Addressing Landmine Contamination within the Myanmar Peace Process: The Case of Karen State

Gregory Cathcart and Saw Chit Thet Tun examine how Mine Action activities could ignite movement in the current peace process in Karen State.

Official aspirations for landmine removal in Karen State are occurring alongside deeply- held community anxieties that their removal will increase the presence of militarised actors. Such tensions reflect a contrast between national/international efforts to promote humanitarian mine action and community fears that such actions are part of strategies to remove a line of defence and deterrence. The continued presence of militarised actors in ceasefire areas threatens to result in these actors further expanding their networks of militarised power over areas of community controlled resources.

Given the fact that parties to the ceasefire have not progressed significantly towards an agreement on security governance reform, it should not come as a surprise that, as a primary issue related to security, agreement on the removal of landmines has been delayed. As a part of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) signed in October 2015 between the Union Government and nine Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs, three of which are present within Karen State), negotiation on security sector reform, termed, “security reintegration processes,” was noted by commentators and those party to the ceasefire early in negotiations as a difficult subject to discuss.

While such difficulties have not yet reached the position of a negative peace, they underline the patience that is required to negotiate and unravel preferences for security sector reform in the peace process. Despite the differing viewpoints held by parties to the ceasefire, this article seeks to highlight the potential role of mine action as a crucial link between security governance and political dialogue, one that might revitalise negotiations by identifying potential commonalities within the political dialogue.

Interim Arrangements

Critical to the role that mine action might play will be the implementation of Interim Arrangements (IAs). The Charles Michelsen Institute, in its 2007 report on ‘Peace Processes and State Building: Economic and Institutional Provisions of Peace Agreements,’ stated that, “Interim Agreements serve to signal that the cease-fire will be respected. Interim agreements are…used to restart a stalled peace process,” which is clearly needed at this stage. Within Myanmar, Chapter Six of the NCA includes several confidence building measures that can be implemented during the interim period, acknowledging that “Ethnic Armed Organizations that are signatories to this agreement have been responsible in their relevant capacities, for development and security in their respective area…can carry out programs and plans in coordination with each other.”

The NCA then lists these programs: “projects regarding the health, education and socioeconomic development of civilians.” Further it provides provisions for “matters regarding peace and stability, and the maintenance of rule of law in the said areas.” In examining IAs within Myanmar, Schroeder[1] has stated that IAs represent “an acknowledgement of (EAO) legitimacy in terms of provision of governance and services alongside, or in parallel with the government.” Schroeder continues to show that IAs will be an effective means of governance “during the (probably lengthy) period between the agreement of initial ceasefires, and finalisation of a negotiated political settlement to decades of armed and state-society conflict in Myanmar.”

In this way, IAs offer a legitimate mechanism for establishing interim local authorities to govern areas of Karen State included in the ceasefire agreement. In this way, IAs provide an opportunity for parties to the ceasefire to engage with interim governance bodies representative of the state’s diverse ethnic and cultural population in order to support a just and sustainable governance within the peace process. Furthermore, IAs are relevant not only to relatively small and remote areas controlled exclusively by EAOs, but also to the more extensive areas of “mixed administration,” where authority is exercised variously by one or more EAOs and the government, and/or various village militias. Such areas of overlapping “hybrid governance” represent political complexes in Myanmar where “hybrid” is considered “a condition where liberal and illiberal norms, institutions, and actors coexist, interact, and even clash” (Jarstad and Belloni 2012, 1 cited in South 2018, p.52)

Interim Arrangements, Demarcation and Mine Action

The authors echo a statement made by South, emphasizing the need for international actors supporting parties to the ceasefire “to understand and support authorities grounded in local legitimacy.” Such support for IAs will entail bridging the security sector viewpoints of respective parties to negotiation as it relates to Karen State-— primarily the Tatmadaw, the current NLD Government, and prominent EAOs— but also give meaningful consideration to the views of other militarised actors currently operating outside the ceasefire but within the purview of the Constitution and networked militarised governance.

IAs do not exist in isolation but coincide with other aspects of the NCA, most notably the military code of conduct currently monitored by Joint Monitoring Committees at Union (JMC-U) and State levels (JMC-S). The military Code of Conduct drafted in accordance to the NCA is a reference to the removal of armed forces from religious sites, schools and even “villages.”[2]

Alan Smith’s work brought early attention to IAs in anticipating the drawn out implementation of the NCA. He termed areas given above, such as religious sites, schools and even “villages,” humanitarian zones, typified by the following features:[3]

  • No armed troops permitted in these zones
  • Free access for all who are unarmed
  • Monitoring to make sure no arms are brought into these areas

Accordingly, in their 8 May 2017 article, Lawi Weng and Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint quoted Col. Wunna Aung, spokesperson for the Burma Army and member of the Joint Ceasefire Monitoring Committee-Union as stating, “Demining is for the people; we will demine near public roads and schools,” he said, adding that the, “Burma Army had agreed not to demine near KNLA bases but that exact locations had not yet been agreed.”

The role of Joint Monitoring Committees at both the Union and State level have been identified as crucial for determining the violations of agreements by parties to the NCA. However, the role and mandate of Joint Monitoring Committees in demarcating land for demining and humanitarian zones without agreement from local representative bodies could place further pressure on the ceasefire process.

