There have been a dozen international demining
conferences this year and Cambodia's own -
"International Forum on Demining and Victim
Assistance: Towards Zero Victims Based on Ownership and
Partnership" - was professional, well-organized and
unique. For once, a demining conference was held in a
country that actually has mines, 4-6 million of them.
The forum opened with Second Prime Minister Samdech
Hun Sen's welcoming speech, followed by Cambodian Mine
Action Center (CMAC) Chairman Ieng Mouly and Nobutaka
Machimura, State Secetary of the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs of Japan, which was footing the $300,000 bill for
the October 26-28 forum.
Assembled at the Inter-Continental Hotel were 118
delegates from 31 countries: ten mine-afflicted and the
rest aid donors. Another 105 delegates came from diverse
UN and NGO agencies, Cambodian ministries and CMAC.
Was Cambodia's forum worth the $300,000 price tag?
Program Manager of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Archie
Law, said that could have financed a single 12-man
demining team for a year. Only last week, he said, MAG
escaped downsizing after the Princess Diana Foundation
stumped up with an overdue $1.3 million contribution.
Veteran delegates acknowledge that such big
conferences are often unwieldy and unfocused and do
little to advance real dialogue on demining problems.
Amidst the fog of turgid speeches, however, were
flashes of technical brilliance from people with years of
experience in the minefields.
The CMAC presenters were among the best: Director
General Sam Sotha, Chief of Mine Awareness Tang Sun Hao,
Chief of Staff Phan Sothy and Chief Advisor of Operations
Fred Lewis. Each gave straight-forward pitches about
CMAC's past, present and future.
The first morning session was devoted to wrangling
over the concept of "ownership". Who runs
demining? An independent government agency like CMAC? The
United Nations, as in Afghanistan, where there is no
stable government? Or private companies contracted by a
government like Mozambique?
Dr Leonardo Santo Simao, Foreign Minister of
Mozambique and Demining Program Chairman, said: "I
see two problems. We need new technology because at the
rate we're going it will take 80-160 years to demine our
country for agriculture. And two, productivity. We can
compare NGOs and commercial companies. We need an
incentive for production and to measure basic standards
of operation. Some go as slow as possible because they
count on the continued generosity of donors."
In Mozambique, the government awards contracts to nine
commercial companies and six NGOs on the basis of
productivity, safety and quality control.
Sam Sothy said of the need for a high-tech
breakthrough: "We've dug up 90,000 mines and 190
million pieces of metal, each as time-consuming as
finding one mine."
Veteran deminer Tore Skedsmo, who first came to
Cambodia with UNTAC, cautioned delegates that afternoon:
"The demining industry is only 6-10 years old. It's
been a sharp learning curve. The Wright brothers did not
first design a 747 [jet aircraft]... We will misuse this
afternoon if we have no sharp-edged discussions about how
to get things moving. Mine-afflicted countries should be
more vocal in speaking out about their needs. Donors
should address transparency, the effectiveness of
programs. Cambodia has a clear policy; others see donors
as a source of income."
Diplomats spoke long about their contributions to
demining programs; NGO heads touted their efforts; a
United Nations Volunteer official proposed South-South
cooperation between Asia and Africa as "an
international expression of solidarity"; the
Vietnamese delegation asked for money...
Piercing the fog was Dr Gunter Mulack, Director of
Humanitarian Assistance at the German Foreign Office:
"I've been attending conferences since Copenhagen
. There are too many conferences just to have
people say what they have been doing... Humanitarian aid
is a business. Competition is good to get the best
results. We must listen to the people in the field and
face problems on the ground frankly."
He was rewarded with the day's first round of real
On day two, a convoy of buses took the delegates to
the CMAC Training Base at Kompong Chhnang. Here CMAC
officials treated them to an choreographed display of
manual demining, UXO detectors, community mine awareness
teams, two Finnish flail machines and 18 Swedish
Ian Mansfield - a four-year veteran as a UN Demining
Manager in Afghanistan, said: "There haven't been
any real technical advances in demining. In Afghanistan,
dogs were the best for road clearance, area reduction,
mine detection in areas heavily strewn with metal. They
worked ten times faster than manual demining. We'd run
them two times through an area for quality control.
