Civilians Forced to Serve as Human Minesweepers
(New York) - The widespread use of landmines by the Burmese army against civilians to terrorize them and hamper the annual harvest season should cease, Human Rights Watch said today. The Burmese government is the only government in the world that has used antipersonnel mines on a regular basis throughout 2006.
Villagers and relief workers told Human Rights Watch that since the start of the harvest season in November, Burmese army soldiers have been laying increasing numbers of antipersonnel landmines in front of houses, around rice fields, and along trails leading to fields in order to deter civilians from harvesting their crops. They believe this has caused an alarming rise in civilian casualties in Mon township and the rest of northern Karen state. Human Rights Watch has grave concerns over the safety of civilians in conflict zones and their deteriorating food security as a result of widespread landmine use by the Burmese army.
“In order to separate ethnic armed groups from their civilian population, the Burmese army lays landmines and other explosive devices in order to maim and kill civilians,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is a concerted policy aimed at denying people their livelihoods and food or forcing them to risk losing limbs or lives.”
Last week, a Burmese army landmine planted in a kitchen in a village killed three men and wounded eight in the Baw Kwey Day area of Mon township in northern Karen state. The device was planted next to a fireplace in a private house.
Dozens of civilians have been injured and killed by landmines in northern Karen state during 2006 in one of the biggest Burmese army offensives in 10 years. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmine’s Landmine Monitor Report 2006, 231 people were killed or injured by landmines planted by government forces and non-state armed groups in 2005. Many more deaths and injuries go unreported.
Burmese soldiers have on many occasions used civilians as human minesweepers, forcing them to walk in front of government troops. Refugees and internally displaced persons call this “clearing the way” for Burmese soldiers; the UN special rapporteur for human rights has called this “atrocity demining,” borrowing the phrase used by Landmine Monitor. Human Rights Watch has received reports that, to demine areas to be traversed by the Burmese army, soldiers from the 66th Light Infantry Division forced civilians from 12 villages in Toungoo district in December to walk or ride tractors ahead of troops on the road between Toungoo and Mawchi.
The Burmese government has sometimes charged people who have stepped on landmines a “fine” for destroying state property. If they die, their family must pay the levy, which amounts to approximately US$10, a large sum in Burma.
“Making the family of a mine victim pay for their death or injury is about as twisted and cruel an irony imaginable,” said Adams. “Instead of fining victims, the government should stop using mines and provide assistance to all victims.”
The government of Burma is not among the 152 states that have joined the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which comprehensively prohibits use, production, trade and stockpiling of antipersonnel landmines. On October 26, 2006, prior to its vote against the annual UN General Assembly resolution supporting the treaty, the Burmese government stated, “We oppose the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel mines which causes death and injury to the innocent people all over the world,” but insisted on its right to use mines for “self-defense.” Yet Burmese forces use antipersonnel mines indiscriminately and as an offensive weapon against civilians and ethnic insurgents.
Many insurgent groups are also using landmines in Burma. According to Landmine Monitor, it is likely that the Karen National Liberation Army was the rebel group using mines most extensively in 2005 and 2006.
The Burmese army domestically manufactures its own antipersonnel mines. According to Landmine Monitor, Burma is now producing a variant of the US M14 blast mine, in addition to its long-standing production of versions of the Chinese Type 59 stake mine and Type 58 blast mine.
The Burmese government is violating international humanitarian law by using starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare. According to article 14 of the Second Additional Protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions, which is considered reflective of customary international law: “Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited. It is therefore prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless for that purpose, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as food-stuffs, agricultural areas for the production of food-stuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works.”
“The Burmese government has for too long targeted civilians with landmines and improvised explosive devices,” said Adams. “Living in fear of these silent and indiscriminate weapons is a daily challenge for hundreds of thousands of civilians in conflict zones.”