Cambodia is leading the world in the area of humanitarian demining, but it has been
a steep learning curve. Only now is the full picture becoming known, and long term
plans being struck. Matthew Grainger and Christine Chaumeau report.
CAMBODIA'S minefields are disappearing, on paper at least.
When the UN first assessed the problem in 1992 they relied on local people pointing
out places they reckoned were mined. Around 1,900 minefields were "found"
and marked with blood red skull-and-crossbone warning signs; about 3,700 square kms
of Cambodia, a sixth of the country, was declared off limits.
In reality, errors were made on the side of caution.
The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) has now checked 898 of those 1,900 fields
and has found that 376 aren't mined.
By the time CMAC finishes checking the rest, hopefully by year's end, it expects
to find that about half of Cambodia's minefields will be "phantom" fields.
The area of land being freed up by these checks is even more significant: the 376
"phantom" mine-fields represent about 1,000 square kms which is now deemed
safe to use and farm; while the 522 live fields cover "only" 353 square
This is not to say the problem is disappearing. In fact, it could be worse than first
thought - in human cost, if not in terms of area. The accepted figure of one mine
casualty out of every 236 people hasn't been updated in over four years and could
well be understated.
Deminers say that no matter what the public sees and reads, nothing can do justice
to the deaths, the suffering of the wounded and the mental and economic pressure
upon those caring for the maimed.
"The problem is still understated," says Russ Bedford of the Mines Advisory
Group (MAG), one of three demining NGOs working in cooperation with CMAC. "Pictures
on television don't affect people, they're just images. Only those who go out on
the ground and see for themselves know the true devastation."
Humanitarian demining, getting people back living on and farming the land, is still
in its infancy. Operations have to be 99 per cent effective (no-one can guarantee
prefect results) and it's slow, dangerous and expensive.
CMAC, along with MAG, Halo Trust and Cofras-Cidev, are seen by their peers as world
leaders. In Copenhagen at the beginning of this month, experts from around the world
met to develop international standards of humanitarian demining. The model they will
copy is that pioneered by CMAC.
But there are critics. Most recently the US General Accounting Office (GAO) said
CMAC was underfunded, unprepared, lacked a clear mission for the future and had made
little progress because of a lack of political leadership.
The GAO has been one of the few to openly deride CMAC's efforts. It is an official
though unwritten policy within the Cambodian demining fraternity not to publicly
criticize CMAC, or each other.
With the clearer, soon to be definitive, picture emerging of Cambodia's mine problem,
some of the criticisms and half-truths may soon be debunked.
REVISITING history, experts found that neither the invading Americans, nor Lon Nol's
regime, nor the Khmer Rouge were particularly to blame for Cambodia's mine plague,
though all used mines to some extent.
In Kratie, CMAC discovered mines described by villagers as "lobsters",
so-called because of a claw-like safety pin, that were American mines laid by American
The scattering of unexploded bombs, "UXOs" that are still killers today,
occurred during this time because of the secret American B52 carpet bombing.
It was Heng Samrin's People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) army, CPAF, together with
the occupying Vietnamese, that began extensive mining along the Thai border from
1979, protecting against attacks from resistance groups growing inside the refugee
camps. As resistance intensified, so too did mine-laying.
The PRK's "K-5" plan to seal the Thai border included, one CPAF general
told CMAC, laying ten million mines from Koh Kong to Laos. It was a huge, concerted
operation, involving thousands of soldiers and truck-loads of mines from Kompong
CPAF didn't quite achieve its ten million target but it tried hard, and laid maybe
half that number.
One CPAF officer showed CMAC his logistics notebook that recorded each one of 92,913
mines his men buried in a 150-km stretch along the Stung Treng border. Despite his
impeccable statistics, he couldn't tell CMAC exactly where the mines were planted.
As resistance from the Royalists, the KR and KPLNF grew against Samrin, and later
Hun Sen, the CPAF mined villages, military outposts, towns, bridges, culverts, roads
and rail further and further inside Cambodia, and increasingly more heavily. Guerrillas
laid their own mines when retreating from attacks.
