Cautious hope for Burma’s ‘second-class citizens’

No one knows how many people have been affected by landmines in Burma, the only state to consistently lay mines since 1997. Some who step on mines die immediately, but most will survive to live with severely disabling injuries. For the latter there is little in the way of immediate or long-term medical assistance available from the country’s impoverished medical system.

Hope is on the horizon, however. On Friday last week the UN announced the accession of Burma to the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People (CRPD). This rights-based document could bring about a significant improvement in the quality of life for landmine victims and other people living with disabilities in the country. For that improvement to happen in the lifetime of current survivors, the convention needs to be implemented, meaning Burma must focus on generating necessary services in the areas where survivors live – given that landmines are mostly laid in the country’s remote border regions whose development has never taken place, this will be no easy feat.

As a rights-based convention, it is dependent on the implementation of laws to fulfil human rights. The CRPD actually contains no new rights, but ensures that existing rights are met comprehensively, and that their implementation is monitored. Of course this won’t happen overnight.

Implementation will require, at a minimum, that a survey of disabled people in Burma be taken so that their needs can be clearly defined. Gaps in existing care structures must be identified so that action can be taken to meet the urgent and long term needs of the disabled, including adequate medical care, availability of prosthetics, and social and economic rehabilitation. As well as treatment of physical injuries, the convention also requires the government to implement psychological support and social reintegration for victims, such as community-based peer support groups, associations for disabled people, sporting and related activities, and professional counselling.

A preventative health approach would ask what is causing people to become disabled. In the case of those made disabled by landmines, the preventative approach would be to advocate vigorously for a landmine ban by all armed actors: the Burmese army, as well as the militias associated with Burma’s many ethnic groups. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) calls on all these groups to halt new landmine use now. A halt of new mine use should be specified in all of the current ceasefire negotiations between the government and ethnic armies, and additional peace accords should include a comprehensive ban on the weapon and a pledge to mark mined areas and clear them.

The ICBL was earlier informed by Burmese foreign ministry representatives that a legal review of the convention had been completed. It appears now that it has been forwarded to parliament for approval.

The accession by Burma to the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People should be good news to the disabled in the country, where like most other societies in Asia, disabled people are treated like second-class citizens. It will take more than accession to the convention to change the habits of a nation; it will also take resources. If Burma genuinely wishes to implement this convention, it is going to need to seek assistance from the UN and some of the many specialised non-governmental organisations with expertise in this area. We encourage them to do so in the immediate future.

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is the focal point for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines on Myanmar/Burma. Further information can be found at burma.icbl.org [English] or myanmar.icbl.org [Burmese].

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