While urgent action is needed to increase security, determining a potential role for the JMCs in demining needs to be done cautiously, as their primary monitoring role could also occur with the potential to overlook persisting community concerns regarding mechanisms that promote the encroachment of militarised-based administration. Ultimately, the demarcation of territory and demining in the absence of localised interim authorities could fuel further contestation between militarised actors and existing community administration structures. The result could be contested claims of jurisdiction and hence a stronger case for administration and representation of population groups within these areas.[4] But more tangibly, it will most likely lead to land-grabbing and the loss of traditional customary rights to land. This could be evidenced by the building of new health and education facilities in areas previously inaccessible to the centralized state, without prior and informed consultation with local population groups.

In response to these threats, communities continue to resort to “normalized” militarised protection strategies including the use of landmines to contain outside encroachment and protect their resources. EAO representatives of the JMC-U and the JMC-S interviewed for this paper reported that in EAO controlled areas, “people believe that landmines remain their first line of defence.[5]

There does exist within the current political framework a role for the JMC to strengthen military respect for codes of conduct in supporting IAs. As a first step, the JMC can take actions to encourage the legitimacy of local security sector governance. This can be achieved by the JMC encouraging parties to the ceasefire (and through militarised networks of personnel on the JMC, extending to respective militaries and militias) to support the role of interim authorities to lead decision-making on the location of humanitarian zones.

In this way, interim authorities would be best placed to identify not only where new hospitals, clinics, schools or religious sites are to be constructed, but to also ensure that administration and delivery of existing social services reflect the nature of existing local governance structures and mechanisms, with minimal or at best without, the presence or influence of militarised actors. Humanitarian mine actors can then be deployed to ensure all humanitarian zones are mine-free, as well as part of initiatives to ensure that such areas remain free of arms.

The inclusion of mine action within IAs follows from the need to develop effective frameworks in security and peace that are inclusive of mine action. One guiding principle given in the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) publication, ‘Mine Action and Peace Mediation’ is the need for mine action, “to integrate a careful conflict analysis and be more flexible in terms of priority setting in order to adapt to the politically sensitive issues in the peacebuilding agenda”.

To this end, the authors of this article propose the following principles as starting points for negotiating the role of mine action in Karen State, to reflect better local communities’ perceptions in the peace:

  • Undertake and liaise with communities through localised conflict sensitive approaches, to identify local priorities under the peace process.
  • Promote local governance structures for decision-making through ‘interim arrangements’
  • Promote the deployment of mine operators once demarcation of humanitarian zones has been agreed.
  • Promote security governance priorities in accordance with advocacy of international norms on landmine use.

In this way, IAs can respect the presence of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic and cultural populations and remove decision-making from contested armed actors by placing it within the purview of localised governance structures, representative of local communities. The role of IAs is not only beginning to be seen as a mechanism for strengthening the role of local communities in the peace process, but as perhaps the best mechanism for ensuring a secure environment, inclusive of mine action—a point highlighted by a recent report conducted by Covenant Consulting.

In the same way, increased legitimacy gained through the act of decision-making by interim authorities regarding humanitarian zones can be leveraged by parties to the ceasefire and international actors to support other humanitarian actions, such as the resettlement of IDPs into new areas, or ensuring that the return of IDPs and refugees to places of origin take place in safe environments enabled by mine action as articulated by interim authorities. In the meantime, community aspirations for greater safety continue with anxiety that removal of landmines with the support of international actors could result in further encroachment of outside actors into their territory.

At this stage, the ceasefire and political dialogue have not halted the prevailing militarisation of population groups in Karen State, nor have they shifted the use of landmines as a form of security for communities in conflict affected areas. Significant progress could be made by valuing the nature of IAs to build legitimacy in security governance, including humanitarian mine action to bring about a safer, more representative and secure Karen State in the future.


[1] Schroeder, Tim. 2017, “Vulnerability, Poverty, Displacement and the absence of Interim Arrangements: Karen Communities in ceasefire areas of Southeast Burma”, Paper presented at the Karen Workshop, University of Oxford 15 June 2017.
[2] Military Code of Conduct Between the Government of Burma and Ethnic Armed Organizations in Accordance with the NCA, November 18, 2015 Chapter 3, Military Code of Conduct during a Ceasefire, Paragraph 8 (e).
[3] These features are supported by international law that outlines the need for parties to conflict to distinguish between civilians and combatants, (Article 51 of Protocol I (1997) additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and to prohibit the use of weapons which cause unnecessary suffering, Article 35 of Additional Protocol I (1977).
[4] Interview conducted with Ethnic Armed Organisation, May 2016
[5] As part of this research, members of the JMC in Karen State and at Union level were interviewed.

[Image courtesy of Gregory Cathcart]

Saw Chit Thet Thun is an emerging Karen academic, who recently completing his masters, focusing on Civilian Military relations in Myanmar in Flinders University, Australia. His most recently presented conference paper focused on relations between the Karen and the Mon Ethnic Armed Organisations.

Gregory Cathcart is a Mine Action specialist with over a decade of experience in South East Asia, including four years advising Myanmar Government, multi-lateral agencies, International NGOs, CSOs and Ethnic Armed Organisations on landmine related issues in Myanmar.

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