Burma’s Landmines: Lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh

19 February 2018

Burma is currently experiencing a mass exodus of refugees and thousands of internally displaced (IDP) caused by decades of armed conflict between the Military junta and ethnic Non-State Armed Groups (NSAG’s). Locals face landmine attacks, utilised by Government forces (Tatmadaw) and NSAGs to secure territory and resources from opposition groups. The long-term impact of this on locals extends beyond the active war period, as experienced in Nagorno-Karabakh. Following years of war with Azerbaijan (1988-1994, and most recently in 2016), Nagorno-Karabakh has endured the consequences of landmine use, still living with APMs (anti-personnel mines) and UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) from over 20 years ago.

APMs aka the ‘sleeping soldier’ can lie in wait for up to 200 years, claiming lives long after wars end. Princess Diana’s walk through the minefields in Angola in 1997 brought much needed attention to landmines, and provided the impetus for the Ottawa Convention with 162 States signing the mine ban treaty. Most states and non-states not part of the treaty, have been understood to not use or produce landmines in any capacity, however this is not the case for Burma and Nagorno-Karabakh.


Why have landmines been used?

The internal conflict in Burma has seen ethnic tensions taking centre stage as minority groups become targets in a larger campaign. The onslaught against the Shan and Kachin people in the North has been an attempt at land grabbing tactics by Militia to obtain access to valuable resources during counterinsurgency operations. Both the Tatmadaw and NSAGs occupy villages to use as defence posts, while simultaneously holding on to valuable gem mines. Moreover, villages along the Salween River in the East are being forcibly evacuated to make way for large dam projects.

The Tatmadaw and NSAGs ensure villagers don’t return by scattering landmines in heavily civilian populated areas, across fields, roads and footpaths with no visible markings or warning signs. At least 14% of victims encounter mines within 1/2km of their village, left vulnerable to the terror of AMPs. In Shan State, reports of monks killed by landmine explosions right outside their village was documented by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (see image below).

Map Showing location of attacks faced by Monks in Mong Nawng, Shan State in November 2015

This has also been a concern for the Rohingya, who have lost limbs during the border crossing to Bangladesh. When questioned about APMs along the Bangladesh-Burma border, the Tatmadaw denied the presence of any newly laid devices, claiming any left were the remnants of mines laid in the 1990s. If this is true, it demonstrates the long-term impact of UXOs, lying in wait for the next victim. Burma has been noted as one of the few countries actively using and producing landmines since 1997. Consequently, Burma is one of the most heavily mined countries (mainly Eastern Burma), with 9 of 14 states contaminated.

Similarly, Nagorno-Karabakh has one of the highest per capita incidences of accidents in the world. For a region focused on clearance since 2000, the International Campaign for Banning Landmines (ICBL) exposed in 2013 that mine use was still in operation. The Military responded that landmines remain an effective form of defence against Azerbaijani military aggression, which is not aimed at civilians. Although the intention to use APMs may be purely defensive to protect their borders, landmines cannot determine who is the enemy. In Harar Village, Nagorno-Karabakh, the landmine site has lost 3 civilians and dozens of livestock to UXOs since the end of the war in 1994. It is disturbing that there are still victims from the weapons of a war that ended 24 years ago (HALO has recently had an anonymous donor match donated funds of $49,000 to clear Harar village).

The lesson for Burma is that landmines cannot tell the difference between the enemy and civilians. While they may seem to be a cheap and effective weapon at the time, landmines don’t only target the intended enemy, leaving civilians to pay the price – a life shrouded in constant fear and danger long after wars have concluded.


What has been the impact of Landmines?


The main impact of landmines is the number of victims that have been amassed which is a useful indicator for the presence of APMs. In Burma, landmine surveys have never been conducted mainly because their existence and use by the Tatmadaw has been largely kept quiet. Therefore, estimates rely on the number of incidents reported and although inaccurate, are the best indication of the extent of the landmine issue. The number of casualties reported between 1999-2014 was tallied at 3,745, one of the highest casualty rates in the world according to the Landmine Monitor, although the ICBL estimates this figure is closer to 40,000. This is compounded by the high number of injuries sustained, reaching 251 by 2014. Recent reports show a decrease in casualty rates, from 100 in 2014 to 66 in 2015, however this excludes unreported incidents – hardly a positive indication of change. Between 2007-14, Kayin State (36%), Bago region (24%) and Kachin State (21%) were identified as having the highest proportion of casualties. These statistics highlight geographic strategy centralises attacks throughout the Eastern States (see below).


Map showing the geographic specificity of landmines in Eastern Burma
UN MIMU/ Landmine Monitor/ 2013

In contrast with Nagorno-Karabakh, landmines were (and continue to be) strategically placed in a belt along borders. As mine clearance has been a focus with the help of The HALO Trust installing effective data collection mechanisms, landmines still take a significant number of lives. As of November 2017, there have been 370 casualties (1/3 of whom were children), notwithstanding the 11,400 mines and 61,200 cluster munitions and UXO that have been cleared since 2000 (HALO have recently cleared Myurishen Village in November 2017). For Nagorno-Karabakh to still experience casualties from UXOs is unfortunate, but it can be managed to save possible future victims.


