The Shadow Lands: Burma’s Landmine Problem

Regina Paulose[1]

In early January, young Rohingya children went outside of their homes in search of firewood. Four children tripped on a landmine and perished. The remaining children were severely injured.

In 1997 the Mine Ban Convention (Ottawa Treaty) banned the use of anti-personnel landmines. There are 164 state parties to the Convention. Since 1997 the parties have continued to reaffirm their commitment to prohibit the “use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of anti-personnel mines.” The last Review Conference took place in 2014 which culminated in the Maputo Action Plan.  The Convention appears to be successful in globally reducing the production, stockpiling, and deployment of these types of mines. In 2010 the Dublin Convention came into force which bans cluster munitions, but currently no international treaty prohibits anti-vehicle landmines.

Burma is not party to any of these conventions. In 2018 Burma attended the 17th Meeting of State Parties for the Mine Ban Convention as an observer state.  Burma stated that it is “taking necessary measures in terms of mine clearance, victim assistance, and mine risk education.” Sadly, Burma concluded that those who accuse it of using anti-personnel landmines without evidence would deter them from joining the Convention.

As reported in The New Humanitarian, researchers found in 2019 that “Myanmar’s army was the only government security force to deploy landmines in the last year.” The Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor (LCMM) is an organization dedicated to monitoring progress in eliminating landmines. The LCMM documents that Burma has continued to use antipersonnel landmines annually since 1999. A Swiss NGO, Geneva Call, reported in 2011 that “an estimated 5 million people live in townships that contain mine-contaminated areas” although some report there is a lack of data on the extent of landmine contamination in Burma. In 2015, LCMM reported from 1999 to 2014 “almost 4,000 civilians were registered as victims of landmines, ranking Myanmar 3rd highest for civilian landmine victimhood in the world.”


Photo credit: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

Several states in Burma have significant landmine risks.  The at-risk-states have identifiable minority populations which the Tatmadaw continues to mount campaigns of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.  Landmines are used for multiple reasons by the Tatmadaw (and in some cases non-state actors). One main reason is to gain full control over land and occupy it so that indigenous/native groups can no longer have access to their resources.  The situation in the Arakan underscores this point. “Villagers are forced to abandon cultivable land and harvest-ready crops to avoid landmine-related death or injury.” Further, the continued use of land mines means that land access becomes hindered and therefore resources such as food, water, health services, and roads cannot be built, improved upon, or utilized. As one scholar described, “Pollution caused by landmines lead to environmental degradation and ecological disruption. The degraded environments threaten human health and well-being. Landmine may be the most toxic and widespread pollution mankind facing today.”

One must also consider if landmines are scattered everywhere, how can the Rohingya people be able to genuinely return home to their ancestral lands? The more likely scenario is that the landmines are being used to confine groups to specific areas. For example, after the August 2017 violence, the Tatmadaw created a “mining border” between Burma and Bangladesh to prevent survivors from returning back home.

There are organizations that are attempting to help Burma with its self-imposed landmine situation. These organizations include the Halo Trust, Danish Church Aid, and Norwegian People’s Aid. There are also campaigns calling upon all countries to eliminate the use of landmines by 2025. However, reports indicate there is no “systematic effort” by Burma to clear landmines, so it is not clear whether they are interested in joining the international community in achieving this goal.

There are suggestions by researchers that the use of landmines should be prosecutable under the Rome Statute.  This is an interesting suggestion as it also could bring to the fold – discussions on crimes against the environment. However, as we are already aware, Burma is not a state party to the Rome Statute.  One could question whether or not countries that are parties to the Rome Statute and who sell landmines to the Tatmadaw could be held accountable under the Rome Statute. For this specific situation, this may not be effective either, as Burma produces most of its landmines and other providers (such as China) are not party to the Rome Statute.

There is, yet another way forward. The international community must assist Burma with identifying where the landmines have been placed and assist survivors and families of casualties. One the other hand, raising awareness on the countries who develop and export these weapons and are likely to sell them to the Tatmadaw- may place the right kind of pressure in stopping landmine use altogether. The cost to remove these weapons remains ridiculously high and donor fatigue is also an issue. Therefore, stopping the production and eliminating the stockpiles is a crucial step.

Luke Ryan during his visit to Burma noted the following:

Most groups will wind up pointing the finger of blame at one another — one ethnic group says the government is responsible, the government says the ethnic minorities are responsible. It’s difficult to tell, though judging by the track record of the Burma Army, the intelligence on the ground, and the simple availability and resources of the government compared to these ethnic groups, the Army is usually the one to shoulder the blame.”

The landmine scourge is not just a small problem given the dangers and problems it presents. If internally displaced peoples and refugees are to come back home, this issue must be addressed; and there is no time to wait. Unfortunately, this urgency now applies to the United States. The US needs to reconsider its foolhardy decision to utilize and sell landmines. Instead it should use its capabilities and resources to help to bring countries like Burma out of the shadowlands.

[1] An earlier version of this article appeared at Rohingya Khobor on February 2020: