Landmines Take Horrific Toll
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After losing a leg to a landmine 12 years ago, Zaw Lwin, 42, no longer ventures into the hilly forests of Shwe Kyin - an area that once sustained his livelihood.
"Today I have neither the legs nor the courage to go to the forest," said Zaw Lwin, who was returning home from gathering gingko nuts when he stepped on a landmine.
Shwe Kyin, in the eastern part of Myanmar's Bago Region, continues to be a source of income and danger for many local residents. Despite the threat of landmines, residents scour the forest in search of bamboo, wood and gingko nut, used in popular Burmese side-dishes.
About 40 landmine explosions occur every year in Shwe Kyin, with a population of 87,000, half of these during "gingko season" between June and August, said a local health worker.
In Myanmar, 34 of the country's 325 townships - home to 5.2 million people - are considered landmine-contaminated, according to a 2010 report from Geneva Call.
The threat to Burmese residents and their livelihoods continues to grow, said Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan of the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Land Mines.
"Some years, fewer mines may be laid depending on the amount of armed conflict," Moser-Puangsuwan said. "Each year mines are laid, it means more land is denied for other uses, and more possibilities of becoming victimized by them, because no one is clearing them."
Since losing his right leg, Zaw Lwin has worked as a carpenter, earning 25 percent less than before. His family of six now relies on his wife's earnings from selling vegetables.
Myanmar, not a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, has one of the highest rates of antipersonnel mine deaths and injuries in the world, surpassed only by Afghanistan and Colombia, according to ICBL. Anti-personnel mines have caused at least 2,800 injuries and fatalities in the past 10 years in Myanmar, ICBL reports.
Both government forces and various non-state armed groups use landmines heavily, aid groups say.
In the northern part of the country, where Myanmar military forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have been fightingsince a ceasefire ended in June, both sides use landmines, severely affecting livelihoods, said La Rip, coordinator of Kachin Relief Action Network for IDP and Refugee (RANIR).
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are especially vulnerable to landmine accidents because they move around frequently. In the most mine-contaminated areas, both IDPs and long-term residents sometimes abandon fertile land because of the threat, said Christopher Hamish, research coordinator for the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), which operates across rural eastern Myanmar.
Plagued by armed conflicts for more than 50 years, the eastern Bago Region, including Shwe Kyin and northern Kayin State, are the most landmine-contaminated in Myanmar, according to local NGOs.
Landmines are typically deployed in mountainous areas where government soldiers cannot maintain permanent control but establish camps, conduct patrols and implement operations aimed at clearing the areas of both non-state armed groups and civilians, explained Hamish.
"In many of the areas where displaced civilians live, government forces treat all people as members of non-state armed groups who may be lawfully attacked," he said.
The Myanmar military is the only state force confirmed to regularly use anti-personnel landmines since 1999, according to the ICBL.
No demining yet
The government has yet to allow international agencies to demine.
"We can't know for sure when demining can begin," said Dominik Urban, head of protection with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), adding that a ceasefire between the government and ethnic groups was essential.
Meanwhile, people in mine-contaminated areas continue to risk their lives to make a living.
Tun Tun Win, 27, lost his right leg while cutting bamboo in Shwe Kyin eight years ago. Now he rows a boat in the rainy season for about 3,000 kyat, or US$3.50 a day, and pans for gold in the dry season.
Yet, searching for sites to pan gold in the forest is as risky as searching for bamboo, he said. "But I can't care. I have to take risks," the father of two said.