Current CMAC maps clearly show the traditional KR strongholds around Pailin and Kampot/Kep
as heavily mined, Pailin more so because of the war that continues to this day. So
too are the border areas around Battambang, Sisophon and Bantey Meanchey, diving
deeper inside the country along access routes - road and rail - either side of the
Tonle Sap. In contrast Cambodia's east is barely touched.
Finally, when the 200,000 or so Vietnamese soldiers evacuated Cambodia, Phnom Penh
carried out a last flurry of mine-laying.
By 1991, the mine infestation of Cambodia was complete.
THE RCAF is still laying mines today, and so too are the Khmer Rouge. Politicians
and others who deny this are lying.
Amputee soldiers are honest: "Mines are good weapons because when we lay them
we have safety, and when they detonate we know that [the enemy] has stepped on them,"
said Poth Sothea, a soldier from Kompong Cham, whose half-leg was still seeping blood
even as he spoke from his hospital bed.
"Everyday I laid between 30 to 40 mines, all types," said Chhim Hevy, another
recent amputee. "Land mines are good weapons because we can sleep and there
is no need to guard.
"The people always get wounded, losing arms and legs and also dying because
they climb the mountain to get firewood. The people think that is a mistake of the
soldiers, but I think it's a mistake of the producer."
Amputee Soun Dan said he regularly laid and left 20 mines a day "on Khmer land".
Mon Khmao told a story of a mine he had set that killed two comrades and wounded
a third, "but the wounded man did not blame me because he said it was his fault."
One-legged Men Saroeuth said the situation for people like him was hopeless, and
that they would become beggars or theives.
Most people would argue that laying even one more mine in Cambodia is an abomination.
Others point out the "sick" irony of a Government spending money on a national
institution, CMAC, to clear mines while also paying an army that continues to lay
However, some deminers say that the new mines are not in "significant"
areas of habitation. Route 10 to Pailin, for instance, is probably the most heavily
mined area in the world but few people live there (though it is home to thousands
of IDPs, many of whom have to venture back each year to try and live).
Mines laid in obvious "hot" areas, where fighting traditionally ebbs and
flows, are not yet a de-mining issue. It will be eventually, but there's plenty of
work to do elsewhere for the time being.
The co-operation between demining groups is good "after some teething problems,"
said one deminer. There was initial suspicion that CMAC would monopolize demining,
but that hasn't been the case.
CMAC has the final say on where all demining teams work, the priority always being
to get people housed and onto arable land. CMAC is in charge of issuing demining
The NGOs are "reactive" and can move smaller teams on to sites quickly,
says MAG's Bedford. "CMAC takes longer to plan but can work on large areas more
The GAO said that mines are denying access to "vast tracts of farmland".
In Battambang that may be true. According to Mines Clearance International (MCI),
a new demining organization looking to work in Cambodia, 40 per cent of arable land
in Battambang is mined.
CMAC - which has 42 de-mining platoons of 30 men each, a number that hasn't changed
since 1992 - last year spent $7 million and cleared about 10 square kms of land.
In total, just over 27 square kms of Cambodia has been demined, by all organizations,
By GAO figures, that land would support fewer than 1,500 families. "The Cambodian
Government has cleared little land of mines and [has] devoted few resources to the
task since 1993," the GAO said.
At the present rate of demining, it will take more than 35 years to clear only land
that CMAC has to date confirmed is mined. Also, its only checked out half of the
suspected minefields, so there might be another 30 to 50 years work or more still
to come - if the funding and staff numbers don't improve.
In defense, experts say by its very nature humanitarian demining is slow and dangerous.
Local staff have had to be trained from scratch and much of the infested land consists
of laterite soils that can activate mine detectors, and is prone to flooding. The
KR also regard deminers as "legitimate" targets of war; MAG deminer Chris
Howes and his interpreter are still today being held hostage by guerrillas.
