Danger underfoot in Myanmar war zones

Published May 31, 2011 06:05am

This picture taken on May 10, 2011 shows a refugee from eastern Myanmar victim of severe burns waiting for treatment in the waiting room of the surgery department of the Mae Tao clinic in the western Thai border town of Mae Sot. - Photo by AFP

MAE SOT: The last thing Tee Pa Doh remembers before losing his foot is a bright flash. With his leg mangled and bleeding, he knew his best hope was a long journey through the jungle to the Thai border.

Today he counts himself lucky to be alive. But in the conflict zone of eastern Myanmar that he calls home, littered with landmines and with danger lurking at every step, his story is nothing out of the ordinary.

“My foot was blown off but I didn't fall. I stood there, holding my injured leg,” said the 52-year-old village headman from Karen State, the scene of one of the world's longest-running civil wars.

“There was blood spurting out. Everyone was afraid to come over to me. I held my leg and hopped,” he said, recalling the day in May when a landmine turned his life upside down.

He was taken on a tractor to the frontier several hours away following the incident in his village and crossed over to Thailand where the limb was amputated, following a path taken by many others before him.

“If there was no clinic in Mae Sot I couldn't do anything in Burma,” said the victim, whose name AFP has changed for his safety, rubbing the stump of his newly bandaged leg at a clinic in the sleepy Thai border town of Mae Sot.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is the only regime in the world that still regularly lays anti-personnel mines, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, joint winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

“In most of the world landmine use is declining. In Myanmar there's been consistent armed conflict and use of mines by both the ethnic militias and the state forces,” said Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, a researcher for the pressure group's annual Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor report.

Nobody knows exactly how many people have been maimed or killed in Myanmar as a result of landmines, because the authorities do not keep count.

About 33 of Myanmar's 325 townships are believed to be contaminated with the controversial weapons.

Over the decade to 2009, the Monitor identified at least 2,587 casualties from landmines or explosive remnants of war, including 183 fatalities, but that might be just the tip of the iceberg.

“We believe it could be exponentially higher than that,” Moser-Puangsuwan said.

“In countries like Burma, the fastest path to poverty is to become a mine victim,” he added, noting that the injury can rob victims of a livelihood and force them to take out loans to pay for medical costs.

Most victims have no choice but to seek help from Myanmar's crumbling healthcare system, although some international relief groups such as the Red Cross help with rehabilitation.

Many of those living close to Thailand seek treatment there.

At the Mae Tao Clinic, founded by a Myanmar doctor to provide free health care to fellow refugees, Karen landmine amputee Maw Kel runs a workshop that sees about 15-20 patients every month, providing free artificial limbs.

Most patients cross over illegally from Myanmar and must return afterwards.

Tha Gay, who lost his leg in a landmine blast two years ago, returned to the clinic to have his own prosthesis repaired. He is one of eight people in his village to have lost a leg.

“If it weren't for this clinic, I would have died. There was nothing else I could have done,” he said.

“I'm very happy to have been given this artificial leg. If I didn't have it, I wouldn't want to live. I would rather kill myself.” Myanmar has endured half a century of military rule and while the junta handed over power to a nominally civilian government in March after a widely criticised election, the armed forces still dominate the nation.

There are documented cases of people being forced to act as “human minesweepers” for army patrols, which regularly force civilians to work as porters carrying ammunition, firewood or other supplies.

“To take ordinary civilians and march them ahead of military units when they're being used for portering, or to order them to clear mines without any appropriate training, is a human rights atrocity,” said Moser-Puangsuwan.

It is not just government soldiers who use landmines. At least 17 non-state armed groups are accused of using the weapons since 2009.

Across the border from Mae Sot, ethnic minority Karen rebels who have been fighting the government for six decades appear to have increased their use of landmines, either homemade or seized from the military.

They target not only state soldiers but also rival ethnic factions.

Caught in the middle, civilians in the conflict zones face danger underfoot whenever they leave their homes.

“Anti-personnel landmines and improvised explosive devices are probably the biggest security threat to most people in those areas,” said David Mathieson, a Myanmar expert for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“Villagers tend to anticipate when fighting is going to happen and they flee. But then what most factions do is to go in and landmine the area… booby trapping civilian areas and destroying agriculture and houses,” he said.

Thailand’s announcement in April that it wants to close its Burmese refugee camps has raised fears across the exile community that it might be pushed back and landmine victims turned away.

But Maw Kel believes his prosthetic services will be needed for many years to come.

“Look at Cambodia. The war already finished 30 years ago but landmine incidents still happen. It’s going to be the same in Burma,” he said.

Ironically, the biggest danger may come when the war finishes and people rush to return home, said Moser-Puangsuwan.

“There are no records of these mines. They’re not marked in any way. So when the armed conflict ends there’s going to be a massive number of casualties and at this point there is virtually nothing anyone can do to stop it,” he warned.


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