Landmines and Community Safety in Myanmar
More than five million people in Myanmar are suspected of living in areas contaminated by landmines.
It’s in this situation that people in the villages of Kayah (or Karenni) state, on the country’s rugged eastern border with Thailand, are living – many unaware of the scale of the problem and the risks they take on a daily basis.
Photos and reporting: Brenda Floors/MAG
Mine Risk Education
MAG began work in Kayah in 2014, giving lifesaving Mine Risk Education (MRE) to communities dependent for their livelihoods on land that is riddled with mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from decades of internal conflict.
"MRE activities in our village are really helpful," says Oo Aung Win, who as the leader of Lawpita Shan is responsible for more than 200 households. This is a position he has held for 30 years and one which, as village leaders do not receive any support from the Government, is essentially voluntary.
So far, 3,221 people have attended our mine safety sessions in Kayah, more than a third of whom were children. And 15,139 people have benefited in total
"Before, we did not know how dangerous mines and UXO really are," he says, "and how to live more safely in a contaminated area."
While the public announcement by President Thein Sein in 2012 that Myanmar had a landmine problem and would need help from the international community raised hopes that mine clearance would soon follow, no such activities have been able to start. As such, many humanitarian mine action organisations such as MAG have prioritised MRE to begin addressing the dangers related to contamination.
And in the meantime it is vital that the people forced to live with landmines and UXO can keep themselves safe.
So far, 3,221 people have attended our MRE sessions in Kayah, and more than a third of these were children.
In total, an estimated 15,139 people have benefited from these sessions, with attendees encouraged to spread the lifesaving messages to their families and friends.
The lifesaving potential of Mine Risk Education is underlined by Oo Paku, leader of Kan Ni village, which is home to 78 families:
"Shortly after MAG gave an MRE session for the elders in our village, they noticed some boys hitting a rock against what the elders were able to recognise as a piece of UXO. They immediately went over to stop the boys, and told them about the danger of explosion and injury."
"We need this"
MAG has also helped 16 at-risk villages, including Lawpita Shan and Kan Ni, to produce community safety maps that indicate the locations of landmines in their area. Hand-drawn by residents and displayed at a central point in these villages for all to see, the maps are designed to protect communities living with this dangerous contamination.
"This is very good," says Oo Paku. "Some villages did not receive any education on mines and UXO, meaning people still take risks."
Both the village leaders expressed hope that the landmines will be cleared soon, but they acknowledged this might not start until peace is secured.
In the meantime, MAG’s Community Liaison teams will continue to do as much as they can to raise awareness and promote safe behaviour for the communities in Kayah state.
Producing community safety maps will remain a part of that, even though discussing contamination – and especially mapping the areas where mines are laid – is still a highly sensitive issue in Myanmar.
When MAG’s Community Liaison team asked Oo Aung Win if he feared any problems for displaying the map, his reply is clear: "It will not matter. I will make it so they accept this. As long as the mines are not cleared, we need this."
About Kayah/Karenni state
Kayah, or Karenni, is the smallest of Myanmar’s states. It is, though, home to a variety of ethnic groups and has plentiful natural resources. When Myanmar, then known as Burma, became independent from Britain in 1948, the level of autonomy for minority ethnic groups remained a highly controversial matter.
Unhappy with the position they were given within the new country's borders, several of these groups took up arms to fight the Yangon-based Government. In 1957, a number of these groups joined forces under the banner of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).
Most split again in the 1990s, and since President Thein Sein took office in 2011 all of Kayah’s active major ethnic armed groups have signed individual ceasefire agreements with the Government, bringing hope for a lasting peace.
Until a final peace agreement is signed, however, landmine clearance seems unlikely to begin.
The Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front (KNPLF) controls much of northern Kayah state near the border with Shan state, and is one of the groups that split from the KNPP. “MRE is very necessary for us all, for the state,” the KNPLF’s Youth Leader Peter Gathui told MAG. "Here, because peace is not achieved we cannot clear the mines yet."
MAG’s Community Liaison Teams work in both government-controlled and so-called contested areas where ethnic armed groups and the local authorities have had to found ways to coexist and govern together until peace is secured.
Page published: 4 November 2014
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