Posted on January 1st, 2020


Revised 1.1.2020

Many land mines were laid by the LTTE in their treasonable war against the Government of Sri Lanka. Landmines were one of ways the LTTE tried to ‘win’ the war. After the war, it fell to the army to clear these land mines. The mines had to be cleared before the Tamils could be re-settled on the land.

This was a formidable challenge. There were no maps of the land mines laid out by the LTTE. Sri Lanka army reported that LTTE minefields have been laid without clear recording or marking. Mines have been laid in front of defensive positions, which have subsequently been hurriedly evacuated, and the mines forgotten about.   LTTE also laid nuisance minefields to prevent access to facilities such as wells, roads, footpaths, and food. These mines also are not marked. All   nuisance mines were laid by the LTTE, emphasized the army. It is this type of landmines that has created the greatest threat to resettled and returning displaced people.

The Security Forces laid mines purely as a defensive measure. They did not use mines as an offensive weapon. Sri Lankan Security Forces have laid protective minefields to prevent the LTTE from reoccupying defended areas. These minefields are laid in keeping with universally accepted standards of laying to a specific pattern following proper marking and recording procedures. The records amounting to 3,000 minefields, except those relevant to High Security Zones  were released to the other organizations involved in mine action and these records have helped easy and speedy recovery of mines. Anti-tank mines were used by the armed forces only to cover prominent vehicle approaches. 

The demining was done by the Sri Lanka army with the     assistance of HALO Trust, MAG, DASH and SHARP. The HALO Trust (Hazardous Area Life-support Organization) is a registered British charity and American non-profit organization which removes land mines.  HALO began working in Sri Lanka in 2002. The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is a NGO based in Manchester, and has a sister organization, in Washington. It   assists people affected by landmines. MAG field operations are managed by the  nationals of that country, MAG expatriate staff  monitor and train.

Delvon Assistance for Social Harmony (DASH) is a Sri Lankan non-profit demining NGO, consisting only of Sri Lankans, about 90% Tamils, all specialized and experienced in the field of Humanitarian Demining. DASH is funded by the Governments of Australia (AusAID) and Japan (GGP).  DASH started operations in 2011.  SKAVITA Humanitarian Assistance and Relief Project (SHARP)  has the government of Japan as its main donor. It started operations in 2016.

Japan has been a major donor in the area of mine clearance in Sri Lanka since 2003, with more than US$ 35 million assistance in total through its Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Project (GGP). In 2019 Japan gave US$ 1,266,825 (approx. Rs. 219 million) for the SKAVITA Humanitarian Assistance and Relief Project (SHARP) and the HALO Trust for humanitarian demining in Northern Sri Lanka.Norway provided funds to HALO and MAG.

Sri Lanka achieved an impressive record in this demining having cleared 1,319 sq km out of an area of 1,419 by 2012. De-mining operation has gone much faster than in other countries such as Cambodia observed the Government in 2012. Nearly 5000 anti personnel mines were removed by the army risking their lives, so that the Tamils could be resettled, reported the media in 2012.

As at end of 2018, only 25 is remaining to be cleared. This area included Muhamalai in the Kilinochchi District, Nagarkovil in the Jaffna District, Maritimepattu and Oddusudanin in the Mullaitivu District and other areas in the Northern and Eastern Districts. Those engaged in demining, both foreign and local, said in 2018  they had found it extremely difficult to conduct demining operations in Muhamalai in Kilinochchi and Ambagam in Mullaitivu. However, by 2019 the mines clearance programme enabled the release of 1277 for safe settlement .

The work of the Sri Lanka army was recognized abroad. In 2016 Mine detection dog Alvin and his handler   Lance corporal GNWM Navaratne were selected as the Mine detection Team of the Year by the US based Marshall Legacy Institute. They have together demined from 2011 to 2016 an approximate land area of 73,340 sq mm in the north and east. This has enabled 1945 displaced of 415 families to return to their original places of inhabitation, said the citation.

In 2018 A nine-member delegation of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority  of the Cambodian government visited the Muhamalai Humanitarian De-mining site, to learn from the Sri Lanka Army’s de-miners. International Meeting on Mine Action for National Directors and UN Advisors, in 2019 commended the achievement of Sri Lanka, when compared to other countries.

The work of the Sri Lanka army was recognized abroad. In 2016 Mine detection dog Alvin and his handler   Lance corporal GNWM Navaratne were selected as the Mine detection Team of the Year by the US based Marshall Legacy Institute. They have together demined from 2011 to 2016 an approximate land area of 73,340 sq mm in the north and east. This has enabled 1945 displaced of 415 families to return to their original places of inhabitation, said the citation.[1]

Sri Lanka became a mine riddled country thanks to  land mines laid  by the LTTE. Sri Lanka  signed the Mine Ban Treaty  in December 2017. Sri Lanka, having acceded to this Mine Ban Treaty will have four years from June 2018 to ensure that it does not use, stockpile, produce or transfer any anti-personnel mines (APMs), announced the media. Only a small quantity of APMs will be permitted in the country for training purposes. This makes the government of Sri Lanka sound as if it was the guilty party, when the real culprit is the LTTE.

Sri Lanka army has initiated two innovations in mine clearing, one is already in practice, the other is still in the pipeline. The one in practice is the locally developed raking method. This is used by DASH.

