Andy Smith
Mine action specialist

Why is no demining happening in Myanmar/Burma?

Andy Smith (with Luke Atkinson)

In 2019 Burma still had lots of mines, many well recorded civilian casualties and intense outside scrutiny, yet there is no Humanitarian Demining happening? Why is that?

Burma/Myanmar has endured the longest civil war of the last century, with many of its provinces (States) in more or less constant conflict with the central government in Rangoon for 60+ years. Enter the diplomats (especially the USA) and, encouraged by the international community, the Generals in government took off their uniforms and formally began a new era of democracy and peace in 2011.

It is seven years since a ceasefire was agreed with most rebel groups and the main Humanitarian Mine Action agencies moved into the capital city to get Mine Action going. A National Mine Action Centre was established in Rangoon – but then they discovered that the agreements they had signed with the government meant that they could not actually demine anywhere until the Peace Accord had been ratified. I am told that the Rangoon office still stands empty. After considerable negotiation, they were permitted to organise some Mine Risk Education but the army is still in control and routinely turns away MRE workers when they try to cross into the affected areas, so not much MRE is actually happening. One may ask whether MRE delivered by people who do not know the devices (many improvised locally) or understand the conflict is really only a face saving exercise? The people know the threats which they and their livestock live with – and they simply want them removed. In areas without a power supply or shops, it is not an option for them to avoid gathering cooking wood, or avoid digging the land to grow their own food. Experience has shown that MRE and survey combined could have a place... but not without the means to follow up with actions to remove/destroy devices that none of those in the area want left in place.

In fact the ceasefire has been regularly breached and conflict has been more or less constant in one part of the country or another since it was agreed. This should not surprise anyone. Much of the country lacks roads, telephones, electricity or any kind of support infrastructure and as a result local government has become isolated, fragmented and paranoid. And it is not just the rebels who are slow to embrace peace. Continued attacks (including mine-laying) by central government forces means that a lack of trust makes complete sense. As a result, the various rebel groups do not want their defensive minefields removed, but they do want all the nuisance mines, ERW and superseded minefields removed.  After 60 years of conflict, there is quite a lot that could be done.

I was asked to go help with just such an initiative in 2014. There was no money and the work had to be conducted in a low-key manner because it went against the orders of the central government. It was requested by the State authorities and strictly limited to the removal of unwanted minefields that were injuring civilians and getting in the way of the social and economic development that should be the 'peace dividend'. The area cleared was around a village and a new school (which had been built by international NGOs) so a priority to everyone. All the mines found were of local manufacture. The area had been invaded/disputed several times in its history so it was no surprise that some of the ordnance we located had been used by central government forces.

Politics in Myanmar is anything but simple. In a single State there may be many groups claiming some kind of leadership, and many views about how best to end the conflict. Disagreement over land rights and the exploitation of the natural resources (gold, gems, teak and rare earths) complicate the peace negotiations – already hampered by an intense mutual distrust. So when will a national Peace Accord be signed? Realistically, that may be for the next generation – but maintaining some kind of ceasefire can make it more likely by allowing people to have things they would lose if they returned to conflict. This means that they need the freedom to move around and develop their lives without losing people and livestock to unwanted mines and explosive hazards.

From experience I can state that clearing mines in Myanmar is not difficult. It can be hard work and slow, but as long as it is thorough, it does not have to be fast. When I asked what the people wanted, I found that they wanted to be trained to do it themselves. I could almost hear the Rangoon officials shouting “No” because we would be training them to be able to clear the government’s own minefields. They do not understand that thorough humanitarian mine clearance on a budget always relies on the cooperation of everyone around, so cannot be conducted covertly.

I went there to work with another international. It was his initiative and he worked really hard, earning the respect of everyone. I made a little machine to help – it cost almost nothing and it was very useful in that place against that threat. It was built around a rice tractor that is back in use ploughing the fields now that there is no demining happening. I used my Minelab F3 a bit, and if the money were there for metal-detectors, they would have been really useful. Having no money meant that most of the clearance was done by locals using the well-proven REDS raking system because that is low cost, thorough, and truly sustainable without much in the way of international support.