Given that, CMAC's clearance rate is "pretty darn good," said one Western
advisor, adding however that more money and trained staff are urgently needed.
That task is in the hands of CMAC director Sam Sotha, who began work in January this
year after having spent 15 years in high-level administrative jobs in the US.
"It's not that good," Sotha says candidly about CMAC's clearance rate.
"We need to increase productivity, and we're looking at ways of doing that."
Sotha talks about the use in the near future of mechanical demining devices and mine-sniffing
dogs, to predicting an increase in commercial demining, and to doubling his staff
from 42 platoons to 80.
Sotha himself will head up a new public relations office within CMAC. "This
year will be our big launch, our big strategy for fund raising. When I came [to CMAC]
there was no future plan and funding wasn't in place. When I looked at the problem
I thought 'there is no competition here, we're a national institution'."
He organized a five-year plan for CMAC within six weeks of arriving and began a spree
of hand-shaking and lobbying that has put CMAC on track for a $40 million, five-year
"In the last year there was only worry, even down to the individual deminers.
I told them all don't worry, you get on with your job, and I'll get on with mine...
raising money," Sotha said.
Australia has already pledged $9m for three years "and the Australians waited
to see how CMAC would turn out before investing money, but they now believe they
are backing a winner," said one Western advisor.
The Japanese are good for $1.25 million a year; and the Gover-nment's share has gone
from $40,000 in 1994, to $400,000 in 1995, to hopefully $1m this year. Donors in
Tokyo this month have been asked to give the rest.
Most of CMAC's budget is in a trust fund administered by the United Nations Development
Program (UNDP), something originally insisted on by donors.
The UNDP takes seven per cent of this money for itself each year. In two years, around
$17m has gone through the UNDP/CMAC trust account, of which the UNDP has taken $119,000
Given the harrowing sights and stories of Khmers maimed and killed by mines, it might
be considered heresy to argue that demining is a business, and that any business
can be trapped by vested interests. Is it in the interests of CMAC and other demining
organizations to highlight the horrors and scale of the problem because they want
money? (Killing Fields director, Briton David Puttnam, featured only the British
NGO MAG in his recent BBC documentary about Cambodia. Similarly, a recent French
documentary focused only on the French deminers Cofras-Cidev.) Secondly, can the
problem be overstated by politicians as an excuse that the country's economic development
has not been as rapid as it could?
One Cambodian expert said he did not agree with the political claim that the development
of the country could not be achieved till all the mines are cleared. "That's
a fallacy," he said. "It is a good excuse for the Government."
The GAO noted too that the Government didn't have a plan to integrate mine clearing
within its wider goal of economic development through poverty alleviation and rural
"Sure there might be a bit of truth to all this," said one Western expert,
"because most of the mines weren't laid in rice fields, but in out-of-the way
areas or in areas of key [military significance and] infrastructure.
"But on the other hand, even if local people think there is a mine in an area,
then that becomes land that they won't use. And it takes just as much time to 'demine'
land where there are no mines as it does an actual minefield."
Sotha says: "Six million to ten million mines, this is not a number made up
by the Government or by CMAC. That was done by UNTAC. Now people are saying four
to five million. I tell you, the number doesn't matter.
"By 1996 CMAC will track down all the expected minefields, and it might be 50
to 60 per cent of what we know now," he said.
Bedford of MAG agrees: "We're still talking in terms of millions of mines. Cambodia
still has the highest amputee rate in the world.
"It's a problem on every level, from village, to commune, to district, to government,"
Former CMAC director Lao Mong Hay said: "It must be agreed that the cost in
time and money is far outweighed by the lives and limbs that have been saved."
Mong Hay said the CMAC model as a state corporation could be repeated in other areas
"We felt that CMAC needed to be run in a modern, transparent way, with aid money
handled by the UNDP. But in all areas of decision-making and hierarchy and establishing
rules and procedures, it is Cambodian... no doubt about that," he said.
