A young landmine survivor gets treatment at a clinic in Mae Sot on the Myanmar-Thailand border.
Photo courtesy of Clear Path International
By David Tereshchuk *
June 11, 2013—The ancient Southeast Asia country of Burma, renamed Myanmar by its military rulers in 1989, has been re-entering the global community of nations after decades of great isolation.
Its moves toward democracy have been cautiously welcomed by many around the world, but its internal strife—so long hidden from outside eyes—is also disturbing many people of compassion.
UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has been lending support for Burmese survivors of violence, primarily in partnership with Clear Path International (CPI), since 2009 and now is ramping up that support, focusing on aid to survivors of the country’s many landmines.
Although fully verifiable numbers are difficult to come by, landmine accidents are undoubtedly increasing. The international watchdog group, Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor, has painstakingly confirmed reports of at least 3,000 landmine-related casualties in Burma since 1999.
The actual number can realistically be expected to be far greater, with some generally reliable sources estimating that injury-causing or fatal explosions occur at a rate of more than 1,000 every year. Currently, for example, in Karen State alone, in the east of the country, one person is harmed every day by a landmine; 67 per cent of the state’s amputees are landmine survivors.
Ironically—even perhaps perversely—the evident determination of the transitional government elected by popular vote in 2010 to seek ceasefires and peace agreements—and the resulting de-escalation of conflict—have been in part an unintended cause of many new casualties as people increasingly begin to move across the country.
Some of the country’s displaced persons, who number in total an estimated 446,000 individuals in the eastern states on the Thai border, and 46,900 registered and unregistered refugees in camps in Thailand, are beginning to return home. Inevitably they are moving through heavily mined territory, thick with munitions laid by both state and non-state armed forces. Civilian communities too, have been known to lay mines to protect their homes from marauding armed groups.
Following some easing of government restrictions on international aid work inside Burma, CPI, with UMCOR support, is offering humanitarian assistance, public education about the risks of mines, the provision of prosthetics to mine-injured amputees, and long-term rehabilitation for the injured.
The work runs, in valuable fashion and counter to the prevailing move in international assistance funding, away from the border states as the country’s security climate in general shows some improvement. The sad truth is that minefield casualties are a continuing, and currently a spiking, legacy of this conflict.
In both Karen State and Karenni State, each bordering Thailand, this year’s immediate plan includes the manufacture and placement of 25,000 highly visible, bright-red warning signs in landmine-infested areas. Working with local partners, the project identifies and marks areas that have landmines in order to alert people and keep them safe.
Local community health workers will receive intensive training in mine-recognition, public safety precautions, methods of retreating and rescuing people from mine fields, and basic emergency medical treatment for accident survivors. The training also involves the health workers in the ongoing dissemination of their knowledge and protocols within their communities.
For survivors of landmines , the program foresees the provision of custom-designed and fitted prostheses, involving assessment visits to survivors’ homes (or sometimes transportation to take them to a fitting-center), and long-term rehabilitative care.
Support for amputees will also involve, as indicated by CPI’s experience here and in other countries, special housing when needed and even food, as well as access to medical attention on a 24-hour basis. The challenges facing such injured and deeply traumatized citizens will often require them to get psycho-social support, as well as help in establishing new sustainable livelihoods. Such assistance is a vital part of the UMCOR-supported CPI plan.
Francesco Paganini, UMCOR’s manager of International Disaster Response said, “With UMCOR support, CPI is deliberately enrolling local organizations and training local people to continue the work long into the future, which is always needed with landmine programs. Because mines continue do their damage well after fighting may have finished, the problem will continue to exist, even when emergency assistance funds from overseas will have dried up. The importance of transferring skills to local partners can’t be over-stressed.”
And, he continued, “this program is so comprehensive and holistic—it even offers landmine survivors the means to be economically productive members of society through offers of credit and other supports. This is so important because these survivors often encounter challenges and barriers when engaging in income-generating activity.”
Your gift to International Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #982450, will help landmine survivors of Myanmar and others impacted by warfare’s long-lasting harm.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who regularly contributes to www.umcor.org.