The death of a German tourist in Shan State raises important questions over the government’s approach to landmines.
On Tuesday, 26 November, a German tourist was killed when the motorbike he was riding struck a landmine in Myanmar’s Shan State. The man was travelling between Pan Nyaung Village and Kun Hauk Village, near Hsipaw Township, with an Argentine woman, who was also injured in the blast.
The woman had gotten off the motorcycle when the road became too bumpy and was walking behind the vehicle when it struck the mine. The rider reportedly died at the scene after sustaining severe injuries to his legs, chest and midriff.
Hsipaw has seen intense fighting in recent months
The region has been the site of intense fighting as ethnic armed groups fight for increased autonomy. In January, clashes broke out along the Hsipaw-Nam Lan road when troops from the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) exchanged fire.
Known for its natural beauty and rural charm, the region has also become a popular tourist destination, leading to disastrous consequences at times. In 2016, two German travellers and their guide were injured by a landmine in the area.
Myanmar is the only confirmed government that deployed landmines last year
The tragedy comes just days after the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor released its 2019 report, in which it named Myanmar as the only nation whose security forces laid landmines between mid-2018 and October 2019.
Landmines are being deployed by the Tatmadaw in conflicts with ethnic armed groups in Shan, Kachin and Rakhine States.
In 2017, human rights groups criticised Myanmar’s government for deliberately laying landmines near the country’s border with Bangladesh. Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Rakhine State were put at risk as they attempted to cross the border.
The Tatmadaw also reportedly placed landmines on roads prior to launching attacks on Rohingya villages, maiming and killing those that attempted to flee.
Myanmar is not signatory to the Mine Ban Treaty
Following pressure from international human rights groups, 164 states signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, pledging to ban the weapon’s use. Criticisms stemmed from the weapon’s inability to distinguish between civilian and combatant, leading to indiscriminate death and injury among citizen populations.
In 2017, of 202 landmine casualties, just 11 were sustained in military activities. Almost 95% were civilian casualties.
50% of child casualties in Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts sustained their injuries as a result of landmines. A week after the death of the German tourist, on December 2, Maung Kyaw Thet Oo, a 14-year-old boy, stepped on a landmine in Rathidaung Township of Rakhine State. He died from his injuries.
Earlier this year, another 14-year-old in Rathidaung was killed when a group of children discovered unexploded ordinance on the banks of a creek near their village. Another 12-year-old was killed in Kyuaktaw Township in May.
Despite its high casualty rate, Myanmar is one of only 11 states that has not signed onto the treaty and has not disavowed landmine production. Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor named Myanmar among India and Pakistan as the three most likely governments to actively produce landmines in 2019.
Government participation exacerbates an already dangerous situation
The government are not solely responsible for civilian landmine casualties. Ethnic armed groups produce blast mines, as well as fragmentation and directional mines. However, the government is exacerbating an already difficult situation.
Groups like the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have reportedly received training on landmine construction from foreign technicians and are able to produce their own munitions.
Others rely on the government. Corrupt officials have led to the emergence of a clandestine landmine market. Armed groups frequently procure landmines from the Tatmadaw’s supply, or seize mines laid by the military for redeployment.
While the military is by no means a sole offender, it is fueling a problem that already causes more than 430 casualties a year, the vast majority of which are civilians.
A climate of mistrust prevents imminent progress
While peace talks remain stalled, and a climate of mistrust prevails, progress on demining will remain limited. Armed groups and the government may agree on the principle of demining, but optics remain a barrier.
There are fears from armed groups that demining may be interpreted as a concession, particularly if it is not accompanied by reciprocal measures from the Tatmadaw.
For both sides to reach an agreement on the removal of mines from combat operations, there must be dialogue. Until all stakeholders can be brought together, the civilian death toll will remain recalcitrant, as landmines continue to indiscriminately wreak their welter on children, tourists and anyone else that enters their deadly orbit.