"It is punctual, very disciplined, and it's working."
IT didn't work however - for CMAC or anyone else - in the Battambang communes
of Dun Kot or Perk Sbike or Poet or O Prakeat.
By January 1995, CMAC and MAG deminers had cleared enough land in Perk Sbike commune
to resettle about 120 displaced families, and national television news broadcast
the handing-over ceremony to the community.
Today, most of this land has been mined again.
Commune leader Nok Ren said that within weeks the land had been taken over by soldiers
for a "strategic base" after renewed security problems in the area. The
soldiers stayed 14 months.
"World Vision had planned to set up a school, a pagoda and a hospital,"
Ren said, but today only five families have settled along one kilometer of road,
fearing to go any further. The pagoda is empty.
"We set up our houses on the site of the former [RCAF] camp," said a villager
named Sokhom. "Here there are no mines. But I am still afraid to go out of this
area because I know that the military laid mines to protect their camp."
"I am sorry about what happened in this place," said a CMAC deminer involved
in clearing the land. "We found nearly 9,000 mines along the road and - after
all that - the land still did not go to the people."
A former demining manager who asked to remain anonymous cited two other places where
land ownership is still an issue two years after demining.
"In Poet and O' Prakaet about 10 kms from Snoeng, a list of people who were
supposed to settle there was signed over by local and provincial authorities. Half
of them actually settled. For the rest, powerful people or soldiers kept the land
"We have no way to control the utilization of the land," he said. "No
one is strong enough to make the authorities respect what they have already signed."
In Dun Kot commune too, demined land has been taken over by military, who have now
apparently settled their own families there, instead of IDPs.
Norman Stewart, formerly of MAG and now applying for a license to operate his new
NGO MCI, says: "Currently, no provision has been made to ensure that land cleared
of mines will directly benefit the most needy. Incidents have occurred in the past
where land has been cleared for the most needy only to be taken by Government, military
and police. This situation needs to be stopped."
Stewart is advocating a land titling system, with a 15-year right of ownership during
which time the land cannot be sold, done in conjunction with provincial and village
development committees. Stewart stresses he is not criticizing MAG or CMAC, merely
pointing out a problem that has to be resolved.
MCI's single six-man team would cost $206,480 a year to run, including $120,000 a
year for Stewart's own salary, insurance, travel and support, according to MCI's
new prospectus. CMAC has yet to grant MCI a license, but Stewart says: "There's
enough mines for everyone in Cambodia."
MAG's Bedford, and other deminers spoken to by the Post, acknowledge that problems
similar to that in Perk Sbike have occurred but said that they were nothing more
than isolated incidents and shouldn't be overstated. CMAC was working closely with
local development committees, they said.
However, Paul Davies, a CMAC technical advisor in Battambang, said: "The rural
development office does not do its job properly. It did not give us a list of land
they wanted us to clear."
He said that CMAC set up its own target land along with NGOs and sent the list to
Phnom Penh to be approved by CMAC headquarters.
In Battambang, CMAC has been pressured by provincial authorities to clear recently
captured land along Route 10 to Pailin.
"We could be ordered to go," said Davies. "Right now, we are being
pressured to go there but it is too early. The wet season is just starting and we
want to see what will happen in the next months."
In Siem Reap, Cofras-Cidev, the French demining agency, relies on the rural development
office to tell it where to demine. Cofras is demining around Angkorian temples, and
has been asked to demine land for the Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient
and for the Angkor Conservation.
"As soon as you clear a mine field it is already humanitarian. Whether it is
in a rice field or in a temple, it does not change a lot," said Colonel Jean-Pierre
Billault of Cofras-Cidev.
"In the temple, we save the legs of English or Japanese tourists. And economically
speaking, the opening the temple has a much higher [earning capacity] than the money
that will come from a rice field."
- Additional reporting by Soly Vann Pok and Chhun Phaveng.