Kyaw Win and his colleague, both former Karenni fighters who lost legs to landmines, look at prosthetic legs in their workshop in Loikaw. (P. Vrieze/VOA)
Kyaw Win and his colleague, both former Karenni fighters who lost legs to landmines, look at prosthetic legs in their workshop in Loikaw. (P. Vrieze/VOA)

LOIIKAW, KARENNI STATE - In a dusty, small workshop on a quiet street in Loikaw, three men are busy adjusting plastic frames and pieces of wood. They are creating simple prosthetic legs for the victims of a hidden but ever present danger here in Karenni State: landmines.

Like many ethnic areas in Myanmar, the poor, isolated southeastern state has been wrecked by decades of ethnic conflict and its rural areas have some of the highest levels of landmine contamination in the country.

The men at the workshop know the weapon’s consequences well. All three are former ethnic Karenni (Kayah) fighters who lost a leg to mines. Kyaw Win, 40, leads the workshop in the state capital and recalled the incident that left him maimed.

“It was June 2003, we were marching through the forest and rivers for the KNPLF to organize villagers, then I stepped on a land mine. It was terrible,” he said, while using the acronym of the Karenni National People's Liberation Front, a rebel group turned pro-government militia in 1994.

A Karen who underwent a leg amputation due to a la
A Karen who underwent a leg amputation due to a landmine accident is seen at Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand. (P. Vrieze/VOA)

Kyaw Win was taken to Loikaw and on to the Mae Tao clinic in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, which treats war-torn communities from southeastern Myanmar. After recovering from his amputation, the clinic trained him in prosthetics-making and he returned to set up a KNPLF-supported workshop in 2007. It has since fitted some 750 people with prostheses, the vast majority being civilian mine victims.

“I wanted to struggle for a new life, as my mind is still strong,” Kyaw Win said of his motivation. “The victims are just poor villagers who go fishing and farming in their areas and then step on mines — they need help.”

But he added the workshop has been recently lacking funding.

Heavily mined

Myanmar has the third-highest mine casualty rate in the world after Colombia and Afghanistan, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which said between 1999 to 2014 it recorded 3,745 casualties, 396 of whom died. “This is believed to be only a small fraction of the actual figure,” the group noted, as Myanmar lacks official data on mine incidents.

A man, who lost his calf in a landmine explosion l
FILE - A man, who lost his calf in a landmine explosion, puts on his prosthesis after washing himself by a river on Jan. 31, 2013.

In 2014 alone, there were 251 casualties in Myanmar, 45 of whom died, according to the Monitor’s most recent report from November 2015. In 2013, there were 145 casualties. Lacking exact data, the group refrains from distinguishing trends, but says use of the weapon continues unabated.

“Mine warfare has consistently been a characteristic of armed conflict in Myanmar. That has not changed,” said Yeshua Moser-Puanguswan, the group’s Myanmar researcher.

The country has not signed the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty and in 2014 Myanmar, Syria and North Korea were the world’s only countries “with confirmed new use” of mines, said the Monitor.

The military is suspected of deploying antipersonnel mines produced at its arms factories, while ethnic rebels use foreign-produced and improvised mines as an important defensive weapon that prevents them from being overrun.

The Bago Region, as well as Karenni and Karen states in the southeast, remain Myanmar’s most heavily mined and incident-prone areas, according to the Monitor, followed by Kachin and Shan states in the north.

The cease-fire initiated by the previous government in recent years brought a reduction in conflict in the southeast and led to the September 2015 ‘nationwide’ cease-fire with eight rebel groups, but there has been little progress on the landmine issue. In the north, fighting with the Kachin Independence Army and other groups has worsened, and so has mine use and civilian displacement.

International aid

The international community was to quick to hail the government’s cease-fire talks and in 2013 the EU donated 3.5 million euro ($4.6 million) to create a government-run Myanmar Mine Action Center. INGOs such MAG, Halo Trust and Norwegian People’s Aid arrived eager to help with mapping and de-mining, victim assistance and public awareness raising—all of which were banned by the former junta.

A former Karenni fighter who lost a leg to a landm
A former Karenni fighter who lost a leg to a landmine works on prosthetic leg in a workshop in Loikaw. (P. Vrieze/VOA)

However, the government and military failed to authorize international de-mining and mapping, saying cease-fire talks should be concluded first. The 2015 nationwide cease-fire commits to de-mining “in accordance with the progress of the peace process,” but since its signing there has been no mine clearance approval.

“The mine action center has failed completely, it doesn't exist. A fraction of the (EU) money has been used for some training and cars, a small survey,” said Bjarne Ussing, a program manager with DanChurchAid Humanitarian Mine Action, who works in southeastern Myanmar.

The cease-fire’s text on de-mining, he noted, is somewhat “vaguely-worded,” adding, “We will have to see what that means.”

The lack of de-mining progress, he said, also threatens plans by Myanmar and Thailand to repatriate some 150,000 refugees to the southeastern region in coming years.

The new National League for Democracy (NLD) government will soon resume the cease-fire process, but security issues remain under the authority of the powerful military.

Still, Melissa Andersson, Norwegian People’s Aid country director, remains hopeful that progress could finally be made, saying, “It may still be possible to start with the clearance of some areas that are less strategically sensitive.”