The Mine Problem in Myanmar/Burma

Myanmar/Burma is now one of the outstanding challenge states to the global landmine ban. Its formal military forces, the Tatmadaw, have been confirmed to use landmines every year since the Mine Ban Treaty was opened for signature.
Myanmar’s Defense Products Industries (known by the acronym KaPaSa) produce anti-personnel landmines. It produces both high explosive, lethal mines and plastic mines which cannot be detected by metal detectors.
More than a dozen internal armed opposition groups use antipersonnel mines within the country. Armed opposition groups may craft their own mines, but also obtain their antipersonnel mines through military operations against the Tatmadaw, through purchases on the clandestine market, or by lifting mines laid by others.
Landmine use within the country has taken place for over twenty years. Much of the landmine pollution is close to border areas. The Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor has identified mined areas in 33 townships in Chin, Kachin, Karen (Kayin), Karenni (Kayah), Mon, Rakhine, and Shan states, as well as in Pegu (Bago) and Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) divisions. In these areas landmine pollution poses, and will continue to present, a danger to the lives of people living in conflict areas and an obstacle to the post-conflict development or any resettlement of refugees to these states.

What do the Myanmar authorities say about the Mine Ban? (some things we have heard)

1) Myanmar has an insurgent problem and must use landmines.

Many states in today’s world still suffer from the problem of internal armed conflict. That has not kept many of them from seeing the wisdom of joining the global landmine ban. In ASEAN, the Philippines also suffers from insurgency, but the Philippines was one of the first states in ASEAN to join the mine ban movement. Insurgency is a separate problem from landmines, and there is no known case of an insurgency being defeated by anti-personnel mine use.

2) Myanmar has long borders which it must defend.

Many countries which have joined the Mine Ban Treaty have long, poorly policed borders. Smuggling and cross border illicit trade are a global problem. As serious as this problem is, most countries have determined that the use of anti-personnel mines is not a solution. In Albania, the police have found it difficult to patrol their borders with former Yugoslavia because of landmine pollution, while routes through the mine fields have been discovered by illicit traders. From a humanitarian and human rights perspective, passing a defacto death sentence for crossing a line in the sand is inappropriate and possibly illegal under existing law.

3) Myanmar is sandwiched between India and China, which maintain very large standing armys. Myanmar must be able to defend itself.

If Myanmar laid every mine in its arsenal along its border with either China or India, it would slow down a determined breach of the border by either army for only a very short period of time. The only thing that will defend Myanmar from an invasion by either neighbour is diplomacy. If either China or India have the will to invade Myanmar, nothing Myanmar does will be able to halt them. Only through diplomacy and good relations can the will not to invade Myanmar be established.

4) Myanmar has the ‘right’ to defend itself.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and the mine ban movement more broadly, have never challenged the right of States to defend themselves. The global landmine ban has based its concern and action on the indiscriminate and long term effect of this weapon and globally agreed humanitarian principles. All ‘rights’ contain obligations. The mine ban movement believes that, due to the inherent characteristics of this weapon, that use of antipersonnel mines in either offensive or defensive measures is not justifiable, proportionate to any threat, or wise.

‘Ceasefires’ in Myanmar:

Myanmar claims to have ceasefire agreements with former foes. Does this mean they will no longer be using antipersonnel landmines?

The State Peace and Development Council, and its predecessor the State Law and Order Restoration Council, concluded a number of non-hostility pacts within the country, frequently refereed to by the media as ‘ceasefires’.

Existing non-hostility pacts share the following characteristics: 1) The pacts are not written, only verbal; 2) the pacts have no protocols for determining what is an aggressive action; 3) due to the lack of any written agreements there is nothing which can be presented to the public, or to their soldiers as to what was in fact agreed; 4) the pacts are not considered a step toward any political solution of the problems which caused armed conflict; 5) the pacts do not require that a armed organization actually give up their arms, and does not prevent them from acquiring more. By functional definition, there are no ‘ceasefires’ in Myanmar, only a set of agreements of convenience which have frozen the conflict and created other problems, and they have not required a ban on antipersonnel mines.

Lists vary, but currently about a dozen armed opposition groups obtained non-hostility pacts with the authorities in the past. These groups were requested to disarm prior to the 2010 elections or integrate into the armed forces as a regional border guard, but few did. In the past these groups were sometimes encouraged to obtain arms and to engage in business. This has resulted in two things: 1)the Myanmar military can focus armed activities on the organizations which have not signed the non-hostility pacts; and 2) there has been a growth in economic activity throughout the country by armed entities, especially in those areas under the control of the groups, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) who are now considered to be the largest narcotics trafficking organization in the world.

Several of the groups with non-hostility pacts maintain stockpiles of anti-personnel landmines. In 2003, one armed organization, the New Mon State Party, which has a non-hostility pact with the military authorities, had an internal conflict. Two factions began fighting each other, and used landmines, which remained in their arsenal, against each other. In another case, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which has a non-hostility pact with the SPDC, but which is in armed conflict with another key Karen faction, used landmines to surround a timber concession.

The non-hostility pacts allowed armed groups to maintain their arsenals as this was the only way the SPDC negotiators could obtain an agreement from them without entering into dialog on the political problems which caused the armed conflict in the first place.

Genuine disarmament in Myanmar/Burma is, in our opinion, only likely to begin once a genuine dialogue process on the fundamental problem of governance of the country can take place.

In light of the above, will the military authorities or non-state armed groups in Myanmar/Burma agree to halt landmine use?

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines encourages the combatants in Myanmar/Burma to learn from other countries which are overcoming civil war. Such as the agreement successfully brokered by the U.N. between the Government of Sudan (GoS) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to halt mine use, prior to any negotiated settlement of the war. The GoS and SPLA now have a comprehensive peace agreement, but this came about by first agreeing, jointly, to halt mine use. The ability of both sides to refrain from mine use, was both a positive joint activity, and built confidence that other agreements could also be made. This led to what one of the participants called “a creeping peace”, culminating over several years in the comprehensive peace accord.

In addition to this inspirational case, we believe that the reality of the problems associated with mine warfare are beginning to dawn on the combatants in Myanmar/Burma. But like a person addicted to a drug, neither side appear to be able to stop on their own. They will need help and support.

The Mine Ban movement can provide support to halt any new mine use now. It will, of course, still be up to the combatants to make use of that opportunity. Should they use the opportunity provided by a joint landmine ban, it may well lead to other, greater steps toward peace in the future. However, the focus of the Mine Ban movement today is simply to give them the opportunity to stop use of this indiscriminate weapon.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines has launched a positive action campaign to promote the mine ban, based solidly on humanitarian principles, and concern that post-conflict development and refugee resettlement process should be unimpeded by the long-term impacts of antipersonnel mines.