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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Weapons roundup 'about half-way there'

Weapons roundup 'about half-way there'


Destruction of illegal and surplus weapons, and construction of secure arms storage

continues at a rapid pace under the European-Union-funded "Flames of Peace"

project.

Three thousand seven hundred weapons are torched in a public burning at Kampong Cham football stadium.

David de Beer, manager of the EU's Assistance on Curbing Small Arms and Light Weapons

in Cambodia (EU- ASAC) program, estimates the project is about halfway to completion,

though admits nobody really knows how many weapons exist in Cambodia.

The latest Flames of Peace weapons burning, at Kampong Cham two weeks ago, brought

the total destroyed since May 1999 by both the Cambodian Government and EU-ASAC,

to over 118,000. There have been about 17 such events in the past three years.

"We know our work is having an impact on communities because five years ago

when we randomly asked rural people to list their main problems in everyday life,

illegal weapons was high. Now it is ranked much lower," de Beer said.

EU-ASAC is working through the provinces, helping the police and military collect

weapons, many of which were handed in during post-conflict amnesties in 1998-99.

In each target area an established protocol and consultation stretching over several

months is required, and incentives such as well pumps have been funded by EU-ASAC

to gain public support and co-operation.

No other Southeast Asian country has such a public policy on weapons destruction.

EU-ASAC's David de Beer and Interior Ministry Secretary Em Sam An hand out T-shirts to provincial elders.

The weapons required for storage in the national reserve are registered, recorded

on computer database, and transferred to secure storage depots built by EU-ASAC;

the rest are spectacularly rendered unusable by public incineration. EU-ASAC has

also facilitated discussions and provided legal advice for the drafting of a new

arms law; the draft (October 2002) has yet to be put before the National Assembly.

Weapons funeral pyres are the most visible part of the program. Most of the work

and money goes into building secure storage facilities for the military and police

posts. EU-ASAC has built four military storage depots in Military Region 1 (Kampong

Cham), four in Military Region 5 (Battambang) and four in Military Region 4 (Siem

Reap); eight depots in the Phnom Penh special military region have been renovated,

and every police post in Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kampong Speu has been equipped with

lockable racks. Computers are provided, as are training in security operation and

maintenance.

Prior to this project, neither military nor police had any idea of weapons totals.

Lack of security was a major source of weapons "leaks" to civilians. De

Beer said he had had police requesting safe storage facilities to eliminate this

problem.

Core funding for the program comes from the EU (last three years spending totalled

$5.52 million); grants from individual member governments pay for specific project

components (eg the Netherlands Government is fully funding the current work in Siem

Reap province, of four storage depots in Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Banteay

Srey districts, and lockable racks in barracks).

Flames of Peace are major public events and the most recent at Kampong Cham football

stadium was typical. The provincial government had promised to truck in some 3,000

residents, but by start time there were an estimated 5,000 gathered, comprising a

cross-section of the province, ranging from Scout groups to elders, most seated under

canopy structures.

About 5000 people, representing the provincial population, attended the ceremony in Kampong Cham football stadium.

Many local organizations were represented, plus there was a big turnout of military

and police. Five hundred EU-ASAC caps and T-shirts were given away and all the official

party and VIPS from Interior Ministry Secretary of State Em Sam An down, wore them.

Hani Fiya, executive director of the Phnom Srey Association for Development, which

was the key local organization involved in this third Kampong Cham weapons destruction,

explained how PSAD helped spread the message through the province at all levels.

In addition to workshops and planning meetings, PSAD had facilitated: two anti-weapons

campaigns, 16 district authority meetings, 17 commune level meetings that reached

182 villages. As a direct result 146 weapons and 503 explosives were handed in and

insecurity was reduced.

The lighting of the pyre of 3,707 weapons (mainly AK-47 assault rifles, some in very

good condition) using long-handled diesel-soaked torches was accompanied by the release

of doves and helium-filled balloons.

It takes about four days to construct the pyre and sandbagged bunker, using charcoal

layers and diesel and gasoline accelerant; it burns for 36 hours. Some of the burned

weapons are later used in metal sculpture by the Peace of Art Cambodia Project.

Adrian Sprangemeijer (a former Dutch military explosives expert), one of EU-ASAC's

core team of five, said destroying weapons by crushing would be much easier and cheaper,

but the public profile and symbolism of cleansing by fire was a key to the project's

success.

"Small weapons are a very sensitive issue in Cambodia. People are still anxious

about their personal security, and desperately short of money so an illegal weapon

can be sold for use or scrap. They make a powerful choice to voluntarily hand in

a weapon for destruction or report on someone else who has possession of a weapon."

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