Landmines, and fear of renewed clashes, keep Lay Kay Kaw residents from returning

A year after being forced to flee their homes due to fighting between regime and resistance forces, residents of Lay Kay Kaw in Karen (Kayin) State’s Myawaddy Township say they still don’t know when they will be able to return.

The town, which is located near the Thai border in territory under the control of the Karen National Union (KNU), became a flashpoint of conflict in December of last year following raids by junta troops.

Although the clashes, which rapidly escalated and continued for months, have since subsided, fresh outbreaks remain a very real possibility, and landmines are a constant threat, according to displaced residents.

“Some of the older people were talking about going back in November, but we’re not sure even now because we’re worried about landmines,” said one resident currently living in the Talaw Tapoh camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

“If fighting starts again, it will be even harder for us to return,” he added.

More than 1,500 Lay Kay Kaw residents are currently living in the Talaw Tapoh IDP camp, which is situated on the western bank of the Moei River, opposite Thailand’s Tak Province.

Handmade landmines found buried in residential areas of Lay Kay Kaw (Supplied)

One woman staying in the camp told Myanmar Now that a relative who went back to assess the situation in Lay Kay Kaw found two landmines on her family’s property.

“They still haven’t been removed yet,” she said.

Another camp resident said he made a similar discovery during a recent visit to the town: “There are two landmines buried in our yard, so I don’t think we’ll be going home anytime soon.”

An officer of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an armed wing of the KNU, said that he wasn’t sure which side was responsible for laying the crude, handmade explosive devices scattered around Lay Kay Kaw.

“To be honest, we don’t know who put them there, as both sides use them and it was a literal battlefield. However, we usually don’t set up landmines in civilian areas,” he said, adding that mines have also been found in the villages of Pa Hi Ka Law and Htee Mei Wah Khee, both located near Lay Kay Kaw.

The Talaw Tapoh IDP camp in May (Supplied)

There have been reports that junta troops, as well as members of a Border Guard Force under their command and the military-allied Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, have been sweeping the area for mines.

When contacted by Myanmar Now, Lay Kay Kaw administrators confirmed that minesweeping efforts were underway, but declined to provide any further information.

It remains unclear when, or if, residents will be able to return.

According to an annual report released by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) last month, Myanmar and Russia were the only two state actors using landmines in 2022.

In Myanmar—which, like Russia, is not a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty—there has been a “significant” increase in use of anti-personnel mines by the military since it seized power in February 2021, the ICBL reported.

Meanwhile, more than a million civilians have been displaced by conflict around the country during the same time period, according to UN estimates.

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