Physical hardship and lack of cash aside, it was easy to demine where I was in Myanmar so why are the others not doing so? Apparently some INGOs have tried to sidestep the government restrictions but were reined back. When I told those leading the MAC in Rangoon what we were doing in the hope of getting their support, I got strained patience and an idiot’s guide to the complexity of the politics. I argued that setting an example of the kind of thing that could be a 'Peace dividend' was the way forward – working with other NGOs to establish the necessary basic health centres, schools and income generating activities (development NGOs are already doing stuff, of course). This is the obvious way to make a return to conflict an unpopular option and only when a return to fighting is unpopular with the people will a real Peace Accord ever happen. We will not make that happen more quickly by doing nothing.  The development NGOs know this and they are having to work around the mine threat while the demining NGOs wait.

Humanitarian Demining started in Cambodia while Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were still active, and in Angola while Savimbi’s UNITA was first fighting, then signed a peace, then fighting again. For years before the Western invasion, the Northern Alliance were still bombarding Kabul and killing Afghan deminers while humanitarian demining took place. I was in these places and no one suggested that it was not worthwhile clearing the hazards that served no military purpose BEFORE any hope of a formal Peace Accord was in place. The presence of humanitarian deminers is a demonstration that there is another way, a humanitarian option. It offers employment to non-combatants and support to other NGOs trying to help those worst affected in a conflict they cannot control. All those mines and munitions that are cleared now would still have needed to be cleared later – unless they had ruined more lives by detonating whilst we were wringing our hands and doing nothing. Why else are we doing any demining in Sudan?

I was also in Sri Lanka, working with both Tamils and Sinhalese. That effort may have ended in a monstrous inhumanity but still every mine and ERW dealt with during the ceasefire did not have to be cleared after the government imposed 'peace' by exterminating its opposition. Demining in Sri Lanka was not a waste of time and effort. The attempt to support the ceasefire in Sri Lanka is an example we should all learn from because it almost worked. Conversely, the extreme Sinhalese solution to a stalled ceasefire in Sri Lanka is not an example we would want anyone to follow, but it is widely believed that the Generals in Rangoon asked the Sri Lankan government for advice on how best to 'impose' peace in Myanmar. By doing nothing we appear to support that or, worse, we appear to accept genocide as inevitable.

I was told that we were 'Maverick deminers'”. Apparently, it is neither responsible nor sensible for us to train to clear the hazards that serve no military purpose on behalf of the civilians and with the approval of the local authorities. Of course, I was told this by people who were not there, but their disapproval still left me scratching my head. Whatever happened to the 'Humanitarian' in humanitarian mine action? Is it really true that all the main HMA NGOs are now run by people with no idealism and no concern for those least able to protect themselves? Do those international HMA organisations in Rangoon really like maintaining an expensive and entirely ineffective presence there? Does serving the blundering Mine Action bureaucracy really take precedence over serving the people?

Village demining is happening informally and sporadically throughout Myanmar and people are needlessly maimed because they do it, or because they don’t. If anyone had funded (or taken over) our low-cost and genuinely effective effort in one affected State, I am confident that they would have seen it expand because other States would have followed when they see there was no disadvantage in doing so. A funding application for well planned work that had the full approval of the State authorities in one area was put together. This low-cost proposal combined survey, marking, MRE – and the removal of hazards when everyone in the area agreed to that. It would have made everyday life safer, encouraged the maintenance of peace, and recorded what was done for future reference, but it did not attract support. No surprise really: who wants to support Mavericks?

Yes, the work on the ground might not always have been strictly compliant with all of the detail in the IMAS – but those amongst us with integrity know that demining has rarely been able to achieve that while central government is putting barriers in the way. And even after the change of government in Myanmar, the generals retained the power. There are corrupt fortunes being made from the instability in the country, so will humanitarian demining ever be allowed?

It seems that stating the blindingly obvious may be necessary:
“to start from where we are and make it better as we go is far better than to do nothing at all”.

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