As anti-landmine activists - including a Cambodian double amputee - head for Norway
for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Ian Brown urges that the continuing threat
of unexploded bombs not be forgotten, and that the United States repay a long-standing
debt to Cambodia.
O n the morning of April 26, 1996 at around 10am, Tem Yim, a 15-year-old boy from
Santuk district in Kampong Thom province, picked up a small, round device. He may
have known what it was. He set it down on the floor and crouched over it. Using a
heavy object, probably a hammer or a large stone, he hit down on the device with
force. He may have been trying to retrieve the explosive inside to use for fishing.
He simply may have been curious to see what was inside the metal covering. The blow
Yim delivered triggered an explosion, killing him almost instantly.
The device that killed him was not an anti-personnel mine but a United States BLU
(bomb live unit) bomblet or "bombie" as it is more commonly known in Cambodia.
According to Mines Advisory Group (MAG) records, approximately half the victims of
unexploded ordinance (UXO)-related incidents in Kampong Thom province fall prey to
the US BLU bomblet, a device the size of a tennis ball, consisting of a fragmentation
casing around the explosive center. When detonated it propels ball-bearings or small
metal fragments, depending on the type, in all directions at ballistic speed.
Yim's death is not an isolated incident: in the year he was killed, MAG recorded
a total of 242 deaths and injuries in Kampong Thom of which 56 were caused by UXO
as opposed to landmines. Of the 56, 18 deaths and 38 injuries were recorded. Nine
children were among those who died from their injuries and 11 had limbs amputated.
Children, compared to adults, suffered disproportionately high rates of death and
injury from bomblets because they often mistake them for balls to play with, throw
around, or strike.
No one knows how many bomblets were dropped during the American "Side-show"
war against Cambodia. In total 500,000 tons of ordnance fell from the bellies of
B-52s on the provinces in the northeast of the country, including Kampong Thom, to
counter Vietnamese activities along the Ho Chi Minh supply trail. An estimated 150,000
Cambodians died in the campaign that, to this day, has never been officially acknowledged
by the US government. The late Richard Milhaus Nixon was the infamous president who
gave the orders to drop the bombs in the early 1970s. Cambodia got off lightly: the
US Airforce dropped 2,000,000 tons on Laos.
What is recognized by military experts is that between 10% and 30% of ordnance, depending
on quality and how the ordnance is delivered to its target, fails to explode on impact.
This means that up to 160,000 tons of US ordnance (termed "garbage" by
the US aircrews at the time) could remain on the ground, threatening the civilian
population. And this amount excludes the missiles and rockets used in the ensuing
civil wars in Cambodia. MAG's statistics show that over half the UXO found and destroyed
are US BLU bomblets types 24, 26, 61, 63 and 66, and therefore it is reasonable to
suggest that there may be up to 100,000 tons in Cambodia, representing many millions
of bomblets - more bomblets than landmines.
And although landmines consistently kill and injure more Cambodians than bomblets,
the latter can be fatal when tampered with, as Yim found out. And like landmines
they deny local communities access to arable land when found concentrated in high
numbers in certain areas. And like landmines they cause untold fear and distress.
MAG, along with all the demining agencies in Cambodia, is doing what it can to combat
the threat of UXO. The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) deploys a number of explosive
ordnance disposal (EOD) teams whose specific task is to deal with bomblets and other
ordnance. Between October 1994 and October 1997 in the course of normal operations
MAG destroyed 1,500 items in Kampong Thom province. In November of this year, MAG
followed CMAC's example and set up its own team, trained by a top United Kingdom
ordnance disposal expert, to work in Kampong Thom. In just two weeks the five-person
team has safely destroyed 39 items of which 24 were US bomblets, an insignificant
amount compared to the total projected above, but a start for MAG nevertheless.
And a basis on which MAG is determined to build. The organization has the expertise
to survey land, train, equip and effectively deploy many more EOD teams in Cambodia.
MAG has access to an able, untapped local workforce willing to be trained and ultimately
to take over and run operations. What prevents MAG and the other demining agencies
from expanding is simply a shortage of funds.
Who then should provide the necessary funding?
I believe that the answer lies in existing environmental legislation which has successfully
applied the principle of "the polluter pays" to impose a legal obligation
on the guilty party to pay for damage to the environment. Certain multi-national
oil companies, for example, have been forced to clean up areas which they have polluted
through negligence. Landmines and UXO in Cambodia represent nothing less than an
environmental disaster that is, without doubt, the major obstacle to the economic
and social development of the country. Applying the "polluter pays" principle,
and given the fact that the majority of landmines and some UXO have been deployed
by successive Cambodian regimes, the Cambodian government must consequently assume
responsibility for damage caused to the country. Responsibility for the pollution
due to the presence of unexploded bomblets, however, lies unequivocally with the
The US must recognize that it has polluted Cambodia and must consequently pay the
price. It already has tacitly acknowledged its war crimes in Laos by funding UXO
clearance there. The US contributes funds to CMAC, which is welcomed, but extra resources
must be provided to clear up the "garbage". The bombing of Cambodia cost
the American people seven billion dollars. A fraction of that amount would be needed
to set up a sustained campaign to safely destroy the bomblets.
The US owes Cambodia a gargantuan debt, counted tragically in lost lives and mutilated
limbs. It could have repaid a minuscule fraction of that debt by agreeing to sign
the Ottawa Treaty banning the production, use and export of landmines. Instead it
made every effort to sabotage the agreement during the drafting process at the Oslo
Conference. Now the US has another opportunity to make amends by funding the humanitarian
demining agencies to clear the bomblets and repair the damage both to Cambodia and
to its own image abroad.
On December 10 Tun Channereth, a Cambodian double amputee, will hoist himself on
to the stage in Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International
Campaign to Ban the Landmine. The prize is well deserved. Rae McGrath, MAG's founder
and one of those who initiated the campaign five years ago, will deliver the acceptance
speech to the gathered dignitaries and the world media. He will speak of the scourge
of the landmine, the waste of countless lives of innocent men, women and children,
the physical and mental anguish caused to victims, the psychological suffering wrought
on poor people whose poverty forces them to risk their lives daily in the search
for food, water and fuel.
I wonder if Rae McGrath will mention the US bomblet. Tem Yim's family and countless
other Cambodians would love him to. Bill Clinton and Kenneth Quinn, the US Ambassador
to Cambodia, are probably hoping he doesn't.
- Ian Brown is the Programme Director of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Cambodia.
The views expressed in this article are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect
the views of the Mines Advisory Group.