Civilians in northern Myanmar face growing risks from landmines

Dang Zalian was out looking for something to feed his goat earlier this month when he stepped on a landmine.

The 25-year-old from Hakha township in northwestern Myanmar’s Chin state sustained serious injuries and is now recuperating in the hospital, said a member of his family who, like other sources interviewed for this story, spoke to RFA Burmese on condition of anonymity.

“It happened only 200 or 300 feet away from his home. He stepped on the mine while looking for goat food, leaving both of his legs injured,” the family member said. “The military troops are stationed on the campus and they’ve buried landmines around the school.”

Now Dang Zalian is worried that both of his legs will have to be amputated.

“Even if his legs aren’t amputated, they’ll never be the same again,” the family member said.

Dang Zalian’s story is an increasingly common one in Chin state, where the Chin Human Rights Organization says at least 11 civilians have been killed and 20 others injured by mines since Myanmar’s military seized power in a February 2021 coup.

The victims, many of whom are young, often lose limbs in the explosions and are disabled for life.

Chin civil society organizations told RFA that at least 37 members of anti-junta Chin Defense Force groups have also been killed by landmines since the coup.

Tragic toll

Dang Zalian is only the latest civilian to be maimed by a landmine in the state since the start of the year.

In February, two residents in Mindat township were seriously injured while traveling to the nearby township of Tilin.

On March 1, 34-year-old Slawm Bu stepped on a mine buried near the monument to Myanmar’s independence in Hakha’s Myo Thit Ward while she was on her way to tend to her farm. The blast destroyed her left leg, which she had to have amputated below the knee.

And on March 13, a man, woman and 17-year-old boy were left seriously injured when the motorcycle they were traveling on set off a mine in Tedin township, along Myanmar’s border with India.

Residents of Chin told RFA that landmines were never an issue prior to the coup. They said that these days, anywhere junta troops are stationed becomes a high risk area, including schools, urban roadsides, and the outskirts and farmland of more rural villages.

No longer feel safe

A resident of Hakha, who declined to be named for security reasons, said that they no longer feel safe when they have to enter the jungle or mountains to cut wood, grow crops or hunt.

“The local media has warned us not to go to places that we shouldn’t, such as where military junta troops are stationed, and not to go into mountains or jungle unless it is absolutely necessary,” the resident said.

“But we can’t live without going into the mountains or the jungle, so some of us have stepped on landmines because of that.”

Members of the anti-junta local militia in Myanmar’s Chin state examine the remains of a landmine allegedly planted by junta forces, Jan. 2022. Credit: Mindat CDFOther residents told RFA that not only junta troops, but also Chin Defense Force groups, deploy landmines in their conflict. But Chin National Front spokesperson Salai Htet Ni said that Chin revolutionary groups take care “not to harm civilians.”

“Either CNF troops or other local defense forces retrieve the landmines that we plant while fighting the junta forces, when the fighting is over,” he said. “We use the landmines carefully.”

“There has never been any civilian hurt because of us, although there have been times when our own members have been injured in accidents while handling the mines.”

Salai Htet Ni said that civilians “are only injured or killed by the military"s landmines.”

Targeting civilians

The director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, Salai Mang Henlian, told RFA that when the military encounters difficulties in ground operations, they often target civilians with landmines “to scare them and prevent them from supporting the local defense forces.”

“We have uncovered the junta’s systematic planting of landmines to attack civilians when we investigate mine incidents. We consider this a serious human rights violation and a war crime.”

Attempts by RFA to contact Thant Zin, the junta’s social affairs minister and spokesman for Chin state, about allegations that the military had intentionally targeted civilians went unanswered Tuesday. 

However, junta Deputy Information Minister Major Gen. Zaw Min Tun has previously told RFA that “the military does not bury landmines in areas where civilians live.”

Lway Po Myam, who promotes landmine awareness for the ethnic Ta’ang Youth Group, said residents of Chin state need to be better educated about the dangers of the explosives.

“People in other states, such as Kayin, are working on landmine awareness programs for civilians. Shan state is doing that, too,” he said. “They should network with other organizations to provide training to the people in Chin state.”

Lway Po Myam said awareness can spread more effectively by setting up a “training of trainers” program whereby safety instructors can educate a select group of people who will then share what they have learned with others.

According to the data compiled by RFA, at least 218 civilians were killed and 592 others injured by landmines, heavy artillery and airstrikes across Myanmar between August 2022 and the end of January.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in a report in April 2022 that at least 102 civilians were killed and 288 others injured by landmines and other explosive weapons in Myanmar since the coup. It said that the victims included 133 children and 257 adults – most of whom were residents of Rakhine, Chin, Kayah, Shan, and Sagaing states.

The tally was a 37 percent increase from a year earlier, when UNICEF said that a total of 284 people were killed or injured by landmines and other explosives in the country.

Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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