A devastating legacy of Cambodia’s civil wars has been the tonnes of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the decades of conflict, one that left the country with a curse that continues to destroy lives.
While the millions of mines left buried in the Kingdom’s lands and the government’s dauntless attempts to remove them remain very much in the public consciousness, there is perhaps a less well known but no less menacing aftermath – the explosive remnants of war (ERW) hidden in Cambodia’s rivers.
During the civil war of 1970-1975 between the Khmer Republic regime led by General Lon Nol –which was proclaimed on October 9, 1970 after a coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk – and the Khmer Rouge, many ships carrying many ammunition were sunk with their deadly cargoes.
The Cambodian government, to serve development and free people from fear, is continuing its efforts to address the issue to ensure that the whole of the Kingdom is completely safe from landmines and ERW – both on land and in the water.
With a number of ships sunk in the Kingdom’s waterways, the riverbeds have to this day been left riddled with hundreds of tonnes of ammunition.
To address this, the government has studied and identified the location of sunken ships.
On August 28, 2020, Prime Minister Hun Sen set up an inter-ministerial working group to find the ERW left on a warship that sank in the Mekong River at Veal village in Kampong Cham province’s Srey Santhor district.
More than 16 tonnes of UXO and ammunition were recovered – as well as the grisly discovery of corpses – with the ship lifted ashore during a six-month operation.
After successfully completing the operation in Srey Santhor district, Hun Sen on January 26, 2021 ordered the retrieval of ERW from ships that sank in in Kandal province’s Lvea Em and Khsach Kandal districts, and Prey Veng province’s Peam Chor and Peam Ro districts.
These sites are currently being identified as part of operations by a multiple teams of government officials, led by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng.
Kheng recently said that while the underwater clearing of UXO and retrieving ships from the bottom of the Mekong had yet to be completed, consecutive successful outcomes gave hope the mission will come to an end in the near future.
The search of a location in Lvea Em district’s Boeung Krum commune showed that a ship belonging to Lon Nol’s forces that sank during the war was loaded with military cargo and held around 800 tonnes. It was called Plang Tong by the locals.
Heng Ratana, director general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), which is part of the working group, told The Post that operations to remove ammunition from ships would continue until they were complete.
It is the policy of the government to make Cambodia completely safe and free from ERW both in water and on land, he added.
Ratana said removing ammunition from ships sunk in the Mekong River is not as easy as doing so on land as sand covering the ammunition had to be removed, which required specialist officers and equipment. Low visibility in the river and strong currents added to the levels of difficulty and danger.
Seng Thea, governor of Prey Veng province’s Peam Chor district, said he welcomed the efforts of CMAC and the Ministry of National Defence to remove deadly ammunition from the river.
“I support and want CMAC and the Ministry of Defence to help as soon as possible so that people can fish and collect water for daily use without fear,” he said.
Aki Ra, president of Cambodian Self Help Demining, told The Post that he fully supported making the Kingdom safe from any danger to its people, whether it be on land or in the water.
“Cambodia will hopefully soon be free of landmines and unexploded ordnance, both from the land and the Mekong River, and I would like to thank the Royal Government for its dedicated operations towards this goal,” Aki Ra said.
Kandal Provincial Governor Kong Sophorn told The Post that removing unexploded ordnance from the riverbed was the most important task for the provincial administration.
“We must follow the recommendations of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng to make sure there are no more landmines and other unexploded ordnance, especially in Kandal province.
“Operations are carried out on a regular basis to discover and remove unexploded ordnance from the riverbed.
“We must continue to deal with its removal, because unexploded remnants of war continue to endanger the lives of people fishing and growing crops,” he said.