Over 800 villagers were evacuated yesterday in preparation for the removal of two tear gas barrel bombs in Svay Rieng province, while a provincial committee is attempting to “reduce the fear” surrounding the bombs – fear seemingly stoked by erroneous statements from government officials.
The villagers were forced to move 1.5 kilometres away from their homes in Koki commune while the Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) and the National Authority for Chemical Weapons (NACW) began to excavate the bombs.
The bombs, containing the chemical 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, or CS, were first found in January on the grounds of the town’s pagoda and primary school. Hun Sen revisited the topic last week while lashing out at America over its Vietnam War legacy.
Deputy Provincial Governor Touch Poliva said authorities set up a camp for the evacuees, who will return to their homes in the evenings.“The operation will take at least three days and up to 10 days,” he said.
Svay Rieng provincial authorities issued a letter creating a committee to assist the experts and raise awareness among villagers on the dangers of the CS bombs.
The committee will meet with villagers to inform them about the effects of the bombs, and “reduce the fear and concern”.
At the forefront of this fear and concern may be certain inaccurate assessments made by Hun Sen and CMAC President Heng Ratana in recent public statements.
Hun Sen called the bombs “weapons of mass destruction” and claimed they can cause birth defects in the children of those exposed. Ratana said CS can cause cancer.
Experts, however, disagreed. “There is no evidence that CS causes cancer. While the possibilities of birth defects cannot be ruled out, the potential is very small,” said Richard Guthrie, a UK-based chemical weapons expert.
Guthrie added that while the use of CS weapons in war was outlawed in 1997 under the same legal prohibitions meant to ban weapons of mass destruction, they “are not truly weapons of mass destruction in themselves”.
Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapon security expert, said CS is “generally quite safe”.“An old CS bomb is very much less an issue for safety than a conventional explosive,” he said.
Locals, however, appear to have taken to heart the dire assessments of the bomb’s dangers.
“I am old, so I worry about my health, because I worry an explosion could expose the powder,” said villager Srey Huon, adding that he believed the chemical could cause various diseases.
Ke Da, deputy secretary-general at NACW, said he never passed on information about the chemical’s effects to other authorities.
“I never said what kind of chemical the bombs are. If we saw and examined it we could say, but without that, I dare not say,” he said. Ratana could not be reached.
Political analyst Meas Nee, meanwhile, said Hun Sen’s commentary about the bombs appeared to have been about politics. Nee said the timing of the premier’s focus on the bombs suspiciously coincided with US criticism of Cambodia – and Cambodian accusations of a US plot to foment revolution.
The rhetoric, he said, may be part of a trend of “propaganda to ignite people’s anger against the US”.