LOIKAW — Decades of armed conflict in Myanmar make it one of the worst-hit countries for landmines.
Six years ago, the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front established a prosthetics factory in Karenni state, near the border with Thailand, to help people who have been disabled by landmines. The special feature of this enterprise? All of the people working at the factory are landmine victims themselves.
One of them is Kyaw Win, a former soldier with the Karenni Army who has been fighting a separatist battle with the Myanmar military for decades. While on the battlefield, he stepped on a landmine and lost his leg.
After years of living without a leg he was sent by the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front to Thailand to learn about the production of prosthetic limbs. He now makes legs for other landmine victims.
“We had training in Mae Sot for about three years, and then the factory opened in 2007,” he says. “We can produce about 100 prosthetic legs every year. Most of them are for soldiers, but in border areas, many villagers also get injured.”
To date, the factory has produced about 600 prosthetic legs. While most of them are for people injured by landmines, about 10% are reserved for people with gunshot wounds or diabetes.
The advantage of employing people like Kyaw Win is that they know how it feels to walk with artificial legs.
“The prosthetics that the army made in the past were different,” says Maung Myint, a former soldier in Myanmar’s army. “Now, these that are made by disabled people like us are much more convenient to use.”
According to the Swiss organization Geneva Call, more than five million people in Myanmar live in areas contaminated with landmines. Most of them are located along the Thai border.
Maw Kae, who is in charge of making legs in Mae Sot, asserts that “both sides are using landmines” to hurt the other. “Even if we get genuine peace it would take many years to clear those landmines.”
The government of Burma, more formally known as Myanmar, hasn’t signed the international Mine Ban Treaty of 1997. But earlier this year it signed a memorandum of understanding with the organization Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) to begin clearing landmines in the eastern part of Myanmar, including in Karenni state.
Still, clearing the ground of all the hidden landmines is a long-term project. Which means there will be lots of work here for Kyaw Win and his team for a long time to come.