In 2011, as President Obama announced the strategic rebalance of U.S. foreign policy priorities to the Asia-Pacific region, Cambodia was nearing its third decade since the end of armed conflict. Landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) dating back to the Vietnam War era and the Khmer Rouge years remain a deadly legacy in communities across the country. I recently completed my first international trip as director of PM/WRA to visit U.S.-funded demining programs in Cambodia, where I saw firsthand how we are making slow but steady progress to help address this difficult humanitarian challenge.
During the various Indochina wars, the Khmer Rouge, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, the Vietnamese military, and to a lesser extent the Thai army, were responsible for laying extensive minefields. These minefields are concentrated in the western part of the country, notably in the dense K-5 mine belt laid in the 1980s along Cambodia’s border with Thailand as protection against the Khmer Rouge. The eastern and northeastern areas of Cambodia are heavily contaminated with UXO, mostly from U.S. air and artillery strikes during the Vietnam War and also from numerous battles fought along the border with Vietnam. Cambodia has an estimated 124 mine-affected districts and approximately 1,914 square kilometers littered with landmines and other explosive remnants of war. Between Fiscal Years 1993 and 2013, the U.S. invested $90.5 million in Cambodia for humanitarian mine action.
I began my visit with several stops in provinces along the Thailand-Cambodia border, including Otdar Meanchey, Banteay Meanchey, and Battambang, where I saw how great the need is for safe, cleared land for agricultural use. The Cambodian population is rapidly growing as the country rebuilds its infrastructure. As I visited with U.S.-funded implementing partners in these provinces, the impact of our efforts to make this land safe for communities became readily apparent to me.
In Otdar Meanchey, I met with the HALO Trust, one of our NGO partners on the ground. HALO has been active in Cambodia for more than 20 years. HALO’s Operations Manager for the region is a Cambodian national named Leng Saren, who has been with HALO Cambodia almost since the program’s inception, and we discussed the evolution of humanitarian mine action programs in the country. The professionalism and dedication of the HALO staff who work tirelessly to clear the northwest provinces along the infamous K-5 mine belt is clearly evident.
HALO staff also showed us an anti-vehicle minefield in Otdar Meanchey, where the Khmer Rouge maintained a stronghold up until the 1990s. We learned how HALO used equipment such as large loop detectors to clear large areas contaminated with anti-vehicle mines. During our visit, a monk from a nearby commune stopped by to thank our group for working to clear the land of mines, and HALO also received a request for explosive ordnance disposal when a group of children found a pile of mortars.
In 2008, clearance in many rural communities along the Thailand-Cambodia border was suspended as a result of ongoing disputes between the two countries over the Preah Vihear temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in northern Cambodia. Late last year, following the UN’s International Court of Justice decision that the disputed territory belonged to Cambodia; tensions eased and HALO re-initiated clearance of explosive remnants of war in some of these border areas.
As in many post-conflict countries, landmines and UXO have a particularly serious impact on rural communities, where they are not only an immediate safety hazard, but also keep farmers from their fields and from transporting goods to and from markets. I met with the leader of one of these villages, who told me that his community has grown from a mere 50 members to 1,200 during his tenure, underscoring the urgency of clearance projects in the area. He asked for assistance in clearing additional water sources so that his village could safely access drinking water, highlighting the importance of continued U.S. support for clearing landmines and UXO.
In Kampong Chhnang, I visited another of our NGO partners, the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, where I learned about their Explosive Harvesting Program. This unique program recycles the explosives contained in stockpiled ammunition into specially designed explosive charges used to help safely dispose of landmines or UXO. Golden West produces about 3,000 of these charges a month, saving demining NGOs and Cambodian Mine Authorities approximately $500,000 a year. Another U.S. supported Golden West initiative involves using advanced 3-D printing technology to create detailed training models of landmines and military ordnance, for use by demining technicians working to safely clear explosive remnants of war.
We also called on the new Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) Salvage Dive Unit operational headquarters. Under this program, developed in partnership with Golden West, Cambodian deminers are training to become their country’s first Salvage Dive Team responsible for underwater UXO clearance.
Cambodia’s efforts to address explosive remnants of war contamination are more efficient and capable because of funding from the U.S. government. We remain committed to supporting this work in the future and to working closely with the variety of NGO partners and Cambodian authorities to help Cambodian communities.
Since 1993, the United States has contributed more than $2.2 billion to more than 90 countries around the world to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war. For more information on U.S. humanitarian demining and Conventional Weapons Destruction programs, check out the latest edition of our To Walk the Earth in Safety.