Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Enemy Underfoot

The Irrawaddy News
AUGUST, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.5

Landmines are a threat to life and limb in Karen State

The victims face a future without an arm or a leg, or with just one eye if they have not been blinded for life. Some try to sleep, groaning when they roll over. Others sit up and talk with relatives, trying to come to terms with the disability that will afflict them for the rest of their lives.

These are the victims of landmines who have been lucky enough to make it to Mae Sot General Hospital, near the Thai-Burmese border in Thailand’s Tak Province.

a 23-year-old KNla soldier, Saw Naing Naing, lost his right eye and both hands in a landmine explosion.

Formerly enemies on the battlefield, soldiers from both the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) who were injured during three weeks of clashes in the KNLA Brigade 7 area in June now find themselves lying in adjacent beds in this small district hospital.

By the end of June, at least 13 soldiers from both sides—eight from the DKBA and five from the KNLA—were receiving treatment. Almost all of them were victims of landmines. One DKBA soldier died at the hospital in June as a result of his injuries.

Moo Say, a KNLA soldier who had to have his left leg amputated, recounted how he was checking a trail for Karen villagers who were fleeing to Thailand when the mine went off. He was brought across the border to the hospital, where he received six bottles of blood during treatment.

Despite being an amputee, Moo Say swore he would only give up fighting when he dies, or when “peace with justice” comes to Karen State.

In the bed next to Moo Say, a 17-year-old DKBA soldier had also lost a leg. The young Karen said the mine went off when he was returning to camp after cutting bamboo in the jungle.

He was one of an estimated 150 DKBA soldiers who were injured or died in recent fighting, mostly from landmine injuries. It is the Karen soldiers of the DKBA who have been bearing the brunt of the casualties, as the Burmese commanders order them to advance into KNLA areas while Burmese troops stay in the rear and fire mortars in support.

The young DKBA soldier said he would not go back to fight. “I was forced to take part in the recent attack—yes, we were paid by our so-called leaders to fight, but in our hearts we didn’t want to go in,” he said.

“After we had taken the KNLA camp, we moved around as little as possible—and now this. I tried to be careful, but I just didn’t see the mine,” he said.

Nay Moon, another KNLA soldier who lost a leg in the recent fighting, said he would try and rejoin his unit if he became fit enough to fight after leaving hospital.

“I feel sad when I look at fellow Karens in the DKBA. What do they have to go back to?” Nay Moon said.

Whenever there is fighting in Karen State, more mines are placed to catch the unwary, adding to the number of unexploded mines. Relief workers in Mae Sot reported seeing dozens of packs filled with mines being carried into the KNLA Brigade 7 area. They said the KNLA planned to plant them before they abandoned the base to advancing enemy troops.

Maj Hla Ngwe, joint secretary 1 of the Karen National Union (KNU), the political wing of the KNLA, said his soldiers have no option but to use their homemade landmines.

“The mines protect us. They are one of the few weapons that we can use against the Burmese army. They have so many more troops than we do,” he said.

When the Burmese troops withdraw after an offensive, they lay mines in the ethnic villages and the surrounding paddy, along the jungle trails and on the river banks where villagers go to collect water or catch fish.

The Free Burma Rangers, a relief organization that sends teams to work clandestinely in Burmese-controlled areas of Karen State, has estimated that as many as 2,000 landmines were left in and around villages in Karen State during military offensives against the KNLA in early 2006.

One 23-year-old KNLA soldier, Saw Naing Naing, lost his right eye and hand after a mine exploded during the recent fighting with the joint DKBA and Burmese army forces.

“Landmine injuries are different from gunshot wounds,” he said. “If we don’t die, we are disabled. It is as if a part of us has died. Landmines are bad. They have ruined my life.”

The Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) estimated that about 1,500 Burmese are injured or killed by landmines yearly. According to the ICBL, Burma is not one of 156 nations that are signatories to the 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty. The United States, China, Russia, India, Israel, Singapore and South and North Korea have also failed to sign the treaty.

The landmines used by the Burmese army come from Russia and China, Burma’s main arms suppliers. Some, however, are said to come from India as well as from Singapore, according to Burmese military sources.

Suthikiet Sopanik, who is secretary of the Thailand Campaign to Ban Landmines, confirmed that landmine injuries tend to be worse than other battlefield injuries.

“During a war, combatants will use whatever they can to kill and maim each other. But, after the battle is over and the troops have withdrawn, it is the civilians, the cattle and wildlife who suffer from the mines. It is so heartbreaking to see a young child maimed for life.

“How do you explain to three or four-year-olds that they must not go out to play around the village?” Sopanik said.

Suthikiet is urging the Burmese army and ethnic armed groups to try to find better means to solve political conflicts, ways that do not result in the horrific consequences of civilian landmine casualties.

“This is the time when the different sides in Burma should be working together for peace. They should be using Burma’s wealth in natural resources to improve living standards, not squandering it in fighting and making it even more dangerous for people to live on the land for years to come,” Suthikiet said.

The armed opposition groups have also been condemned for their use of landmines. According to a Landmine Monitor report released by ICBL in 2008, the KNLA used more mines than any other ethnic armed group in Burma in 2005-2006.

Maj Hla Ngwe of the KNU acknowledged that the mines could kill and maim friend or foe indiscriminately, estimating that around 20 to 25 KNLA soldiers were injured per year by landmines. He said his soldiers were sometimes injured by their own mines during clean-up operations in areas they had previously abandoned to the enemy. He confirmed that over the decades-long fighting the numbers of Karens injured or killed by landmines was in the thousands.

“Only political means will be able to solve this political problem. Trying to destroy the Karen people by military means is not a solution,” Hla Ngwe said.

“The landmines are our last chance. Our survival will depend on them for as long as the Burmese regime remains stubborn and inflexible.”

Saw Steve, a leader of the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP), said, “We don’t want to use landmines. We know how dangerous they are. But they are the only way we can protect ourselves and the IDPs [internally displaced persons].

“If Burma were peaceful, nobody would use landmines. But we will have to continue using them for as long as the Burmese army continues attacking Karen people.”

Though fighting between Burmese forces and the KNLA flares up regularly, most of the time uneasy lulls allow the ethnic Karen villagers who have not fled to refugee camps to try and find normalcy by farming their land. Increasingly this is more difficult, especially in border areas, where so many landmines lie hidden, ready to kill or maim any man, woman, child or animal who triggers them.

“You can never clear away all the landmines. They will remain a danger for as long as they are in the ground,” said a relief worker in Mae Sot.

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