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Richard S. Ehrlich: Landmine Torture Burmese Style

Landmine Torture Burmese Style

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Burma's military is killing people by forcing them to walk across minefields to reveal where explosives are buried, and Burmese rebels are buying U.S. landmines on the blackmarket, causing death and injury to soldiers and civilians, a Landmine Monitor researcher said.

Landmine Monitor is an initiative of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which is a 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Co-Laureate.

"Atrocity demining is the use of human beings to remove landmines," said Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, an American, who is Landmine Monitor's researcher on Burma.

"More and more people are being taken for forced demining who are prisoners" in Burma, Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan said in a taped interview.

"In a suspected mine area, they [the regime] will take these people and they will march them ahead of military units to trigger any mines that may be there, intentionally to detonate any mines that may be there," he said.

"Up to 70 percent of these people die during their military service. They can die being caught in the cross-fire, they can die due to malnutrition and malaria, but they are also being killed by landmines, by being casualties simply in a war zone but also as human mine sweepers," he said.

London-based Amnesty International, Washington-based Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented "human mine sweepers" dating back to 1985, he said.

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Asked about the evidence, Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan, who is based in Thailand, replied: "It is mostly reports from people who have escaped portering [for the military] and have crossed the border into this country, because they were fleeing that type of service."

Landmine Monitor's researcher said, "The number of [death or injury] cases we can verify in a year would be only two or three, but consistently we have been able to specifically say in these cases, 'we know it is happening'. We get allegations of many more."

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is Southeast Asia's biggest country and consistently denies all allegations of atrocities and human rights violations.

The secretive, xenophobic regime forbids independent verification of claims made victims, dissidents and investigators, but Burma is widely considered to be one of the world's worst violators of human rights.

Burma's military government refuses to recognize a 1990 landslide election victory by the National League for Democracy party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the world's most famous political prisoner.

The regime is also fighting a handful of minority ethnic guerrillas who demand autonomy or independence for the scattered regions where they live.

Some of these rebels also illegally produce heroin and methamphetamines which are smuggled to America, Europe and elsewhere.

The military and rebels bury landmines in mountainous jungles as defensive and offensive weapons, making the countryside treacherous for everyone, including civilians, the Landmine Monitor researcher said.

Every few months, a Landmine Monitor researcher goes to Burma to investigate and ask the regime to ban the use of landmines or at least begin demining.

"In the last eight years, I've probably gone there about 20 times. I will be there for a week or two weeks and during that time I will meet people in various ministries, but also within UN agencies, international non-governmental organizations and businesses," Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan said.

Landmine injuries are widespread, he said.

"You'll see a beggar and you ask him, 'What happened?' and he will give you the [gesture] sign of something exploding. If you look at their injury, it is the type you find from a mine injury. You'll see shrapnel in the opposite limb that is still there."

President George W. Bush recently tightened economic sanctions on Burma to emphasize America's demand that the military step down, release Mrs. Suu Kyi from detention, and allow her National League for Democracy party to rule.

Washington however is "neutral and indifferent" to the use of landmines in Burma, Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan said.

"They have the major [economic] sanctions on that country but that really doesn't affect the landmine problem," he said.

"I would like him [President Bush] to have the moral authority to speak on the matter," by signing the international Mine Ban Treaty and stop using landmines on the Korean peninsula, Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan said.

In 1975, when America lost its wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the U.S. military's legacy of death and destruction inadvertently spread because they left a huge quantity of landmines.

"Since they are not needed for warfare in Cambodia and Vietnam any longer, they are being sold on the blackmarket and predominately they go to Burma," the Landmine Monitor researcher said.

"You will find U.S.-made landmines in Burma," he said, including M-14, M-16 and M-18 mines, mostly used by Burma's rebels.

"The M-16 is a horrific mine. It is what we call a 'bounding mine'. It has a small charge that blows the mine out of the ground until it is around chest-height, at which point it has an extremely high explosive charge in it, and it sends out lethal shrapnel over an extremely broad area," Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan said.

"It is made to wipe out a whole platoon of soldiers," he said.

"The M-18 is commonly known as a claymore. It is a directional mine. Originally it was designed for perimeter defense around military bases and was triggered only by a guard. Now these things can be fitted with other fuses and they can be triggered by a victim.

"In that configuration, they are banned by the Mine Ban Treaty. These things are used offensively in Burma...they are not used as they were originally designed to be used," he said.

Guerrillas using landmines include the Karen tribe who are often helped by U.S. and other foreign aid groups because many Karen are Baptist and dwell along Burma's eastern border close to Thailand, within easy access to the outside world.

"The Karen are a major mine user. They use them also indiscriminately," Mr. Moser-Puangsuwan said.

"The Karen National Liberation Army is the armed wing of the Karen National Union, which is a political organization. They explain to us consistently that the mines they lay do not harm civilians, that they tell everybody in a village where they have laid the mines, and therefore there are no [civilian] casualties.

"However, with the [civilian] landmine survivors that we have interviewed...never once did any of them ever say that they were warned by a [rebel] soldier where the mines were.

"There are some areas of Burma, specifically in the border areas of Karen and Karenni states close to the Thai border, that the landmine situation is reaching the saturation point of some of the worst parts of Cambodia," he said.

Burma's government, meanwhile, is manufacturing new landmines, thanks to initial assistance from its closest ally, China.

"We believe the Chinese sold the machines and were involved in technical assistance," starting around 1995, enabling Burma to make landmines.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines meanwhile issued its latest global "Landmine Monitor Report 2003" on Sept. 9.

The organization and its affiliates also scheduled 11 days of meetings, press conferences and other events in Thailand to publicize the report and gather representatives from nations which signed the Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention.

Their schedule includes a demonstration of demining in Thailand, discussions with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines' ambassador, Jody Williams, and briefings with landmine survivors, diplomats, Thai government officials and others at the UN headquarters in Bangkok from Sept. 15-19.


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is


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