Landmine Use Must Be Stopped in Myanmar’s Armed Conflict

By Lawi Weng 20 December 2019

It was painful to hear that Daw Aye Ngwe, mother of three children, was injured in the leg last week when a landmine exploded in her tea plantation in Namhsan Township, northern Shan State.

None of her family members could take care of her in the hospital as her three children are young and her husband had to take care of them.

Daw Aye Ngwe is one of many internally displaced people (IDPs) in northern Shan State. She left her village in Namhsan with her family on Nov. 16 because the Myanmar military and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) were fighting in the village, according to the Ta’ang Women Organization (TWO), a civil society organization promoting human rights and the rights of women.

Her family returned to the village on Dec. 12. She was hit by the landmine when she visited her tea plantation just two days after she came back to her village, on Dec. 14.

TWO reported that a man, U Hla Aung, was also hit by a landmine on the same day as Daw Aye Nge. Both of them were in the same township, though in different villages.

We often hear about local people being injured or killed by landmines in northern Shan State. Last month, a German tourist was even killed by a landmine in Hsipaw Township while driving a motorbike.

UNICEF has been working with the Landmine Monitor, an international civil society group, to conduct research on the impacts of landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) in Myanmar. In 2017, they recorded 176 landmine casualties in Myanmar, increasing to 278 in 2018. From January to September this year, there have been 168 landmine casualties in only three states: Shan, Rakhine and Kachin.

Shan State has the highest number of casualties from landmines, according to UNICEF. This year, there have been reports of 19 people killed in Shan State and 59 others injured. Rakhine has the second-highest number of casualties, with 13 people killed and 27 wounded. Kachin State ranks third: six people have been killed and 24 have been wounded.

U Win Naing Tun, the director-general of Myanmar’s Rehabilitation Department, told a mine action workshop in Naypyitaw on Oct. 30 that over 40 people have been killed and more than 160 injured by landmines in 2019.

Armed groups use landmines because they’re cheap—the groups don’t have to spend money on shooting their enemies. But ideas like this are causing many local people to be hurt and killed.

When I reported from the frontlines of the conflict in Shan State in 2017, I found that the Myanmar army used antipersonnel mines in fighting with the TNLA—just a day before I was arrested by the army. When the Myanmar military withdrew their troops from the area, members of the TNLA found those antipersonnel mines in the area where the two sides had fought.

According to the 2018 Landmine Monitor report, the Myanmar military is the only government army in the world that is still using antipersonnel mines. The Landmine Monitor has been recording the use of landmines in Myanmar since 1999.

While conducting interviews for this article, local residents in northern Shan reported that the TNLA has also used landmines in attempts to target the Myanmar army. But local residents have also been hit by these mines. When asked whether they use landmines on the frontline, all sides of the conflict deny it.

Casualties from landmines have increased this month in Kyaukme and Namhsan townships, according to local sources. Some civilians have been killed and others wounded as landmines continue to hit civilians, and not soldiers.

Mai Ah Bam is a volunteer working with local rescue group Ong Tamauk to respond to landmine incidents in the area. He told The Irrawaddy that his group has helped respond to six landmine casualties already in December—two people killed and four wounded in Kyaukme Township.

There is still ongoing fighting between the Myanmar military and the TNLA in Kyaukme and Namhsan townships. Fighting has also broken out between the TNLA and rival ethnic armed group the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).

Most local people in the area are farmers, many working on tea plantations. Tea is the main local business: if they are unable to go to the plantations, they can’t work and they can’t eat. Now when they go to the plantations, they are afraid of the landmines but they have no other option but to work.

Civilians need protection. There are several NGOs based in northern Shan State, lending their voices to local people, but they don’t dare point out who is planting landmines. It isn’t safe to name names. As a result, local people don’t know where to turn for help to stop armed groups from using landmines.

Landmines are most commonly found in areas where armed groups have fought each other. Local people leave their villages when fighting breaks out nearby. When they come back, they step on the landmines left by the armed groups.

Armed conflict in northern Shan State won’t end soon. But leaders from armed groups should consider the civilians in the area—those who are not their enemies. These are the people bearing the cost of the conflict: they have lost limbs and become disabled for their whole lives.

The use of landmines and killing or maiming of civilians are human rights abuses. The armed groups that engage in these acts should be punished, if they have committed rights abuses. All armed groups, including the Myanmar military, must respect the UN Mine Ban Treaty, whether or not Myanmar as a country has signed it.