The Myanmar junta, which launched a coup in February 2021 claiming that the election of 2020 was fraudulent, is planting landmines all over the country. It is doing this as revenge against its political opposition. From its perspective, every citizen it is injuring or killing deserves what happens to them because of their connection to the junta’s political and civil adversaries. Landmines in Myanmar are not only costing lives, but they are hurting Myanmar’s economy.
The Coup: Death and Destruction
Guerrilla forces have planted landmines in Myanmar since 1999, but the coup in February 2021 caused a resurgence in their use. During a period of 19 months, catastrophic explosions caused 157 deaths and 395 injuries. The newly-formed junta has ordered health care officials to refuse treatments for landmine injuries. Meanwhile, it has also personally placed mines in homes, church compounds and farms. The junta has been implicated in committing major violations of war crimes.
The Coup: The UN and Amnesty International Advocate Sanctions and Aid
In January 2023, Acting President Myint Swe extended the national state of emergency for another six months. When the country is in a state of emergency, it cannot hold elections. This strategy keeps the junta in power.
In response, the United Nations has called on member nations to form a coalition to impose sanctions on Myanmar. It considers the junta illegitimate and cites reports about the devastation since the junta took control in 2021. The U.N. special envoy to Myanmar noted that more than 17.5 million Myanmar residents needed humanitarian aid in 2023 versus 1 million before the takeover. Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Adviser Rawya Rageh noted, “There is an urgent need for a scaled-up humanitarian response that addresses rising food insecurity and ensures proper rehabilitative, psychosocial, and other needed care for landmine survivors, as well as adequate planning for and resourcing of post-conflict demining operations, to clear contaminated areas.”
Not only do the landmines hurt Myanmar residents physically and emotionally, but the junta’s coup and the internal fighting between the resistance fighters and the military have also devastated Myanmar’s economy. A run on banks immediately following the coup resulted in a lack of cash in ATMs. This especially hurts farmers and local merchants who depend on mobile banking. Myanmar suffered an 18% GDP contraction in 2021. Foreign investment is down. Inflation is soaring and since the coup rice prices increased by 50%. Forty percent of Myanmar civilians now live below the poverty line.
In 2021, China gave $6 million to fund landmine deployment and other military activity in Myanmar. On the other hand, that same year the United States sent $50 million that same year for COVID-19 aid that circumvented the military and went directly to international organizations and non-governmental organizations that provide direct aid to civilians. Meanwhile, in 2022, Min Aung Hlang, the Junta Chief, has approved an additional $150 million to fund its operations, especially because the resistance has been successfully fighting back.
Fighting the Junta: NUG
Fortunately, there is additional pushback against the junta on several fronts. First, the resistance movement, which the National Unity Government (NUG) is leading, has begun to claim territory from the military. In fact, 71% of townships engaged in resistance activities in 2022 which is a more than 10% increase in resistance engagement since 2021. The military actually controls only 17% of the country with the rest contested land or NUG-controlled land. Zachary Abuza, a southeast Asia policy expert, argues that in addition to “hollowing out” the military, NUG needs to fight economically by pushing for more sanctions and urging countries to discontinue support of the military-controlled oil and gas pipelines.
Global Efforts to Ridding the World of Landmines
In addition to NUG’s internal pushback, global efforts to rid the world of landmines are intensifying. The European Union (EU) and the United Nations (U.N.) are taking the lead on mine clearance and support of affected communities globally and in Myanmar. In addition to the actual mine clearance, the EU support includes research and development on mine detection, risk education and stockpile destruction.
The U.N. sponsors an annual International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action each April 4. In 2022, it launched the campaign, “Safe Ground, Safe Steps and Safe Homes.” Safe Ground focuses on “turning minefields into playing fields” — clearing areas of mines. Safe Steps refers to the goal of helping people feel confident that they won’t maim or kill themselves by stepping on a mine. It also refers to the technology that deminers use to clear contaminated areas. Finally, Safe Homes refers to the goal of people in communities with landmines to reestablish a sense of safety in their communities and in their homes.
These efforts are working. Today 164 nations have signed the Mine Ban Treaty (also called the Ottawa Treaty) to ban the production, use and stockpiling of landmines. The Mine Ban states have destroyed more than 55 million stockpiled mines. They also cleared more than 132.5 square kilometers of contaminated land in 2021 alone. The path to removing landmines in Myanmar will not be an easy one, but with continued global efforts against landmines and NUG’s efforts to join the global campaign, it should proceed steadily. NUG’s gains in convincing the global community to condemn the junta and punish it economically should further drive success in ridding the Myanmar people of deadly and illegitimate landmines. That will also help restore Myanmar’s troubled economy because people will be able to farm their land, work in their villages, attract foreign investors and return to a more robust role as exporters.
– Robin Kalellis