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Myanmar still plagued by landmine terror

Despite ceasefires, armed groups continue to lay deadly mines

<p>A landmine victim at the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot (photo by Henry Zwartz)</p>

A landmine victim at the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot (photo by Henry Zwartz)

  • Fr Maqsood Nazir OMI and Henry Zwartz, Mae Sot
  • Thailand
  • April 4, 2014
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Two men and a woman sit silently watching their new legs taking shape at Mae Tao Clinic’s prosthetic department. The patients each had limbs blown off when they stepped on landmines in Karen state.

A notice board on the wall of the prosthetic department shows the names of 54 patients who have visited the department since February – 52 of them have lost limbs to landmines.

Saw Daniel, 38, has been making prosthetic limbs at Mae Tao Clinic for seven years. Originally from Hpa-An, Myanmar, he moved to Thailand nine years ago.

“My colleague and I make around 250 or 300 prostheses a year. Accidents and congenital diseases are a small number of the cases, but the vast majority are from landmines,” he shouts, trying to be heard above the noise of electric saws, shapers and files.

“The feet are from Cambodia, the fiberglass thighs and knees are from Bangkok while the wooden joints are from Burma [Myanmar],” Saw Daniel says. “Making prosthetic limbs gives me a deep satisfaction because I am building something that will help people,” he adds.

A report in 2012 by Karen Human Rights Group, titled Uncertain Ground: Landmines in Eastern Burma, noted, “Eastern Burma is one of the most landmine-contaminated places in the world.”

According to figures in Landmine Monitor, an independent organization that has been monitoring landmine usage internationally for 16 years, there were 3,349 landmine casualties in Myanmar from 1999 to 2012 – including 319 deaths.

Landmines are especially insidious because they affect whole families. “I have lost two of my friends and my husband to landmines,” Moo Juaw, 48, says, sitting on a small wooden bench in the corner of the room. She is from Kergaw Village, Myawaddy Township. “At least nine people have lost limbs to landmines in our village, some married couples each have a leg missing.”

Moo Juaw came to Mae Tao Clinic’s prosthetic department with two men from her village, all needing new limbs.

Moo Juaw stepped on a landmine in 2005 when she was leading cows back to the village. She said that life was difficult not only for her, but also for her family since she had lost her leg. “Now I work on a tobacco farm to earn a little money to survive, but I can’t work as a rice farmer anymore because my [prosthetic] leg gets stuck in the mud so my adult children work on the rice paddy.” Unable to support herself, she lives with her youngest son and his wife.

Moo Juaw said that fear had gripped the village because of the landmines. “Even if you are scared you have to survive – you have to keep going so you can live your life,” Moo Juaw says.

International and regional landmine monitoring organizations state that mines are still being planted in Myanmar.

One man at the prosthetics department spoke about being used as a human minesweeper for the Myanmar army.

“They forced me and two other friends from our local area to walk in front as ‘guides’ through the landmine area.” He had stood on a landmine twice, once in the mid-1970s and again in 1997. “I cannot work as a farmer any more because of the lost leg,” he said, “Life is very hard. You cannot do things quickly, you cannot work like other people.”

As cited in the 2012 Landmine Monitor, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana said he was disturbed by reports that armed groups and the Myanmar army were still using landmines despite a ceasefire.

Quintana as quoted in the Landmine Monitor report, requested the government to “work with international organizations to develop a comprehensive plan to end the use of landmines and to address their legacy, including the systematic removal of mines and rehabilitation of victims.”

Villagers in Karen State want the government to remove landmines so they can go about their daily lives without fear.

Saw Tha Thway, 40, also from Kergaw, was out cutting bamboo when he stood on a landmine. “One of the worst things is that now my children need to help me – rather than the other way around,” he said.

“My children cannot go to school because they need to help me with the farm. My one dream is that my children would have good opportunities in life but its hard. Now there are no opportunities for them.”

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