A team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Cambodia Sunday night, with officials saying they will investigate chemical weapons dropped by the United States during the Vietnam War.
Cambodian officials first appealed in October to the OPCW, which is the implementing body of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, complaining about non-lethal CS tear gas bombs found in Svay Rieng.
The presence of the chemical bombs became a contentious point between Cambodia and the United States, with the US Embassy accusing Cambodian officials of politicising the issue amid a general deterioration in relations between the two countries.
Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Defence Minister Tea Banh said the US has not taken responsibility for its chemical weapons legacy, and identified Mondulkiri, Svay Rieng and Tbong Khmum as the provinces most affected.
Banh told reporters that the OPCW team went to Mondulkiri yesterday, and will begin investigating there today. “This is the successful first step for Cambodia, which used to be victimised, and some ignored us and did not think about our problems. However, this organisation seems to be interested and . . . [can] find a way to neutralise or solve the problem happening in Cambodia,” Banh said.
“We plan to go to Mondulkiri, Tbong Khmum and Svay Rieng provinces. Svay Rieng is the hottest area where we discovered it in many locations,” Banh said.
In addition to CS tear gas, officials believe Agent Orange and blister agents are still present in Svay Rieng. A Post investigation in August found villagers in Svay Rieng living with deformities commonly associated with Agent Orange, and US records show that Agent Orange was sprayed in Svay Rieng, Mondulkiri and Tbong Khmum.
While the US donates around $6 million annually to demining efforts in Cambodia, Banh accused America of not helping and complained that the US has not forgiven Cambodian debt accrued in the 1970s under the Lon Nol regime, another political flashpoint.
Following months of similarly accusatory rhetoric, the US announced earlier this year that it was cutting the $2 million it provides directly to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre and opened up bidding for a new demining project in the country’s east.
Banh yesterday also lamented America’s recent visa restrictions linked to the government’s crackdown on the opposition, explaining that he must be careful about what he says about America, out of fear that more punishments might be forthcoming.
“If we keep talking, they can allege that we have bad intentions toward the US . . . We said that they dropped the bombs on us and they keep forcing us to pay the debt,” he said.
“If we talk strongly, they might wonder that why we are doing so . . . Therefore, we let the friends think of love and peace and justice,” Banh added.
In recent months, Banh and other top government officials – including Prime Minister Hun Sen – have repeatedly accused the US of fomenting “revolution” in Cambodia, expelling a US NGO, shuttering one US broadcaster and severely curtailing another. The heated rhetoric prompted US Ambassador William Heidt to publicly wonder whether the government had ever had “an honest desire” for good relations with the US.
The US Embassy yesterday simply welcomed the presence of the OPCW team.
“We welcome the OPCW and their technical expertise here in Cambodia and look forward to seeing the results of the OPCW’s technical assessment visit,” said spokesman David Josar.
Yesterday was also the official launch of a new EU- and UN-backed initiative for preventing risks from chemical weapons and other arms known as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Action Plan, according to EU Ambassador George Edgar.
“The NAP sets out Cambodia’s plans for preventing, preparing for and responding to CBRN threats,” Edgar continued, referring further questions to Ke Da, deputy secretary-general of Cambodia’s National Authority for Chemical Weapons (NACW). Neither Da nor NACW head Chey Son could be reached yesterday.
The program is meant to tackle “CBRN risks and threats”, including trafficking, terrorism, natural disasters and accidents through “cooperation between participating countries”, according to the UN.