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Making friends with the landmine capital of the world

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A few years ago, western leaders welcomed the about face of Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Their enemy, long regarded as an international pariah, had become their friend. Obviously that ended badly, and it serves as a cautionary tale for the West regarding the signs of hope that the Burmese regime is open to change. 

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tone was rightfully tentative when she visited Burma last week. She told President Thein Sein that the United States 'is prepared to walk the path of reform with you if you choose to keep moving in that direction'. 

Clinton's speeches dwelt on the positives. Follow-up contacts will need to specify international expectations of change in many areas, such as the use of antipersonnel landmines. A new report issued last month by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines depicts Burma as the landmine capital of the world. 

Landmines, which are notorious for their record of killing and maiming civilians, were removed from most countries' arsenals after the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Landmines are now used in only a small number of conflicts, although uncleared landmines continue to pose a significant threat to civilians, especially children.

The US has not used landmines since 1991 although it refuses to sign the Mine Ban Treaty.

As well as being one of only a handful of countries continuing to lay fresh landmines, Burma has one of the highest civilian casualty rates in the world, and the figure is increasing. Zetty Brake of Burma Campaign Australia says the new government 'is continuing the old regime's policy of producing and laying landmines, in a manner that deliberately targets civilians ... There are also extensive reports from groups like Human Rights Watch that prisoners are being used as human minesweepers by the Burmese army.'

Coinciding with Clinton's visit to Burma was the beginning of an important anti-landmines meeting in nearby Cambodia. It was the Eleventh Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty, known as 11MSP. It is reviewing a range of treaty compliance issues, including the threat posed to the emerging norm by new landmine use in countries including Israel, Libya, and Burma.

In a sign of progress, Burma has sent a delegation to the 11MSP meeting, and campaigners are reading this as a sign that the country's leaders are ready for dialogue. In its speech, the delegation defended the use of landmines but said the issue deserved 'careful consideration'.

The anti-government Democratic Voice of Burma website says the start of talks last week between several armed groups and Burmese state authorities is a welcome development, and the anti-mines campaigners will lobby for a ban on landmines to be included in any ceasefire agreement.

Burma Campaign Australia is calling on the Australian Government to publicly condemn the continued use and production of landmines in Burma. It is important that international opinion does not rescind Burma's pariah nation status until its leaders have abandoned the use of landmines.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Burma, Libya, Hillary Clinton, landmines, Burma Campaign Australia



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Existing comments

Good time to write this excellent backgrounder, thanks Michael.

Jan Forrester | 05 December 2011  

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