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‘Daunting’ task ahead for deminers

‘Daunting’ task ahead for deminers

2a demine
A Cambodian deminer looks for mines and unexploded ordnance in Battambang in 2010. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Continuous funding is needed to clear millions of remaining land mines and unexploded ordnance still scattered over at least 1,700 square kilometres in Cambodia, officials speaking at the annual National Conference on Mine Action in Phnom Penh said yesterday.

According to estimates looking ahead to 2019, the mine clearance sector needs about $580 million to meet all its goals. From 2010 to 2012, government figures show, national and international contributions averaged about $30 million annually.

“After nearly 20 years of co-operation, millions of land mines have been destroyed and more than 940 square kilometres have been cleared to save lives and limbs, support resettlement efforts and assist development of rural areas and infrastructure in hundreds of communities across the most affected provinces,” Setsuko Yamazaki, the country director for the UN Development Program, said in her opening remarks at the Peace Palace.

Praising Cambodia’s achievements in mine clearance and emergence as a leader in the field, she called the remaining work on the 1,700 square kilomoeters – a conservative estimate – “daunting”.

“This means financial efforts need to be sustained from both the government and the development partners to ensure a timely completion and the sustainability of the program,” she added.

Armed with statistics and charts, the conference speakers tackled a variety of topics, including amounts of cleared land, casualties broken down by gender, crackdowns on scavengers collecting metal found in remnants of war, and the very true story of the decrease in fatalities due to mines and unexploded ordnance.

Since 1979, the government has recorded about 64,000 casualties resulting from encounters with unexploded ordnance and mines; roughly a third of them were fatal.

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But the number has been dropping rapidly. The average number of yearly casualties (which includes injuries and deaths) from 1979 to 1999 was 2,720, which fell to 789 in the years between 2000 and 2006, and 272 from 2007 to 2012.

“I note that in the last three years, we have made very big improvements,” said the director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, Heng Ratana, who attended the conference.

In the area of released land, or that which is deemed free of mines and remnants of war, Ratana said authorities have, in three years, finished almost half of what was done in the prior 17 years.

“We released more than 205 square kilometres,” he said. “In the last 17 years, we cleared less than 400 square kilometres.”

Deminers with the action centre are undergoing extensive salvage training this summer with the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, with the aim of clearing unexploded ordnance left in the depths of the Mekong following Cambodia’s civil war.

General Sem Sovanny with the National Center for Control of Peace Keeping, Demining and Explosive Remnants of War, said that Cambodia has exported its expertise abroad to countries in Central Africa, South Sudan and Lebanon and Chad.

“As of 2006, Cambodia has sent demining teams in the name of UN, a total of 1,445 people,” he said.

In addition to clearance, authorities with the National Police are also cracking down on scrap dealers reselling metal from found bombs, and those who may resell the bombs themselves.

The police in recent years have asked nearly 1,600 scrap dealers and men using metal detectors to sign promissory contracts swearing off the practice, and filed 37 complaints to the court against 66 suspects.

While positive steps have been taken, landmine victim and advocate Tun Channereth, who conducts his campaigns from a wheelchair after an explosion took away most of his two legs, said the government should “hurry up” and clear more land, while also taking care of the maimed Cambodians living in destitute conditions, “without food, water or a house”.

“They must give some opportunity for victims for a safe area to live and have land for their future,” he said. “I’m really concerned about the lives of these people in rural areas.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen closed out the conference by praising the decline in casualties, while calling for co-operation between Cambodia and Thailand in clearing mines along the border between the two countries.

The government’s Mine Action Achievements survey, which started in 2009, could not gather information from restricted border areas containing mines.  

He also rejected an earlier statement by Prak Sokhonn, the vice president of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority, that deminers sent overseas generate income for the Cambodian government.

“We don’t send deminers overseas to make profits. It’s not that. But the problem is that UN requires us to equip everything before sending them out, so the UN reimburses us, which is much more than what we had spent.”

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