When I was in Burma on my first trip, we had a guide leading us through the jungle who seemed to know every inch of the place. This was before my military experience, and I was fairly young and certainly dumb, but I did my best to follow all instructions laid out by light hearted, humorous but ultimately rough man who accompanied us. We would walk for a while, take a break, drink water, and then walk again. On and on and on — it was a good introduction into rucking.
Our guide always told me never to step off the path — there were landmines strewed about in that neck of the woods, and though the paths had been cleared fairly recently, no one had cleared beyond the paths. If you had to pee, you had to do it from the safety of the path, or in a designated area that was cleared. It wasn’t a big deal and it wasn’t a big source of drama — just stay on the path, which was a pretty easy thing to do, considering the rest of it was thick, merciless jungle that would probably kill me landmines or not.
We eventually wound up on a dried up creek bed, heaving our way up the rocks one by one. I had to relieve myself, so I stepped to the side of the same creek bed, sure to stay on the larger rocks.
I got yelled at. Despite the fact that we were on a large creek bed full of boulders and huge rocks where nothing could be buried, the threat was still very real. The guide was taking us a specific way through the creek bed, and I had wrongfully assumed that meant the entire creek bed was clear and safe. Deviating from that path was an absolute no-go. Would anything likely happen to me if I stepped on a large, obviously clear boulder that was off the path? It’s not likely, as something would have had to be placed under or right next to the boulder, but people shouldn’t bet their lives on things that probably won’t happen, especially out there.
Needless to say, I was snapped back to reality and I didn’t deviate from the path again.
The conflicts in Myanmar/Burma are consistently hitting international news — be it in regards to the violence up in Kachin State, the teetering cease fire with the Karen, or of course the massive offensive against the Rohingya and their subsequent refugee crisis on the border of Bangladesh. The military’s tools of war are generally things like small arms or indirect fire, and some terrorism-style violence like using rape as a weapon. The biggest killer is undoubtedly the devastation of any semblance of a health care system, which winds up with scores of people losing their lives to preventable diseases, like diarrhea or malaria, or skyrocketing infant mortality rates.
However, there is another prevalent danger that literally lies just beneath the surface: landmines.
Mines are scattered all across the Burmese countryside; many are remnants from old conflicts, many have been strategically placed more recently.
Most groups will wind up pointing the finger of blame at one another — one ethnic group says the government is responsible, the government says the ethnic minorities are responsible. It’s difficult to tell, though judging by the track record of the Burma Army, the intelligence on the ground, and the simple availability and resources of the government compared to these ethnic groups, the Army is usually the one to shoulder the blame.
According to a local news report, 3 civilians were killed in Shan State last month by landmines. The Myanmar Red Cross says that 95 were killed and 106 wounded by landmines in between the years 2014 and 2018. This is a real and continuous threat that is killing civilians. Not only is it devastating to those who step on the mines, but it also takes a terrible toll on those who see the jungle as their home. They live under constant threat of happening to step on the wrong spot and losing a limb, or worse, their life.
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When I was in Burma on another trip, a member of one of the ethnic groups’ armed factions very clearly outlined their ROEs to me: The Burma Army is notorious for laying mass amounts of landmines as a sort of blocking mechanism. Sometimes they will drive entire populations out of their villages, take what they need, and lay landmines. That way when the people come back for their belongings or to bury their dead, they are hit with mines as well and the Army doesn’t have to lift another finger in inflicting further casualties.
Conversely, the rebel groups also lay mines strategically. However, the man I spoke to took pride in the fact that they would construct and lay battery-powered mines. These would die and be completely ineffective after their life span was complete, which he described as being around 24 hours. Some of the mines the government places (or some of the other fighting minority groups) could lay dormant for much longer, which then becomes a danger to everyone in the area.
Featured image: In this Feb. 13, 2012 photo, a Kachin soldier is treated by a doctor at a hospital near Laiza, the area controlled by the Kachin in northern Myanmar, after he was injured by a landmine on the frontline against Myanmar government troops. The Kachin ethnic minority was promised its freedom in 1948, and is still waiting for the military-backed government to deliver. Meanwhile, the war continues to generate waves of refugees and allegations of atrocities. | AP Photo/Vincent Yu