The stockpile of weapons left over from decades of war in Cambodia was greatly reduced by a European-led project that exchanged arms for bespoke development projects, according to a new report authored by one of the project participants.
Robin Poultan, an academic whose research focuses on small arms, helped develop a project for the EU’s Assistance on Curbing Small Arms (EUASAC) that was implemented in Cambodia from 1999 to 2006. In a new account published by the Virginia Commonwealth University, Poultan describes how the project succeeded in having around 143,000 weapons destroyed by “flames of peace”.
“In Cambodia, we literally exchanged weapons for development projects chosen by the villagers,” Poultan wrote. “[But] collecting weapons is pointless unless there is a favourable political context that allows disarmament to bring peace. It was the politics behind our EU-ASAC programme that made [weapons for development] successful.”
The “weapons for development” model was first rolled out by the United Nations in Albania in 1998, a year after civilians looted military depots en masse. Cambodia, which was taking its first steps towards development after years of war, quickly followed suit as an early adopter of the disarmament method.
When the project launched in 1999, the country was still plagued by violence.
“Roaming gangs of ex-fighters terrorised the countryside, kidnapping villagers for ransom. Kalashnikovs were still firing in every province and every district. The Khmer Rouge heavy guns had barely stopped firing when we arrived in Phnom Penh,” Poultan wrote, adding that the “weapons for development” project was the catalyst for peace dialogue in Eastern Cambodia.
Poultan and his colleagues travelled the country holding large town halls and talking to local officials about small arms collection and development. They also forged alliances with local military leaders and police.
Many of the crimes, including kidnappings and extortion, were committed by people in uniform, Poultan noted. The project staff convinced local governors to implement measures making it illegal for military personnel to carry weapons after work.
According to Poultan, these newfound alliances were what led to the project’s success. “In the nitty-gritty of daily field work, our [project] succeeded because we had our own staff in the field constantly talking about weapon collection, and because we involved local authorities, monks, village leaders, police and military officials in the campaign at each step,” Poultan wrote.
There was also high-level buy in. According to the EUASAC website, the initiative ended its presence in Cambodia with a ceremony on June 20, 2006, attended by the prime minister.
Independent analysts have since praised Cambodia’s arms collection efforts, which succeeded in destroying an estimated 208,000 weapons in total.
In a 2005 report assessing different weapons collection strategies, UN weapons expert Geofrey Mugumya wrote that “the manner in which agencies designed and implemented weapon collection programmes had a profound impact on the intended beneficiaries”.
But experts have noted that, despite the continued presence of small arms in Cambodia, the weapons collection efforts disappeared after international funding dried up.
“International donors spearheaded a drive beginning in 2000 to destroy small arms,” wrote Naresuan University’s Paul Chambers in an email. “However, ammunition has not been similarly handled and most of it still exists. Over the last 10 years the Cambodian government seems to have lost some interest in reducing the still-large surplus of small arms.”
Disagreements with international organisations and domestic NGOs could be thwarting these efforts, Chambers added.
According to data collected by the Small Arms Survey in 2006, it is estimated that around 22,000 to 85,000 weapons continue to circulate illegally in Cambodia.