Nearly two decades after the government’s controversial 1997 weapons crackdown that virtually shut down any and every sporting activity with guns, the newly revived Cambodian Shooting Federation (CSF) is ready to fire the competitive aspirations of the kingdom’s sharpshooters once again.
At the heart of this challenging effort to restore one of the oldest Olympic disciplines to Cambodia’s precrackdown glory days of the early 1990s, is the president of the CSF, Lieutenant General Meach Sophana, Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Interior.
“I want to see shooting thrive again as it did in the early ’90s. I want Cambodian shooters to excel in competition, and gun-loving, law abiding citizens to enjoy the sport,” Sophana said in an exclusive interview with The Post.
“Our main aim is to drive out this misconception that guns breed criminality. “We need to change that mindset and shine light on the positive side of gun use. Our message is guns enhance safety and security and could also be highly entertaining as a sporting activity,” he added.
“The sport as a whole and those who used guns lawfully for the purposes they were meant were harshly punished because of a few who used them for illegal purposes and chose criminality over the common good,” he said.
The federation is working hard to overcome several logistical hurdles in the way of sending a national team to this August’s SEA Games in Malaysia. But even if that opportunity goes by, the CSF is determined to pursue future regional, continental and international events, reuniting Cambodia with the rest of the shooting world, reigniting the passions of gun enthusiasts and reintroducing the excitement of the sport among the population.
It was two years ago that a defunct federation got a fresh lease of life under the leadership of Sophana after the National Olympic Committee decided to revive the sport by taking a fresh look at all the consequential issues including the revision of gun regulations and weapon import policies to fit the profile of the sport.
But over the past few months, Sophana and his team, led by weapons expert Colonel Thomas Bovet, a long time defence advisor, have made rapid progress in bringing about the required changes that would open up the sport for competition.
“Our first and foremost task is to finalise federation guidelines on gun regulations, safety, ownership and responsibilities to get them approved by the Interior Ministry and the National Police.
“This is of paramount importance and we are diligently working on it and hope to get it cleared in the next couple of months, if not by the end of this year,” Sophana said.
“Once this is done, our focus will be on safety and security aspects of the sport, and to ensure that the weapons do not fall into the wrong hands and that those who are licensed are held accountable and responsible.
The import of weapons for competitive shooting is one area that could pose challenges to the federation, and Sophana is confident of tackling these issues by invoking the new guidelines.
“We do not manufacture weapons in this country, so we have to rely on imports. We will strictly adhere to the Government regulations and make sure that the weapons are in the right ownership,” Sophana stressed.
Involving members of the public in the sport is one of the long term objectives of this grand revival, according to Bovet, who is currently coaching the national shooters.
“Shooting demands a strong character. The use of firearms and their responsible handling does not allow for lapses in concentration, and special safety rules for guns must be observed at all times,” he said.
“Shooting remains one of the world’s most universal disciplines and is ranked fourth among all Olympic sports in membership and activity.
“Shooting has been staged in every Summer Games except 1904 and 1928, since the birth of Modern Olympics, and the founding father of the Games, Pierre de Coubertin, was himself a pistol shooter,” said Bovet, a German who has made Phnom Penh his second home, having lived here for decades, serving several defence establishments in advisory capacities.
In the 1990s, Cambodian shooters took part in several international events in Brazil and Argentina, including the famous International Handgunners Postal Match in 1996.
Before the weapons ban, the Cambodian team picked up two bronze medals in the 1997 Sea Games in Jakarta, and one of the medallists, Major General Som Sokha, a member of the CSF Committee, is now team supervisor of the all-women shooting team currently training under Bovet.
The secretary-general of the NOCC, Vath Chamroeun, has expressed confidence that the dynamic leadership of Sophana will reshape shooting into a popular sport in the country and will add to the medal count in regional and international competitions.
“It may be a bit late to register the team for Malaysia, but I am hopeful of our shooters competing abroad soon. We are willing to extend all possible help to the CSF in importing weapons once strict regulations are in place,” the NOCC secretary-general said.
“I am also happy that the third phase of our SEA Games Sports Complex project will include an indoor shooting range that will help our shooters get good practice. We want this Olympic discipline to grow among the public,” he added.