Poor access to healthcare results in high casualty rates among landmine victims. The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) has been instrumental in building a sustainable solution for this, putting in to place training, facilities and free services for regions affected by APMs in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Burma. From supplying essential drugs to organising training sessions to opening new centres, they have made a significant impact on the services available for landmine victims.  By addressing the lack of specific healthcare and its poor accessibility they have made significant strides in emergency and rehabilitation response.

Livelihoods, Displacement and Development

Casualty rates have a knock-on effect on the livelihoods of families living with landmines. Losing a family member or even sustaining an injury can result in trauma and reduced income, leading to marginalisation from society. In Nagorno-Karabakh, one family commented on the impact of landmines on their livelihood:



A survey conducted amongst Burmese mine attack survivors showed that they struggled to re-join the workforce after sustaining an injury, which led to significant debt from being unable to cover the costs of medical care. The study recommended that survivors should be provided livelihood assistance and socioeconomic reintegration which is fundamental in ensuring no one is left behind.

Another consequence of landmines is its impact on agriculture, further affecting livelihoods. No cultivation means lost income and displacement to secure livelihoods. In Nagorno-Karabakh, demining has allowed the harvesting of wheat and grapes to be resumed across 37 million sqm of arable land through irrigation channels, restoring job opportunities. For Burma however, the scattering of mines shuts off access to farms altogether, moving residents of Shan and Kachin State to call for APM clearance. One farmer in Shan State was forcibly removed from his land and refused return as APMs were laid by Tatmadaw officers, losing his monthly income of THB 800,000 ($800).  Another example is Kyaw Win who lost his leg in 2007 to a mine explosion and was no longer able to work and support his family. His children took over this role, but had to move to Thailand.

The threat of mines further affects livelihoods by preventing return. Over 100,000 have been displaced, mostly from the Kachin and Shan States (with a further 100,000 fleeing to Thailand) from land grabs. The camp residents have been devastated further by the recent decision to cease international aid. IDPs are living without basic Human Rights, without the option to return home, nor the ability to farm due to the harsh terrain. The use of APMs has severely affected their independence and without a plan to address this issue, the number of victims will only go up should return be attempted. The thousands displaced in Nagorno-Karabakh during the war were able to return or be resettled following the 1994 ceasefire. It is clear that this could only have been possible because of a cessation of hostilities combined with a focus on mine clearance.

Landmines also block infrastructural development by occupying land, denying access to water, roads and health services. In Burma, plans for development were suspended because of APM contamination. Conversely, since 90% of contamination has been cleared in Nagorno-Karabakh, many villages have had gas and water supplies installed. For this type of basic development to be possible in Burma, Military hydro projects that have secured considerable foreign investment and displaced thousands to benefit neighbouring energy demands need to be countered first.

The lesson for Burma is that landmines cannot tell the difference between war and peacetime. If landmine use is not stopped sooner rather than later, civilians will be dealing with APMs for decades, much like Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite the progress that organisations like HALO and ICRC are making, without universal recognition of the Ottawa Convention and commitment to initiatives such as the Landmine Free by 2025 campaign, APMs will continue to be a problem.


What can be done to remove the threat of landmines?

There is no agreement on how to counter landmine use, but the Landmine Free 2025 campaign backed by the UN and Prince Harry have certainly got the ball rolling. Becoming landmine free is feasible with a few steps that need to work concurrently. During the 20th Anniversary of the Ottawa Convention, a UNDP spokesperson highlighted an action plan for this involving advocacy, fundraising and cooperation. The 20th anniversary has kick-started a dialogue around mine use, however donor restrictions and international cooperation could slow the momentum.

USAID is one of the largest donors of HALO’s work in Nagorno-Karabakh, but their funding confines work to areas bordering Azerbaijan. Although 96% of minefields have been cleared, political motivations dictating where demining takes place undermines the campaign’s universal appeal.

Another hurdle is the lack of NGO involvement, often prevented by the hosting Government. For instance in Burma, where the transition to a civilian government; a Mine awareness day; and the first visit by ICBL led many to believe steps were being taken to address the issue, but nothing has materialised. This is because NGO’s cannot work without the full consent of the Government which involves the Tatmadaw who are the main culprits of landmine use. Secondly, NGO’s cannot operate because of the distrust between armed groups who are concerned with the loss of strategic posts. Thirdly, NGO’s would need to build trust within Burma before moving in, because their reputation is not enough.

Regardless, if these obstacles are overcome, this process will take time. For now, the focus in Burma should be on Mine Risk Education (MRE) and healthcare which can reduce the number of casualties drastically. For landmines to no longer present a threat, the most important step would be to first engage in a formal ceasefire, begin demining and finally sign the Ottawa Convention, eradicating the use and production of landmines for the future. With this, we could be Landmine Free by 2025.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made on the blog

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