The Flame of Peace ceremony at Kratie on July 3.
The recent bombing of two Phnom Penh hotels and the arrest of vendors at Tuk Thla
market has again focused attention on the illicit weapons trade in Phnom Penh.
The Pochentong Boulevard market, where the bombers purchased 20 kg of TNT, conceals
a more sinister trade. Moung Khim, First Deputy of Phnom Penh Municipal Police, told
the Post that the army surplus market is well known as the major weapons black market
in Phnom Penh.
"We have already cracked down on this market but they still operate secretly.
Our crackdown on this market is ongoing," he said.
With some simple negotiating, an AK-47 assault rifle can be had for $40 plus 500
riel for each round of ammunition. Hand grenades cost between $5 and $10 each, while
estimates for a handgun range between $100 and $1000 depending on quality
Other estimates produced by the Working Group for Weapons Reduction in Cambodia (WGWR)
puts the cost of an average handgun at around $120. For the more ambitious, or completely
psychotic, a rocket launcher can be purchased for as little as $32 in Phnom Penh;
prices in the countryside are even lower.
More than 112,000 weapons have been removed from circulation since the Cambodian
government began a strategy of weapons reduction in 1998. However that is still believed
to be only between 10% and 20% of the number of weapons estimated to be in circulation
when the project began.
Of particular concern to WGWR is the fact that only half of those weapons collected
have so far been destroyed, while the rest remain stored in government warehouses.
Weapon caches also remain buried in former front-line war zones according to WGWR.
"Our ideal is to destroy them all" said Edgar Janz, Secretariat Advisor
Henny J. van der Graaf, Project Manager of the EU Assistance on Curbing Small Arms
and Light Weapons in Cambodia (EU - ASAC), says that government will to eliminate
the weapons menace is strong but a more meticulous approach is needed.
"I have done this in other countries... and what struck me was how much the
government had done [to reduce small arms] without any international support,"
But storage and accounting methods have been lax, leading to allegations that many
of the weapons are simply re-sold.
"If you see how weapons are stored... they are just thrown in wooden sheds which
are fairly easy to access", said van der Graaf.
Sar Kheng, Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the National Commission for Weapons
Management and Reform (NCWM), led a Cambodian delegation to New York this month to
attend a UN conference on small arms control. He acknowledged in 1999 that many weapons
collected had simply found their way back into Phnom Penh's markets.
While this is still rumored to be the case, no-one can be certain.
Van der Graaf said that he has "...no evidence, but there are rumors that Cambodian
arms are sold to Sri Lanka and other countries in the region."
Cambodian arms are also said to have found their way to a number of regional hotspots
including Indonesia's Aceh and Mindanao in the Philippines.
But it is the domestic use of weapons that most concerns the EU and local weapons
"Particularly in light of the elections next year [commune elections in Feb,
2002] it's potentially very dangerous. If you take 200 weapons [from a weapons store]
then no-one will know. If a military commander wants to use their authority to sell
weapons illegally to arms dealers then no-one can control it," said van der
To combat this potential threat, the EU project is helping to establish proper warehousing
and registration procedures for both confiscated weapons and weapons held by the
military and the police.
Weapons are presently regulated by a one-page law drafted during Untac times and
a sub-decree issued in 1999. NGOs and the EU-ASAC are anxiously awaiting the passing
of the new draft law that has been with the NCWM for the past three months.
According to van der Graaf the law will allow the government to "...regulate
the use of arms in the military and the police, because at the moment a soldier can
take his weapon home. Under the new law that will be forbidden... now it sometimes
happens that a weapon is handed to a criminal who uses it then it goes back in the
store," he said.
Janz said better regulation should follow the new weapons law, "but then
there is the question of political will and follow-through."
While the MoI has been active in promoting weapons reduction, van der Graaf says
EU-ASAC had to overcome resistance from the Ministry of Defense to destroy weapons
viewed as a possible resource.
The MoI and EU-ASAC have been organizing a series of "flames of peace"
ceremonies around the country to eat into the large cache of confiscated weapons.
"It's cheap and it has a psychological impact" said van der Graaf of the
weapons burning ceremonies.
While conceding that between 20% and 40% of those weapons that end up on the public
pyres are old and unserviceable, van der Graaf points out that it's still vital to
destroy them. To prove it, his office displays a unique wall hanging composed of
homemade weapons pieced together from the parts of broken firearms.
In his July 9 speech to the small arms conference held at the UN headquarters in
New York, WGWR's Path Heang said that confiscating weapons was not enough if they
are not also removed "from people's minds".
A new study commissioned by WGWR points out that women and children are regularly
subjected to weapons abuse by neighbors and relatives.
The survey, conducted in Banteay Meanchey and Kompong Chhnang provinces, found that
the consequences for women and children included displacement and impoverishment
for women fleeing threats of violence from within their own families and villages.
Addressing the UN conference on small arms, Heang said that the study also found
a direct link between weapons availability and "...the economic, health, social,
psychosocial, and political situation of women and children".
"The main issue is fundamentally a lack of trust in Cambodian society, both
between each other, and between civilians and the police and security forces,"
EU-ASAC's van der Graaf agrees. "We've found that people are fed up with war,
and they want to get rid of weapons, but they're always asking us one question: 'Who's
guaranteeing our security, because we never see the police around here'."
He adds that weapons will always circulate, but it is important to achieve an increased
sense of security.