In this method a heavy rake is used to soften and prod the ground. This rake is pulled horizontal through the possible mine infested soil, loosing up the soil and possible hitting/locating the mines on the side. As the mines are designed to activate only if hit on the top, this action will not set on the mine, and we have only had one incident where a mine went off while excavating with the heavy rake.

Investigations afterwards showed that the mine had been tilted by the growth of the roots of a small tree, thereby standing” on the side, so when the heavy rake hit the mine, it was activated but fortunately the PPE and the long handle of the rake ensured that no harm came to the deminer.

After the soil is loosened up, the deminer will use the light garden rake to remove the soil. This rake is originally designed for removing grass cuttings from the lawn without damaging the lawn. Each of the fingers (in total 22) bend back if any serious pressure is made onto it, far less than the pressure that is needed to set off the type of AP mines we are recovering. It can therefore be used safely to remove the soft soil, sweeping it away from the top. Some operators use both the rakes and metal detectors together.

There is also a second innovation which is still at a the experimental stage. The Sri Lanka Army Corps of Engineers’ research arm has launched a pilot project to study the possibility of utilizing the indigenous grey mongoose for the detection of explosives.”We initially used detectors to trace explosives. Later, dogs were used for the detection of explosives. However, one of the biggest issues with dogs is that it is a very expensive operation as we cannot breed them locally. We have to import them from Europe or America and train them to detect explosives. It costs around Rs. 2 million to import a dog. Dogs can sniff out explosives and other parts of the mine or UXO (unexploded ordnance) body. They are therefore commonly used within mine and UXO detection programmes.

Training a dog to detect explosives is difficult and time-consuming, and can take from three months to several years. A mine detection dog may well be trained far from the country where it is later to be deployed, but a period of acclimatization and adaptation to the new climate, the soil and the mine or UXO type in the operating area is always required. This period can take from one to six months depending on whether there is a need to train new dog handlers from the target area too. ”

The price of a high-quality mine dog is high, while other limiting factors are unfavorable climatic conditions (such as excessive heat and humidity, too much wind or wind blowing in the wrong direction), thick vegetation, and dense minefields. The latter will result in a complete contamination of the wider area and thereby confuse the dog. Daily working hours vary from a few hours to six or seven hours per day. Dogs tend to work for shorter periods in hot climates, while they are able to work for longer periods where it is colder. A mine dog can scour a few hundred to a thousand square metres per day (figures vary sharply), depending on local conditions and training. However, like humans, dogs may have bad days where motivation is low.

We too began to look into the possibility of other cost-effective alternatives. Brigadier Seneviratne had initially done a study in 2016 on whether the mongoose can be used for the detection of explosives. We also found that a local university had undertaken research and found that the mongoose can be used for explosives detection, apart from dogs. Other than that, we had no research to go on,” said Major Herath. .

The initial experiments were done with the wet zone reddish mongoose and the dry zone grey mongoose, and of the two, the grey mongoose showed greater sniffing capability than its counterpart.

While training dogs in explosives’ detection, we use the reward method, where they are rewarded when they respond well to the training. Hence, we began experiments with the mongoose to see how they responded to the same reward system. We used both species of mongoose for this initial experiment and our experiments established that the dry zone grey mongoose showed greater ability to sniff out explosives. We also did research on the direction of the sniffing capabilities of the grey mongoose. As with dogs, they only have downward sniffing capability, which means that they can more accurately sniff areas below their feet rather than scents at a fair distance or above their head. Dogs rarely have upward sniffing capability. However, with the grey mongoose, they have a wider sniffing range. ”

In 2017, we recruited a specialist who was knowledgeable about the mongoose and its behaviour, food habits, and capabilities. Then we undertook the research and were amazed at the mongoose’s sniffing capability and response to reward-based training,” he said, adding that as a secondary project, the Army was looking at breeding possibilities under a controlled system.

Currently, we have around nine mongooses in our research programme, and, of them, one has been trained to a very satisfactory level. We have also utilized funds allocated by the Army for research purposes. Also undertake research on the possibility of breeding the mongoose locally.”

Meanwhile, visiting scholar at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and 2008-09 Radcliffe Institute Fellow Thrishantha Nanayakkara and a group from Moratuwa University have done an explosives’ detection study using the mongoose. They picked an indigenous mongoose for its temperament, size (roughly 2.5 kilogrammes, light enough to step on a mine without detonating it), and sense of smell (ability to detect explosives three metres away). .

Nanayakkara equipped a robot (roughly a metre tall and half-a-metre wide) with a harness to keep the mongoose under control and a video camera to record its findings. Although the mongoose walks a few feet ahead, the robot with its eight metal legs sets the pace. During the test run, the pair went back and forth across a 10-by-10-metre plot, stopping whenever the mongoose detected a mine, which it indicated by sitting up (as it was trained to do). In a morning’s work, the mongoose found every mine, proving its effectiveness in explosives’ detection. (Daily News  3.8.18. p 4)

The success of the initial experiments bring great hope that the indigenous grey mongoose could prove to be a cheaper alternative in explosives’ and mine detection than the far more expensive method of using imported dogs.” This may be another first for the Sri Lanka army. ( continued)

[1] Daily News 24.8.16 p 7 Modern used file 13 .

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