Life's a Blast in the Karen Jungle
Nevertheless, several of Kay Poe's colleagues believe he has a charmed life. The superstitious say Kay Poe enjoys the protection of mystic spirits. For his part, Kay Poe is not superstitious. He does not wear amulets and does not have yantra— protective Buddhist tattoos.
Kay Poe has just returned from southern Karen State (Brigade 7) where he assisted an allied force of Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and renegade Democratic Karen Buddhist Army Brigade 5 forces against the Burmese troops.
For several weeks, Kay Poe led a small guerrilla unit that operated quietly by night, laying landmines on routes that the KNU anticipate the government troops will take, and defusing previously laid ordnance to allow the Karen rebels to move freely.
Metaphorically speaking, Kay Poe's duty is to open doors for the rebels while closing doors to the Burmese army. It's a tactic that has been handed down through Karen generations since they took up arms in 1948.
Burma is one of the country's with the highest rates of landmine victims in the world, according to the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). It accuses both government troops and ethnic rebels of using landmines.
The Karen guerrillas have long said they only plant landmines in self defense: to protect their villages and front lines.
The KNU doesn’t release any official figures regarding landmine victims, but one KNU official estimated that around 20 to 25 KNLA soldiers are injured every year by blasts.
Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, a Thailand-based landmine researcher for the ICBL who travels regularly to ethnic areas, including KNLA bases, said he doesn’t regard the landmine as a wide military strategy. Instead, he said, landmines kill and maim friend and foe indiscriminately.
“The landmine is an antiquated military strategy,” he said. “It is different to any other weapon because it is indiscriminate.”
According to the ICBL, Burma is not one of the 156 nations that are signatories to the 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty.
Burmese military sources have said that the landmines used by the Burmese army mostly come from Russia, China, India and Singapore, none of which are signatories to the 1997 treaty.
“We [the ICBL] call for an immediate halt in the use of any landmine by anyone, anywhere,” said Yeshua. “We call for a genuine cease-fire between the government and ethnic armed groups.”
He said the landmine is an “invisible enemy” for civilians as they must go to jungle for their daily survival, usually to hunt, farm, fish, forage for food, and cut wood and bamboo to make houses.
“The KNLA told us that they issue warnings to villagers not to travel where they planted the landmines,” said Yeshua. However, he said, several villagers he has interviewed said that they were not told the whereabouts of any landmines.
“We know that KNLA soldiers also get injured frequently by their own landmines,” he added.
He claims the landmines planted by government troops are much more powerful. “People rarely survive a blast by those mines,” he said.
He said the Tatmadaw usually plant explosives in and around villages when they leave or around their bases when they abandon them. They also plant mines on trails used by villagers, in paddy fields and vegetables gardens.