Myanmar won special – and wholly undistinguished – mention at a regional update this week about Asian nations’ compliance with the global Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, in the 20 years since it was adopted.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize and went on to become a highly successful convention that slashed the annual number of casualties from 3,750 a year in 1999 to half that in 2013, as well as effectively eliminating the trade in mines and dramatically limiting use of the much-loathed weapon.
About 80% of the world’s governments have joined the treaty – Sri Lanka has just become the 163rd country to accede to terms – and the moral weight of the convention is such that the 30-plus countries yet to sign have abided by its key provisions.
Six of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and five of the eight South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations have signed on, although just one nation in East Asia – Japan – is a party to the convention.
“Use of landmines by governments in the world today is a rare event,” long-time anti-mines campaigner Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan said at a press conference in Bangkok.
In Asia, one government – Myanmar – and four non-state armed groups were recorded as having used landmines over the past year.
‘Only country listed every year’
“Myanmar is the only country on the planet which has the unfortunate distinction of being listed every year for its use of mines, both by the government and non-state armed groups, since 1999 when the Landmine Monitor began its work,” the campaigner said.
Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has been fighting armed ethnic groups around the country for about 70 years. But even with the push for peace since the previous military-dominated Thein Sein regime, more than 1,000 people have been injured or killed by mines.
Over the past decade, Myanmar is third on the list of total victims, behind only Afghanistan and Colombia – and that ranking is based on figures that Moser-Puangsuwan said were “not even close to accurate”, partly because the government still does not record mine casualties.
At least “71 townships have some contamination” and humanitarian mine action was highly limited, he said. Three organizations were allowed to do some survey work, but not allowed to mark minefields.
“Myanmar is at the bottom of the global ranking on clearing mines,” according to a survey by three humanitarian mine clearance groups.
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration has recently joined several disarmament conventions and her party has previously backed signing the Mine Ban Treaty, but Moser-Puangsuwan said it was too soon to say if the Tatmadaw would change its policy. However, he said “there is a strong argument for beginning clearance immediately” in certain areas.
Widespread casualties in Kachin, Shan states
The latest Landmine Monitor report documents the laying of mines by government troops near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, where over 600,000 Rohingya fled beginning in late August.
But Moser-Puangsuwan said the number of casualties reported so far on the western frontier was just “10 or 12 people and one elephant” – while “vastly more” people had been injured in northern Kachin and Shan states.
“There are far more casualties occurring there [in Shan state] by our count, but no one gets access to that area,” he said.
Some 298 people were injured or killed by mines or explosive devices in Myanmar last year, and most were civilians, the Landmine Monitor report said. But the actual number of victims is believed to be much higher as reporting of accidents is haphazard. The new government said in April there was one landmine casualty “every three days” and “one in three landmine victims is a child, while one in every four is killed.”
Over 8,600 casualties worldwide in 2016
The number of casualties worldwide jumped last year because of wars in Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya. The Landmine Monitor reported more than 8,600 casualties – including 2,089 people killed – by mines, cluster munition remnants or other explosives. Most of the victims – 78% – were civilians and children made up for 42% of the civilian casualties.
The report card for countries in Asia was mixed. The total amount of land cleared of mines was about 82 square kilometers, which was down on the 87 sq km in 2015. Nearly half of the land cleared worldwide (44%) was in Cambodia and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the number of anti-personnel mines destroyed by state parties in Asia more than doubled, from 45,505 in 2015 to more than 106,000 last year.
Several Asian states are yet to sign the treaty, notably India, Pakistan, China, North Korea and Myanmar. And these countries also have some of the largest stockpiles – about six million in Pakistan, four to five million in India and less than five million in China, according to the report’s estimates.
Many other Asian states were tipped to have stockpiles, the report said, listing North and South Korea, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Singapore and Sri Lanka.
More positive news
The news in regard to Laos and Thailand was more positive. Over 50,000 Laotians have been injured or killed since the war ended in 1975. But Laos received a substantial boost in US funding from former President Barack Obama prior to the end of his second term.
The $90-million grant, which is desperately needed to clear small cluster bombs spread over at least 4,500 confirmed hazardous areas, will be given out over three years.
Meanwhile, Shushira Chonhenshob, a program manager for Norwegian People’s Aid in Thailand, said they were delighted to find that Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha is a keen supporter of demining and the country hopes to clear all border areas of mines by the year 2023.