Myanmar and Thailand: Limiting Landmine Danger

from United Methodist Committee on Relief
Published on 29 Jul 2014 View Original

By David Tereshchuk*

July 29, 2014—The southeastern regions of Myanmar (also known as Burma) bordering on Thailand have long been characterized by violent upheaval and refugee movements.

Most heavily affected have been the country’s ethnic minority populations in small village communities. Their lives have been deeply impacted by armed conflict and frequent forcible military recruitment, owing to ethnic tensions and an autocratic government that ruled the country for nearly 50 years, from 1962 to 2011.

Today, even as the country just begins to turn a corner on the past, the everyday existence of these communities continues to be afflicted by the huge—in fact, incalculable—number of landmines laid in the ground around them—a constant threat to adults and children.

Myanmar is without doubt among the world’s most heavily landmine-contaminated countries. But assistance for its civilians who fall victim to landmine explosions lags seriously behind the need. International studies show, for instance, that in Myanmar, aid to amputees requiring prosthetic devices reaches only one-quarter of the injured.

The remaining three-quarters of this disabled population have to make do with homemade crutches, or with “limbs” made from whatever materials are at hand, like bamboo, wood, or plastic water-pipe, and that are held in place with strips of cloth, leather, or slices of bicycle tires.

Critical shortage Myanmar is lamentably short of trained technicians to produce and dispense sustainably produced, long-lasting prosthetics, orthotics, and mobility aids, and to maintain them and offer support to their owners. The few existing providers tend to be located in the country’s cities, whereas it is, almost by definition, the people in the countryside who generally are harmed by landmines.

UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, is helping to change this challenging situation. Working with global partner Clear Path International (CPI), UMCOR is providing funding to programs that operate on either side of the Myanmar/Thailand border.

“So far, the landmine issue is the problem that simply won’t go away,” says Francesco Paganini, UMCOR’s manager for international disaster response. “With our grants, we are making inroads into the situation in a multi-dimensional way.”

Perhaps ironically, it is often after some degree of normalcy returns to a conflict area that landmines can present an even greater threat than they did during all-out war. Myanmar’s recent move toward democracy, greater openness to the outside world, and more appreciation for inter-ethnic sensitivities has got people on the move again. A new agreement struck earlier this month between Myanmar and Thailand aims to ensure the return home of 100,000 Burmese refugees currently living in camps in Thailand; many of them have lived there through three decades. People on the move, and taking up new lives in new settings, are at greatest risk of encountering unexploded ordnance in Myanmar’s dangerous terrains.

Wounded helping wounded

In Loi Kaw, Myanmar, near the Thai border, technician Kyaw Win, who himself lost a leg to a landmine, prepares a plaster cast of an amputee’s leg while fitting a new artificial limb. Photo courtesy of CPI.

The UMCOR-supported CPI program seeks, on the Myanmar side of the border, to provide those in need with well-crafted prosthetics and to pass on the skills to practice the specialized craft. Survivors of landmine injuries themselves will become makers of prosthetics. As Paganini says “It’s all too common for a landmine survivor to face great challenges in finding employment.” And in the case of both makers and users of the prosthetics, entire families may benefit, since it is frequently the breadwinner who has been injured and deprived of a livelihood.

On both sides of the border, education programs aim at risk-reduction. On the Thailand side, where work centers on the many refugee-camp residents, 300 community health workers will be trained in MRE (Mine Risk Education), emphasizing all the essential measures needed to minimize the risk of injury from landmines. These workers will in turn educate members of the community at large, reaching a targeted total of 1,500 individuals. The overall aim is to bring this essential life- and limb-saving knowledge to an estimated 112,000 mainly Karen people.

It is hard to overestimate the seriousness of the need. Eastern Myanmar experiences about 1,500 casualties from landmines annually. A survey in Karen State by the global peace-promoting NGO, Nonviolence International, reveals that 80 percent of respondents feel threatened every day by landmines, and half of them reported having unknowingly entered areas that had been mined.

Besides preventive, risk-reduction work, UMCOR and CPI will provide closely targeted support for refugees who already have suffered injuries from landmine explosions. Many have crossed the border seeking medical assistance not available to them at home. UMCOR’s funding will help provide physical and psychosocial support at a residence known as Care Villa, situated in Mae La Refugee Camp close to the Thai town of Mae Sot, a main border-crossing with Myanmar.