populated districts in northern Karen State, which is partly controlled by Brigade 5 of the KNU’s military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).

Sources familiar with land mine affairs in the area told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the European Union is providing funds to the government-affiliated Myanmar Mine Action Center for mine-related activities in ethnic regions where ceasefire have been signed between the government and the respective ethnic rebels.

Mine mapping, the posting of warning signs and de-mining have been separately taking place in Pegu Division’s Kyaukkyi Township since the KNU ceasefire’s signing. The Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, a Norwegian NGO, and the Myanmar Mine Action Center have been collaborating in such activities, the sources said.

Another NGO, the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), signed an agreement on May 31 with the European Commission, donating 3.5 million euros (US$4.6 million) to support the establishment and initial operations of the Myanmar Mine Action Center over the next 18 months. Operations include conducting mine mapping and clearance of land mine-plagued areas in Burma, according to a report by the NPA.

In the report, NPA secretary-general Liv Tørres said “securing this large grant from the EU is a significant step forward in the effort of making it possible for NPA to implement mine action in Myanmar and to open up for other international and national actors to engage in mine action activities.”

One Burma observer said work on mine-related activities remained difficult.

In northern Karen State territory controlled by the KNLA’s Brigade 5, NGOs face resistance to de-mining operations from KNLA troops that argue the land mines are still useful for defensive purposes.

The KNLA has voiced skepticism over the durability of the ceasefire agreement, and sees the mines’ continued presence as a hedge against a possible breakdown of the peace deal. The deployment of government troops in its territories has also discouraged land mine removal from KNLA regions, according to the observers.

However, the observers said some Karen militia groups such as Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen Peace Council, along with some government troops, have begun de-mining projects, mostly in the southwest of Karen State.

The NPA has initiated several development pilot projects in ceasefire areas including non-technical surveys. The group has said that non-technical surveys and de-mining are a precondition for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.

Both the Burmese government and ethnic rebels used land mines extensively during six decades of civil wars. The KNLA is accused of particularly heavy land mine use during the conflict, with the explosive devices viewed as necessary to bolster the militia’s odds against a government Army of many more soldiers and superior weaponry.