Gurkha contract deminer Meher Sing Gurung at work
On a stretch of scrubby field behind an old border police post six kilometers east
of Takhmau, the future of Cambodian demining is already hard at work.
Here a team of five Ghurkas patiently sweep the terrain with mine and bomb detectors,
monitored by Australian entrepreneur Carl Chirgwin.
Chirgwin - with 21 years as an Australian army engineer bolstered by an MBA - is
a new face of mine clearance in Cambodia.
The owner of Chirgwin Services Group Pty. Ltd, a private contract demining company,
Chirgwin is one of several private contractors jockeying for a piece of the huge
new market of private demining about to be opened by the Cambodian government.
According to Sam Sotha, Secretary General of the newly-created Cambodian Mine Action
Authority (CMAA), the first officially registered and approved private demining companies
allowed to do work in the Kingdom will receive official permission to begin operations
by the end of March.
The official sanctioning of private contract demining marks a major paradigm shift
in a sector that since its inception has been virtually monopolized by the government's
troubled Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) and humanitarian NGOs Mine Action Group
(MAG) and the HALO Trust.
But according to Sotha, Cambodia needs all the help it can get in removing the estimated
six million land mines and innumerable pieces of enexploded ordinance that still
litter the country.
"Cambodia needs help to eliminate the threat of landmines," he said. "Private
companies can play a valuable role in clearing land contaminated by land mines."
In consultation with the Cambodian government, CMAC, MAG and HALO, Sotha is formulating
the regulations to determine the criteria by which private companies can apply to
operate in the country and to govern their conduct once in operation.
Sotha envisages private demining companies filling a hole in mine clearance operations
by taking on mine clearance contracts of the type, size or complexity inappropriate
for either CMAC or humanitarian organizations.
In turn, the CMAA will monitor and perform quality assurance checks on the private
companies as well as their NGO and government counterparts.
"Private contract demining will be done according to the CMAA National Plan,"
Sotha said. "The number of companies allowed into the market will completely
depend on national needs."
Those words are music to the ears of Chirgwin, who agrees with Sotha on the need
for small-scale, flexible mine clearance work that private contractors such as his
"There's more than enough work for NGOs and private demining companies,"
"It doesn't really matter who does the job, the ultimate aim [of demining] is
to return the land to productive use."
Private contract demining companies, Chirgwin says, offer the advantage of applying
market principles to an industry often bloated with high overhead and nebulous cost-benefit
analyses for donors footing the bill.
Chirgwin points to the fact that his team - consisting of five Ghurka deminers subcontracted
from Ghurka Special Services Ltd and nine local support staff - won an Ausaid-funded
contract to clear the future site of an orphanage over a long-established Cambodian
based humanitarian organization.
"Private contract demining can be cheaper and more cost efficient [than humanitarian
NGOs], " he said.
A spokesperson for a Cambodia-based humanitarian demining organization agreed on
the need for private demining companies in Cambodia, but cautioned that the public
should be aware of essential differences between the two types of organizations.
"Keep in mind that humanitarian demining organizations have humanitarian goals
as their primary motivation," the spokesperson said. "The primary motivation
for private demining companies is profit."
Chirgwin says that the popular conception of private demining companies as dollar-chasing
predators is unfair and unrealistic.
"People say that we're ghouls, making a profit from suffering," he said.
"The fact is that demining is a basic service that needs to be supplied."
Over at the Phnom Penh offices of UXB International, another private demining company
waiting for the official go-ahead to begin marketing their services in Cambodia,
UXB SE Asia General Manager Jay Steed says the government move to regulate private
deminers is long overdue.
"Contract demining companies have been coming to Cambodia for the past five
years and making a lot of money," Steed said. "They came and went and didn't
even pay any taxes ... we want to help Cambodia as a registered legitimate company
that will pay its taxes."
Steed says the CMAA five year National Plan for demining contains a bumper crop of
projects to facilitate the construction of highways, bridges and dams that are tailor-made
for private demining companies such as UXB. Steed estimates that within two years
of operation UXB could employ either directly or through subcontracting between 500
- 600 deminers.
But UXB Program Manager Donald E. Smith says that the potential benefits offered
by the advent of private contract demining in Cambodia goes beyond the actual removal
of mines and UXO.
"When private companies become involved, the [demining] process becomes more
transparent, quality goes up and prices come down," Smith said.
Peter Buckley, country manager of a rival aspiring private demining contractor, Asian
Landmine Solutions (ALS), suggested that companies such as his might even help to
revive the viability - and tattered institutional integrity - of CMAC.
"... Donors want to continue funding [CMAC], but would like to see more transparent
and cost-effective management methods," Buckley, a former CMAC Special Technical
"ALS can provide this ...[and] this way all the training, equipment and personnel
investment that donors and the RGC have made over the years is not lost [and] CMAC
goes on with its valuable work."