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Decades of armed conflict in Burma make it one of the worst hit countries for landmines. People living close to the border are the most severely affected.
But five years ago, the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front established a prosthetics factory in Loikaw, Karenni state, to help people who are disabled through landmines.
And all of the people working at the factory are landmine victims themselves.
Kyaw Win lost his leg 13 years ago.
”We had training in Mae Sot for about three years and then the factory opened in 2007. We can produce about 100 prosthetic legs every year. Most of them are for soldiers, but in border areas, many villagers also get injured.”
The factory has since produced around 600 prosthetic legs. Demand is high from clients all over the country. The majority of legs are for people injured by landmines, but about 10% are for people with gunshot wounds or diabetes.
”The materials are ordered from Thailand and arranged by Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot. There are no facilities for this in Burma.”
The advantage of employing people who were injured by landmines is that they know how it feels to walk with artificial legs.
“The prosthetics that the army made in the past were different”. Said customer and former soldier in the Burmese army, Maung Myint. “Now, the ones that are made by disabled people like us are much more convenient to use.”
Even if armed conflict ends in Karenni, mines left behind in the ground compose a danger for local people. According to the Swiss NGO ‘Geneva Call’, over 5 million Burmese people live in areas contaminated with landmines. Most of them are located along the Thai border.
Maw Kae is in charge of the leg making at the clinic in Mae Sot.
“It would be impossible to tell either side to stop using landmines during armed conflict. Landmine related injuries will continue to exist. Both sides are using landmines consequently to harm people. Even if we get genuine peace it would take many years to clear those landmines.”
Burma’s government still hasn’t signed the international Mine Ban Treaty from 1997. But earlier this year it signed an MoU with the NGO Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) to begin the clearing of landmines in the eastern part of Burma, including Karenni State.
However, the NPA will not begin work until it has a formal agreement from all the affected ethnic groups.
It appears that it will still take some time before the ground is safe to walk on in Karenni state.