Commentary / World

Risking death with every step, every day

by Richard Humphries

“We are full of love for you, but cannot take care of all.” — from a notice to Karen villagers that mines would be set on their land

During World War I, military personnel comprised 90 percent of deaths and civilians the other 10. In today’s warfare, that ratio has been reversed. One big reason has been the proliferation of land mines. They are cheap, portable and maim or kill very effectively.

In Myanmar’s Karen State, all sides in the ethnic conflict use land mines. The Karen National Union’s armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, uses them to protect their supply lines and to harass their enemies. Those enemies, government forces of Myanmar’s State Peace and Development Council and those of its ally, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which split from the KNU in 1995, use them in much larger numbers and far more indiscriminately.

The KNLA tries to warn villagers where not to go, such as which trail is dangerous, but does not specify where mines are placed. Villagers still step on them. Neither the SPDC nor the DKBA give even a warning. The results are deaths, injuries and fear for the many innocent civilians who have stepped on mines or risk doing so every day.

The KNLA relies largely on homemade mines, made of bamboo and filled with steel pellets and explosives. According to the Karen Human Rights Group, an independent NGO that monitors human-rights violations in the area, the SPDC and DKBA were using imported Chinese models, but now mostly use Myanmar-made ones, with factories and technology again supplied by China. The deadliest type is the MMI, based on a Chinese design called PMOZ-2, which was widely used in Cambodia. It is known as the “corncob” because of its shape, but there the similarity ends. The MMI is sometimes attached to a post and hidden in tall grass. It is activated by a tripwire, with the purpose being to kill or maim more than one person.

The message quoted at the top of this story was from a DKBA commander to a Karen village. Compounding the fear that these villagers face in their daily tasks are other mine-related worries. SPDC soldiers will often dragoon villagers into forced labor as army porters or human minesweepers. If they tell the soldiers that the particular path they’re on is dangerous, they are often told to simply keep walking, in front of course, or are branded as KNU/KNLA supporters. It becomes a Hobson’s choice whether to say something or keep quiet. Either way, they face the probability of an unpleasant fate.