"The problem with flails is they tend to flip out
mines to other areas. None are perfect... In Afghanistan,
we were in an emergency situation in the beginning:
clearing areas for returning refugees. Later we could
figure costs per square meter and hire commercial
companies that bid the lowest: a business-like
accoun-tabilty. For the long term, though, NGOs are the
best at the village level and for training their staff. A
company just finishes its contract and is gone. A mix of
the two is best."
The highlight of the forum's final day was the session
on technical developments in mine clearing, moderated by
Dr Mulack. Giving the most crisply professional
presentation of the three-day forum were CMAC Chief of
Staff Phan Sothy and LTC Fred Lewis, CMAC Chief Advisor
Of the past four years of mechanical mine clearing
trials, Lewis said: "The classrooms were the mine
fields. Most of the proposals coming from [international
conferences], or indeed the meetings themselves were, I
am told, often very much out of touch with the realities
of the field."
One simple machine of value, Sothy suggested, would be
a low cost, armored brush cutter since detecting
tripwires and cutting vegetation takes up 70% of a
Beyond this, a mechanical mine clearer must achieve a
99.6% success rate. "To date nothing we have tested
can reach 99.6%," Lewis said. "Our Finnish
Flail has reached upwards of 85% under certain
conditions. This doesn't mean that it is not useful, far
from it. It deals with our vegetation problem very
effectively, but it is much more than a super brush
cutter. It reduces the risk by that 85 or so percent to
the manual deminer who must follow up to achieve full
mine clearance... speeding up the miner's work by up to
Looking to the future, there is talk of ground
penetrating radar that would detect the shapes of mines,
differentiating them from other metal debris in the soil,
or of a chemical sensor that would duplicate the sniffing
talent of a dog. But Lewis said: "Although there may
be pie-in-the-sky hopes for technology here, and there
may even exist classified military systems that do it,
they have not been made available to CMAC."
Former Brigidier General Patrik Blagden, Technical
Director, Geneva International Center for Humanitarian
Demining, said: "We've tried many machines and
failed, expecting too much."
That said, he stressed that mechanized mine clearing
in Angola had increased the scope of operations by a
scale of four or five. He urged researchers to get out of
the lab and into the field, and veteran deminers to
network constantly. "Use the club," he advised.
"The number of people who work in demining is small;
the people who talk about it, large."
Other delegates stressed the need for military
researchers, the space industry, military intelligence
and chemical labs to focus on mine clearance.
Looking at the forum as a whole, Gunter said it was
good for Cambodia, the first held in a mine-affected
country. "People can see the stability here now. It
gave the Cambodians confidence."
He is, however, still fed up with conferences.
"People are always saying what they are doing.
Diplomats and donors are invited and must be given their
say. There should be a focus on problems, new technology,
free and open discussions addressing the needs of
deminers. I'd prefer working in small groups."
MAG's Archie Law agrees: "It was good to get
together, good for Cambodia and for CMAC to show what
they are doing. But the conference set-up was not
constructive. I'd prefer workshops with small groups of
people in the field. We could feed this information to
UNMAS [United Nations Mines Actions Service] in New York
to spread around the world."
The forum ended with closing remarks by CMAC Chairman
Ieng Mouly. Later he presided over a press conference
with other speakers: Sotha, Machimura, Mansfield and
Mouly was asked about a news report that day. In
Battam-bang province, several thousand displaced persons
were leaving camps for Samlot, intending to demine farm
land by themselves. Since some 70 sq kms of land have
already been cleared by farmers in Cambodia, would CMAC
consider some kind of fast deployment that would not
approach a 99.6% clearance rate but still reduce mined
areas to lower risk?
"No, we have a plan and international
standards," Mouly replied. "70% clearance is
not our tradition. The Ministry of Interior has to let us
know before we can begin planning."
He recalled the June massacre at a CMAC camp on the
Thai border in Banteay Meanchay. "We had to withdraw
from that area. We have to wait for peace to come back
Sotha stressed the limited resources of CMAC but ended
his statement on a hopeful note: "Five years ago, we
estimated it would take 170 years to clear Cambodia of
mines. Now we think it will take 20-30."