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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Deminers battling the odds

Deminers battling the odds

D EMING groups-arguably doing the most important work to rebuild a shattered

Cambodia-are battling for shrinking funds.

The groups are vying for cash

from some of the same donors, fostering criticism and competition which they all

say is draining attention from the job at hand.

While investors are

lining up to build multi-million dollar casinos, Cambodia's deminers are

scrounging to find the roughly $10 million a year it takes to run the country's

three biggest humanitarian demining organizations.

And they say Cambodia

is now competing with other countries such as Angola and Mozambique for demining


"After the elections Cambodia slipped off the of the media

table," said one demining chief.

Halo Trust has just pulled through one

financial crisis (having lost Swiss donors Pro Victimis, before replacing them

with the Finnish government) and is facing two cuts in funding latter this

year-unless it can find new benefactors.

The Mines Advisory Group (MAG)

also spends much of its time on public relations to drum up cash. Neither MAG

nor Halo would say how much it cost to run their operations.


organisation that draws the most attention is the Cambodian Mine Action Center

(CMAC), the country's leading deminer.

Often condemned for getting off to

a slow start during the UNTAC period, CMAC now has a staff of 1,558 and a

monthly operating budget of $500,000.

But as it approaches the planned

pullout of foreign advisers in April 1996, CMAC is facing some stiff


Internal documents reveal the centre has to face up to several

key failings - including a surfeit of unskilled staff and a lack of internal

investigation which has left thefts undealt with and led to an inconsistent

approach to probing accidents.

This month, CMAC director Ieng Mouly went

to the Paris ICORC meeting to try to convince donors to come through with $7

million they had already been pledged but was never delivered.

He got

only $4.3 million, leaving CMAC scrambling to make up a $3-million


"The future is a bit obscure," says Lt. Col. Serge Léveillé,

CMAC's chief technical adviser, adding the centre could face a layoff of up to

15 staff and the cancellation of plans to test mechanical demining and the use

of dog teams. But he believes that is improving enough to ensure


March also saw a salary shuffle in which several senior

staffers took pay cuts of more than ten per cent, prompting at least one skilled

computer operatior to quit.

Meanwhile, centre planners are scrambling to

find new sources of funding to keep CMAC going beyond April


Léveillé says a strategy paper to be published in July will likely

outline options such as a tax of up to one per cent on all new investments in

Cambodia, with the revenue dedicated to demining; a significant increase on the

$400,000 the Royal government currently gives CMAC and an increase in so-called

contract demining.

CMAC is currently raising extra revenue by demining

along Highway 4 for Fischbach International's construction project. The profits

are to be plowed back in to CMAC's humanitarian demining program.


director Chris Horwood warns that commercial demining could change the sector

irreversibly. "Once you bring commercial contracts into demining, you are going

to destroy the qualitative base of humanitarian demining in Cambodia.... it

should be carefully monitored."

In particular, Horwood warns that the

recent entry of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) into humanitarian

demining-through a $1 million training program provided by United States-simply

duplicates what CMAC is already doing.

"I would be extremely loath to see

the military to take an important role in mine clearance. Mine clearance

requires integrity and above all, competence... It gives the capacity to the

military to get involved in contract demining, mockery of CMAC being the central

agency of demining."

General Lay Bun Song, RCAF chief of international

relations, says there are plenty of mines to go around.

"Why should

soldiers relax in front of what we call the critical problem?"


whether RCAF had plans to get into so-called commercial demining-a business in

which it could easily push CMAC to the sidelines-the general said: "No. No. Not

yet. We just started. In the future, I think."

Capt. Michael Zikes,

demining assistance coordinator with the current US special forces team in

Cambodia, said the RCAF engineering corps' three demining units are no threat to

CMAC's 41 platoons.

"I think people are just worried about RCAF in

general. I don't see them superseding CMAC."

Meanwhile, some observers

warn that the scramble for cash has put pressure on the centre to bend over

backwards to impress potential donors.

Horwood says CMAC's claim to have

reduced mine casualties to 50 per month-down from 300-is wildly


At the Paris donors' meeting Mouly revised that figure to

"between 50 and 150 per month now."

"These starts are not valid ... in

January there were at least 300, and at least 400 injuries and deaths in

February," insists Horwood, adding his figures do not include military

casualties from Anlong Veng.

"The results are quits small. Lets be clear

about it so people realize how painstaking it is ... the donors have to wake up

to the fact we're talking about long term funding."

Léveillé admits the

figure of 50 casualties is too low, saying the number is more likely


"There were more than that last month in Battambang alone," says


"Nobody in Cambodia can confirm the exact number of casualties,"

says Léveillé, adding CMAC made its estimate based on information from the

Cambodian Red Cross.

"Why would we under-report? If the picture is bad,

we're likely to get more funds."

French deminers COFRAS have no such

problem with funds, getting eight million francs per year for their work which

centers around the Angkor temples and some villages.

Tim Porter of Halo

said that the work COFRAS was doing was "not as high priority from a

humanitarian development standpoint as is clearing villages and


COFRAS chief Jean Pierre Billault said "that is a joke", and

that COFRAS' work had economic importance. "If some Japanese or English or

Canadian tourist stepped on a mine, what happens? Nobody comes. Is that

humanitarian or only archeological demining?"



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