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Landmines halt refugee return in Karen State

Mae Sot, Thailand (Mizzima) - Fighting largely came to an end in Karen State’s central Hlaing Bwe Township three months ago, but villagers who fled to Thailand in June to avoid the offensive are still afraid to go home. They say that unless landmines are removed, the area will still be too dangerous when Thai permission for their stay runs out at the end of the rainy season.

A forced recruitment campaign by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which began in May and a joint DKBA-Burmese Army offensive in June resulted in several thousand Karen villagers fleeing the area. Temporary refugee sites were set up at Noh Boh, Oo Thu Hta and Mae Salit villages in Thailand’s Tha Song Yang district.

The unusual rainy season offensive ended when Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) troops pulled out of their border camps on June 13 to wage a more mobile guerrilla campaign. Refugees continued to come out in small groups as people fled forced labour involving portering for DKBA and Burmese troops and a continued forced conscription campaign. By September the camp population had grown to 4,862 refugees.

Permission has only been granted by the Thai authorities until the end of the rainy season, which usually ends in late October or early November. At that point, refugees must choose between moving to Mae La refugee camp or going back to Burma. Remaining at the sites is not an option and anyone doing so will be considered an illegal immigrant and deported.

So far, the refugees have chosen to remain in the temporary camps rather than go to Mae La directly out of hope that when the rains finish they can return home. However, a DKBA move to systematically landmine abandoned villages and the western riverbank of the Moei River which separates Burma and Thailand makes those plans extremely dangerous.

According to a report released by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) last week, DKBA troops began laying mines in August throughout the area of the recent offensive. Citing the testimony of six DKBA deserters, the rights group claims the mines are being laid in villages, fields and trails that may be used by the KNLA – and also by villagers – and along the bank of the Moei River.

Although DKBA officers were asked to remove the mines by refugee leaders as a condition to returning, nothing was done. Instead, the laying of new mines suggests the groups have no intention of making the area safe for returning villagers.

The tactic is similar to one Karen military officers and officials, human rights monitors and villagers say the Burmese Army uses in insurgent areas in northern Karen State to deny whole areas to both KNLA troops and civilians seeking food and shelter. Hundreds of villagers are killed or injured each year, they claim, by mines laid in fields, under homes and along trails known to be used by villagers. Cows, buffaloes and pigs on which villagers are dependant for meat and to sell for cash to buy food are also killed by the mines. The DKBA has agreed to begin transforming itself into a Border Guard Force under the control of the Burmese Army beginning next month.

The DKBA uses a mix of homemade mines often constructed with gunpowder and other explosives and metal or plastic pipes with battery-driven detonators, as well as factory produced mines obtained either on the black market or directly from the Burmese Army. While the homemade mines are only dangerous as long as their batteries last, about three to six months, the factory produced mines can remain a threat for years.

Presumably, once the DKBA becomes a part of the army it will begin exclusively using the factory produced versions from army stocks. It was one of these factory made mines that human rights researchers believed severely injured a 13 year old boy two weeks ago. The boy and three of his friends had gone back to their village from the temporary site at Oo Thu Hta, in order to tend buffaloes. The buffaloes represent their families’ only real wealth and are raised by villagers for use in the fields as well as to be sold to generate extra money.

Following the explosion, the boy was carried to the Thai side of the border and sent on to Mae Sot hospital. Doctors were forced to amputate his right leg and his left is so badly injured it may have to be amputated as well. According to information obtained by KHRG, the landmine was likely a Burmese-produced M-14 anti-personnel mine given to the DKBA.

Another villager stepped on a mine during the first week of July at Wah Mee Klah village in the same area. He had returned to his now abandoned village after serving as a forced labourer and DKBA recruit to find out the whereabouts of his family.

In a 2006 report, the Backpack Health Worker Team, a group of relief workers based out of Mae Tao clinic near Mae Sot, estimated that up to 1,500 people are killed or injured every year by landmines in Burma. A 2004 survey by the groups revealed that 13.4 of every 10,000 people inside Burma’s border areas were injured by landmines that year, although research for that study was confined to conflict-ridden areas of eastern Burma.

According to the 2008 Landmine Monitor report, landmines continue to be used in Karen, Karenni, Shan and Mon States as well as Pegu and Tenasserim Divisions. While the greatest user remains the Burmese Army, their transfer and use by allied insurgent groups such as the DKBA poses an increased risk to civilian populations. Hlaing Bwe township where the recent fighting took place, along with neighbouring Myawaddy township to the south were previously considered the two most heavily landmined areas in Burma although casualties had fallen in recent years.

The DKBA’s landmine campaign in the area and its transformation into a government-controlled force with access to large stocks of factory made mines, together with its push to take control of areas of Karen State still outside its reach suggest that deaths and injuries from mines, especially of civilians is likely to increase in coming months.

It will also mean that large areas of Karen State will become uninhabitable for some time until the mines can be cleared.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 29 September 2009 19:20 )  

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