Monday, July 10, 2017

Unresolved conflict blights children’s futures

Kayin State and South-East Myanmar

Ann Ka Law village, Kayin State, Myanmar: The little boy looked nervously at the metallic object in his hand. It didn’t look like a toy, but the friends he was playing with were yelling at him to throw it at the bamboo patch a few metres away.

Min Thiya, 10, shows a large scar from injuries he sustained two years ago when he, Saw Ba Sun and other boys were playing with unexploded ordnance near Ann Ka Law village in Kayin State. Two other children were killed in the explosion.

“It felt heavy – and the metal was hot,” recalled Saw Ba Sun, aged 9. “Somehow, I knew it was dangerous.”

As Saw Ba hesitated, another boy, So Aung Myo Win, snatched the metal thing out of his hand. As he raised his throwing arm, the device exploded, killing him instantly and injuring four others, including Saw Ba Sun.

More than two years on, memories of the accident are still fresh in this poor and remote corner of South-East Myanmar. Locals point out the unmarked spot, no more than 200 metres from the school, where they found the  body of So Aung, and another injured child, Aung Min, aged 7, who died shortly after reaching the local hospital.

When Saw Ba Sun’s father, Tar Leu, heard the explosion, his first thought was that Kayin’s long-running armed conflict had once more descended on the village. His next fearful
thought was for his wife and two sons.

Mr Leu, 43, is the pastor at the village church. He and his family returned to Myanmar in 2012, after spending years living in a refugee camp across the nearby border with

“My mother encouraged me to come back here,” said Tar Leu. “We thought it was safe, but it wasn’t.” 

Time and again, forces of the Myanmar Army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army sweep through the tiny community of 60 households, which lies in a contested area of Kayin State. Each time, terrified families hide in crude shelters that they have dug under their wooden houses.

The unexploded grenade that led to the accident was probably left from clashes that had erupted weeks earlier.

Reconciliation efforts yet to bear fruit

Conflict has long shaped the lives of people living in this area. Recurrent fighting between government forces and a range of Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) has repeatedly
displaced the civilian population.

The major EAOs in Mon and Kayin States and Tanintharyi Region are signatories to the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement, but skirmishes have persisted.

“This troubled history has had tragic implications for the lives of around 2 million children living in the South-East of Myanmar,” says Anne Cecile Vialle, who heads UNICEF’s
Mawlamyine Field Office.

“Apart from suffering the direct consequences of violence, children in disputed territories often cannot access basic services.”

In such areas, almost a third of school-aged children (aged 6–17) are not attending school and one in three families does not have access to adequate toilets.

The widespread use of landmines and contamination by explosive remnants of war are outcomes of decades of violence.

Many landmines and explosive remnants of war lie hidden – and usually unmapped – for years. Others are laid during successive bouts of fighting, posing a lethal threat to people attempting to recover property or resume work on their land.

Volunteers bring support and encouragement to landmine victims

In the remote town of Kawkareik, a Victim Assistance Centre has been set up, run by Handicap International and the Myanmar Physically Handicapped Association (MPHA) with the support of UNICEF and in collaboration with the Department of Social Welfare.

The project offers services to landmine/explosive remnants of war victims as well as adults and children with disabilities. It also trains and mobilizes landmine
survivors to deliver Mine Risk Education to people living in affected areas.

San San Maw, 33, is one of 30 volunteers working at the Centre. She lost her right leg when she trod on a landmine at the age of 13 while cutting bamboo on a mountain side.

“Here we do minor repairs and adjustments for people with prosthetic limbs,” says Ms. Maw. “But my main reason for volunteering is to give other victims encouragement in the same way I needed encouragement after my accident.”

A Mine Risk Working Group – established under the leadership of the local authorities and sponsored by UNICEF – is supporting the roll-out of a new national Mine Risk Education curriculum as well as initial discussions on demining in Kayin State.

With the long and difficult task of demining in Kayin State on hold, people living in vulnerable communities like Ann Ka Law are at daily risk of injury or death.

Nan Maw Maw Kyi, a teacher at the school Saw Ba Sun attends, says the village must live with this harsh reality:

“We always tell the children: if you find anything strange or unusual in the forest, never touch it, but go and tell an adult. Unfortunately we can’t say for certain that something similar won’t happen again.”

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