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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia hopes to go alone on MIA search

Cambodia hopes to go alone on MIA search

Cambodia hopes to go alone on MIA search

The Cambodian government is seeking help from the United States to do independent search and retrieval missions of remains of US "MIAs" - US military personnel missing since the Vietnam war.

In March the Cambodian government's POW/MIA committee submitted a proposal to US Brigadier General Harry B Axson, the Commander of the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-MIA), to upgrade MIA search operations in the Kingdom to a full-time, year-round endeavor overseen by RCAF.

The proposal, which included "moderate" requests for office, communications equipment and vehicles, is designed to replace the current system of annual MIA search and retrieval missions undertaken by JTF-MIA personnel.

Under the terms of the proposal, the Cambodian mission would investigate at least half a dozen outstanding MIA cases, including an E-111 plane crash in Thala Borivat district, a plane crash in Ratanakiri as well as reports, stretching as far back as 1970, of missing or dead US personnel in Memot and Kampong Thom.

Sieng Lapresse, Undersecretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the pressure of time was compelling the Cambodian government to seek a speedy, unilateral solution to the problem of missing US servicemen.

"One of our very good informants died last year," Lapresse said of the Cambodian government's motivation in wanting to take on full time the search for US MIAs.

"The age of the documents, of the information providers and the Cambodian weather making the bones just wash away - that's our concern."

In January, the League of Families, a US-based lobby group of MIA relatives, recommended that an alleged mass grave at a PAVN/KR base camp in Kratie be excavated, an expedition that Lapresse said could be carried out by the Cambodian mission.

Out of an estimated 81 MIAs thought to be on Cambodian soil, the JTF-MIA has to date positively identified the remains of 16 MIAs. Bone fragment samples of the most recent discovery in February have been taken back and are being analysed at JTF-MIA laboratories in Hawaii.

According to Lapresse, the problems of climate and opportunists peddling both fake MIA artifacts and false information would be better dealt with by Cambodian authorities.

"We believe that MIA activity should not be restricted during the rainy season so we are not wasting time and allowing this issue to go on longer and longer," said Lapresse, adding that "...when people see a white face, they just see money."

Lapresse says Cambodia perceives the successful resolution of the US MIA issue as a potential catalyst for Cambodians to seek and confront the truth about their own past.

"The Americans have very much spearheaded the recognition of their own armed forces [while] here we only have Toul Sleng and the bones of our soldiers are scattered everywhere. Closure is very important for the families [of missing Cambodians], we are 99 per cent Buddhist and if we find the bones then maybe we'll learn not to do this again.

"This is not a small thing. We should use this mission to build peace in our minds and in our hearts. We have to admit that for 30 years we've killed each other. Now from today we have to ask 'What are we going to do to overcome that?' " Lapresse said.

Lapresse expresses the hope that one day Cambodia will have a monument like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington to remind Cambodians of all those who have died in the Kingdom's three decades of civil conflict.

"It will be an eye-opener," he said of his vision of the monument that he hopes will one day be dedicated to the dead from all sides.

"Someone has to come and speak the truth," he said.

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