The savage toll from Burma's dirty war

The regime is the last in the world still planting mines and the rebels improvise their own devices. Liane Wimhurst meets the people caught in the middle

Ootepew lies with his withered leg under a mound of coarse blankets, his face stoical as he awaits an amputation. It is more than a week since he trod on a landmine outside his home in Burma's Kayin state, and his wounds have begun to fester. In a messy and bitter war between insurgent groups and the Burmese army that has spanned decades, this clandestine killer has become the weapon of choice.

Burma is the only regime in the world still planting landmines. A tenth of the Burmese population live just a few ill-chosen footsteps away from a blast that could maim or kill, according to the International Committee to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Despite this, the Burmese authorities still churn out mines modelled on old Chinese and US designs at the state-run ammunition factory.

The actual number of mines produced each year is unknown outside of the Burmese military, but it is likely to be in the thousands. "The anti-landmine campaign has been extremely successful: each year land has been cleared and stockpiles destroyed. This is simply not the case in Burma," says Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, research co-ordinator of the ICBL, a network of organisations that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

The Burmese government has long operated behind a veil of secrecy, making access to the nation's landmine casualty numbers extremely difficult. The ICBL counted 2,587 in the 10 years to the end of 2009 – 183 killed, 2,207 injured and 197 unknown. The actual figure is certain to be far higher. Ten years ago, Burma was in the top 10 countries for mine casualties. Five years ago it was in the top five. For the past three years it has been in the top three. The most recent data shows an average of around 4,000 landmine casualties globally each year. In every country in the world the number of casualties is dropping, apart from Burma, where they have remained high year on year.

Only Colombia and Afghanistan have more mine deaths and injuries each year than Burma. These two worst-offending nations are signed up to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, have destroyed their stockpiles of weapons, and are involved in a programme to de-mine. Burma is alone in having a widespread and relentless problem and doing nothing to address it.

The government's justification is that the country has long borders and a problem with people trafficking and drug running. But, as Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan explains: "Mine warfare in Burma is simply accepted military doctrine and it doesn't get reviewed."

Over the border in Thailand lies the hilltop town of Mae Sot, a halfway house for Burma's refugees. Burmese women with white circles painted on their cheeks and men draped in wrap-around lungis populate every corner. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium estimates that around 142,000 refugees live in camps around Mae Sot.

The sprawling humanitarian heartland of medical facilities and aid agencies faces the quagmire of shattered lives, displacement and disease caused each day by the war in Burma. The spectacle of those such as 70-year-old Ootepew, limbs crushed and writhing in agony, is familiar here. But the elderly patient is impassive, he just once betrays his emotions – when asked about his repatriation his sunken eyes flash a look of fear.

The Burmese military leadership and ethnic minority rebels have been locked in a brutal and volatile conflict for 50 years. In their struggles for autonomy, many insurgent groups have become caught up in long-running feuds with each other and splinter into new groups to take up arms.

When asked about the origin of the mine that mangled his leg Ootepew is unequivocal: it was the junta that planted it. Ethnic refugees, victims and campaigners in Mae Sot often solely level blame for landmine atrocities at the regime. The reality is more complex: the ICBL has counted 17 different militias scattering landmines in Burma since 1999. Burmese villagers are determined to ensure the junta is held responsible for every aspect of the humanitarian disaster, while the warlords who head the militias play Russian roulette with the lives of those in their own communities.

Government-made landmines are powerful enough to kill instantly. The rebel devices – rudimentary bombs consisting of a glass bottle stuffed with nuts and bolts – deliver bone-shattering, dirty wounds, much like Ootepew's injury.

Survivors face an amputation without anaesthetic in a wooden hut in the jungle, after which they will attach a bamboo shoot to their stump and attempt to walk. When the rebel landmine kills, it is a slow and painful death caused by gangrene or other infections. A lucky few, like Ootepew, are helped by friends to drag their shredded limb across the border to Thailand.

Agencies covertly collecting data on landmine "accidents" have recorded a spike in the number of victims spilling into Mae Sot since the start of the year. The recent influx started with an officer of the junta treading on an explosive device, sparking a wave of violence.

Dr Cynthia Maung is a witness to this upsurge. The Karen refugee arrived in Mae Sot more than 20 years ago, one of many pro-democracy activists who fled during the violent crackdown on the 1988 student uprising. She set up a clinic to help the tide of injured and displaced people turning up every day, and her workload has since sizeably increased.

From inside her makeshift accident and emergency unit, the walls of which are lined with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, the soft-spoken, weary-looking doctor says: "The people who come here don't know who they are. Many have been on the run for so long that they don't know where they're from or when their birthday is."

Ootepew will come here once his leg has been severed, as Dr Maung has established a dedicated prosthetic limb clinic. A Burmese woman, Mya Aye, has become a permanent resident since having both her legs blown off by a mine. Her torso lies face down on a flimsy bed in a hut, her two disused prosthetic limbs rest by her bed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates the total number of amputees in Burma to be 12,000, of whom the majority are likely to be landmine victims.

A recent undercover investigation by two European charities revealed widespread use of child soldiers, human shields and forced labour by both the junta and rebels. More than 800 mine victims were interviewed. The findings showed that children and villagers were forced to walk through infested areas to check for mines. Of the victims in the study, 13 per cent were children and around half were civilians.

The biggest thorn in the side of groups such as the ICBL is their inability to engage the government. There has been no official comment since 2009, when a foreign ministry representative spoke at a regional mine ban workshop in Bangkok. The government has shunned UN meetings.

Although rebel weapons contribute a significant part of the landmine blight in Burma, aid agencies argue that a strategy to combat the problem must start with the leadership. "If the authorities in the country can't join the Mine Ban Treaty today, they should at least order a moratorium on any new mine use and make serious offers to negotiate with the armed insurgency," says Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan.

The junta refuses to stop planting mines so long as the rebels continue to do so. The rebels, meanwhile, scatter explosive devices to ward off attacks by the junta. This puts the warring sides in a permanent state of stand-off, with innocent victims like Ootepew in the line of fire. Should current conditions prevail in Burma, where tensions can flare up again at any time – the tragic human waste from the insidious weapon lurking in the jungle will continue unabated.

Last November's election, the first in Burma for 20 years, was dismissed by western powers as a sham.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy boycotted the vote and a pro-junta party stormed to victory with an almost 80 per cent majority.

The new president, Thein Sein, is one of several generals of the junta who shed their uniform to contest the election. Although the military has officially handed power to the new government, members meet for just 15 minutes a day.

In such conditions the nation's scattered arsenal of explosive devices is unlikely to top the agenda. Meanwhile the human detritus lies strewn across the jungle.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'