Reforms cloud future for Burma's landmine victims

Pa Taw had been clearing landmines all day. He was bent right over one, gaze fixed and hands at work, when he heard the trigger release. The explosion ripped through his forearms and face in less than a second.

“I lost my eyes and my hands,” says the 46-year-old former Karen rebel, gently resting two stumps on his knees. His bright blue t-shirt flashes the proud faces of Ba U Gyi, the founder of the Karen National Union, and rebel leader General Bo Mya.

After the accident, his friends brought him to hospital in Mae Sot. “In the beginning, I felt very discouraged; I didn’t want to live any more,” he says with a blank look. “But then I came here.”

Here is Care Villa, a residence for the permanently disabled, snuggled beneath the mountains on the outskirts of Mae La refugee camp in northwestern Thailand. The small wooden house is patched with tarpaulin and corrugated steel, the hallway lined with austere beds. But the mood is quietly cheerful. Soft hymns ripple through the corridors and on the porch a solitary figure tinkers with an acoustic guitar.

Most of the 16 residents are landmine victims and former soldiers with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). All of them are blind. “Some of these people have no family or relatives and nowhere to go,” says Chairman Ler Lay Kler. “They really need our care.”

The centre was set up in 2000 to fill the gap in health services for disabled refugees along the Thai border. Residents receive full-time care, as well as music lessons, bible study (all but one are Christian) and English lessons. “I feel comfortable here,” says Pa Taw. “I have a lot of friends now who are in a similar situation.”

Nearly 300 people became victims of landmines in Burma in 2010. While most of the victims are civilians, soldiers are also affected. Aside from the obvious risks, rebel armies often clear areas from landmines without training or safety equipment. One former soldier reported clearing up to a thousand landmines with nothing but a knife and a shovel.

Burmese refugees already face severe travel restrictions and discrimination by the Thai government, which is a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Over 50,000 refugees are based in Mae La alone, and are unable to leave or gain lawful employment. Disabled communities are particularly vulnerable as they often lack the necessary support and facilities in refugee camps. In the past UNHCR has been criticised for its “confusing” policy on the resettlement of disabled refugees, which some say has led to them being resettled only as an option of last resort.

Care Villa is one of the only long stay residences that cater for this group, but it now risks losing its funding. In April, their donor – Clear Path International (CPI) – will terminate their USAID funded support. Instead they will focus their efforts on other projects in Cambodia, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

“They said they no longer have funds to support the Thai-Burmese border,” explains Ler Lay Kler. “They said it’s because of the economic crisis, but the other perspective is that Burma is now changing a little bit and [donor governments] want to give their support.”

The centre is one of many humanitarian groups along the Thai-Burma border facing funding cuts in the wake of Burma’s reform programme. Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) and ZOA have both suffered financial setbacks in the past year.

“I’m not going to name names but some donors have been scaling back their operations over the past few years,” Joel Harding from the International Rescue Committee told DVB. “There is a tougher funding environment.”

While the recent ceasefire process in Karen state has stirred speculation that refugees might soon be able to return home, there is little optimism on the ground. “The needs are the same,” Harding adds. “Nobody is in a position to return at this time or even thinking about it.”

Nor is the ceasefire agreement anything but tentative. The Karen National Union has even denied that the preliminary agreement constitutes a ceasefire. The only substantial agreement made to date is the decision to hold fighting. Political and development challenges are yet to be addressed.

For Pa Taw, the memory of military rule remains pronounced. He recalls years of forced labour and violent robberies with a taught face. And 10 years after leaving the KNLA, he remains defiant. ”We need our own home to live in freedom. We want freedom and justice in Burma and if they won’t give it then we need to fight until we get it.”

In the meanwhile, the future of Care Villa is uncertain. They have less than three months to raise ฿300,000 or they will have to close. “I don’t know where I’d be if I weren’t here,” says Pa Taw. “Maybe I would already be dead.”

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