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Obama saddles up to ‘rogue states’

Joseph Allchin
Nov 27, 2009 (DVB), Washington looks set to join 'rogue states' like Burma as conspicuous absentees from a gathering in Colombia next week where global leaders will attempt to rid the world of landmines.

Many had hoped that US president Barrack Obama would live up to his Nobel Peace Prize billing and slogan, and 'change' Washington's policy on using the arbitrary killers. So far, however, they remain steadfastly alongside Burma, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and others as an abstaining nation. A guilty silence was yesterday maintained by the US embassies in Rangoon and Bangkok, who had "nothing more to add" on the issue when asked by DVB.

Obama's refusal to sign the 10-year-old treaty banning the use, stockpiling, production or transfer of landmines has drawn heavy criticism from rights groups across the world. "Given that 158 countries, including all NATO allies, have endorsed the Mine Ban Treaty, we are not sure which allies the US are concerned about meeting their security commitments to unless they are planning to align themselves with other states outside of the treaty such as Russia, China and Myanmar [Burma]," said Tamar Gabelnick, treaty implementation direction at the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines' (ICBL).

The comments were echoed by Nobel laureate and anti-landmine campaigner, Jody Williams. "We cannot understand this shameful decision", she said. "This decision is a slap in the face to landmine survivors, their families and affected communities everywhere , especially because in just a few short weeks, he will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize."

Thousands have been killed or maimed by landmines in decades-old conflicts in eastern Burma and elsewhere in the country, with both the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Burma's multiple ethnic armies employing use of them.

For Colonel Ner Dah, a senior member of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), which has been fighting the Burmese junta for 60 years, "we wish we could be anti-landmine but our situation right now is very difficult."

The dense jungle and rugged mountains of Karen state make it a difficult area to fight in, and devices such as landmines are often an effective weapon. There is however an issue of resources for an embattled army such as the KNLA. Ner Dah points to the lack of resources that the KNLA suffer from when compared to military forces such as the US, China, Russia, India, and even the SPDC. "If it's not necessary then it is better not to use them; [the national armies] can use some other things to protect their bases or defend themselves," he said.

He continues that the SPDC uses landmines in a different capacity to the KNU. "The SPDC lays them everywhere; for example, in the road to try to scare villagers. It is not good when they are used against the population".

As ever in Burma, the victims of the fighting are very often civilians. The government's 'Four Cuts' strategy, where civilians are systematically targeted to stem the support base of an insurgent movement or army, has been heavily criticized by rights groups, and landmines have inevitably become another plank of this tactic.

If a civilian population is targeted with landmines, as many Burma observers including KNLA members would corroborate, then it becomes a matter of war crimes; the Geneva Convention classifies this as 'Total War'. But, like many weapons of war, their arbitrary nature means that perpetrators can claim they were not targeted at civilian populations.

International examples of this were seen with the allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden in World War Two, and more recently the use of the banned chemical white phosphorous by US forces in Fallujah, Iraq, and by the Israeli army in their 2006 attack on Lebanon and in Gaza this year. Phosphorus burns anybody in its path, leaving only clothes where the unfortunate victim stood. In both instances, the Israelis claimed that it was used as a 'flare'.

In a regional context, the indiscriminate nature of landmines has been felt in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, all of which experienced the brunt of US 'Total War'. Thousands of unexploded devices are still scattered around the countryside, approximately 40 years after the Vietnam War ended. Bombing of the three countries is to date the largest campaign of its kind in history, and in many cases was undoubtedly targeted at civilians.

The meeting in Colombia will preside over a bleak outlook for innocent victims of landmines, both in Southeast Asia and across the globe. When the majority of the world's military might fail to condemn these underground killers, and when leaders like the US, who preach human rights but fail to ban weapons with little strategic value and horrendous cost to human life, the Burmese government suddenly seems like a little Piranha in a very dirty pond.