Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mines on the map, and money in the bank

Mines on the map, and money in the bank

Mines on the map, and money in the bank

Cambodia is leading the world in the area of humanitarian demining, but it has been

a steep learning curve. Only now is the full picture becoming known, and long term

plans being struck. Matthew Grainger and Christine Chaumeau report.

CAMBODIA'S minefields are disappearing, on paper at least.

When the UN first assessed the problem in 1992 they relied on local people pointing

out places they reckoned were mined. Around 1,900 minefields were "found"

and marked with blood red skull-and-crossbone warning signs; about 3,700 square kms

of Cambodia, a sixth of the country, was declared off limits.

In reality, errors were made on the side of caution.

The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) has now checked 898 of those 1,900 fields

and has found that 376 aren't mined.

By the time CMAC finishes checking the rest, hopefully by year's end, it expects

to find that about half of Cambodia's minefields will be "phantom" fields.

The area of land being freed up by these checks is even more significant: the 376

"phantom" mine-fields represent about 1,000 square kms which is now deemed

safe to use and farm; while the 522 live fields cover "only" 353 square


This is not to say the problem is disappearing. In fact, it could be worse than first

thought - in human cost, if not in terms of area. The accepted figure of one mine

casualty out of every 236 people hasn't been updated in over four years and could

well be understated.

Deminers say that no matter what the public sees and reads, nothing can do justice

to the deaths, the suffering of the wounded and the mental and economic pressure

upon those caring for the maimed.

"The problem is still understated," says Russ Bedford of the Mines Advisory

Group (MAG), one of three demining NGOs working in cooperation with CMAC. "Pictures

on television don't affect people, they're just images. Only those who go out on

the ground and see for themselves know the true devastation."

Humanitarian demining, getting people back living on and farming the land, is still

in its infancy. Operations have to be 99 per cent effective (no-one can guarantee

prefect results) and it's slow, dangerous and expensive.

CMAC, along with MAG, Halo Trust and Cofras-Cidev, are seen by their peers as world

leaders. In Copenhagen at the beginning of this month, experts from around the world

met to develop international standards of humanitarian demining. The model they will

copy is that pioneered by CMAC.

But there are critics. Most recently the US General Accounting Office (GAO) said

CMAC was underfunded, unprepared, lacked a clear mission for the future and had made

little progress because of a lack of political leadership.

The GAO has been one of the few to openly deride CMAC's efforts. It is an official

though unwritten policy within the Cambodian demining fraternity not to publicly

criticize CMAC, or each other.

With the clearer, soon to be definitive, picture emerging of Cambodia's mine problem,

some of the criticisms and half-truths may soon be debunked.

REVISITING history, experts found that neither the invading Americans, nor Lon Nol's

regime, nor the Khmer Rouge were particularly to blame for Cambodia's mine plague,

though all used mines to some extent.

In Kratie, CMAC discovered mines described by villagers as "lobsters",

so-called because of a claw-like safety pin, that were American mines laid by American


The scattering of unexploded bombs, "UXOs" that are still killers today,

occurred during this time because of the secret American B52 carpet bombing.

It was Heng Samrin's People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) army, CPAF, together with

the occupying Vietnamese, that began extensive mining along the Thai border from

1979, protecting against attacks from resistance groups growing inside the refugee

camps. As resistance intensified, so too did mine-laying.

The PRK's "K-5" plan to seal the Thai border included, one CPAF general

told CMAC, laying ten million mines from Koh Kong to Laos. It was a huge, concerted

operation, involving thousands of soldiers and truck-loads of mines from Kompong

Som port.

CPAF didn't quite achieve its ten million target but it tried hard, and laid maybe

half that number.

One CPAF officer showed CMAC his logistics notebook that recorded each one of 92,913

mines his men buried in a 150-km stretch along the Stung Treng border. Despite his

impeccable statistics, he couldn't tell CMAC exactly where the mines were planted.

As resistance from the Royalists, the KR and KPLNF grew against Samrin, and later

Hun Sen, the CPAF mined villages, military outposts, towns, bridges, culverts, roads

and rail further and further inside Cambodia, and increasingly more heavily. Guerrillas

laid their own mines when retreating from attacks.

Current CMAC maps clearly show the traditional KR strongholds around Pailin and Kampot/Kep

as heavily mined, Pailin more so because of the war that continues to this day. So

too are the border areas around Battambang, Sisophon and Bantey Meanchey, diving

deeper inside the country along access routes - road and rail - either side of the

Tonle Sap. In contrast Cambodia's east is barely touched.

Finally, when the 200,000 or so Vietnamese soldiers evacuated Cambodia, Phnom Penh

carried out a last flurry of mine-laying.

By 1991, the mine infestation of Cambodia was complete.

THE RCAF is still laying mines today, and so too are the Khmer Rouge. Politicians

and others who deny this are lying.

Amputee soldiers are honest: "Mines are good weapons because when we lay them

we have safety, and when they detonate we know that [the enemy] has stepped on them,"

said Poth Sothea, a soldier from Kompong Cham, whose half-leg was still seeping blood

even as he spoke from his hospital bed.

"Everyday I laid between 30 to 40 mines, all types," said Chhim Hevy, another

recent amputee. "Land mines are good weapons because we can sleep and there

is no need to guard.

"The people always get wounded, losing arms and legs and also dying because

they climb the mountain to get firewood. The people think that is a mistake of the

soldiers, but I think it's a mistake of the producer."

Amputee Soun Dan said he regularly laid and left 20 mines a day "on Khmer land".

Mon Khmao told a story of a mine he had set that killed two comrades and wounded

a third, "but the wounded man did not blame me because he said it was his fault."

One-legged Men Saroeuth said the situation for people like him was hopeless, and

that they would become beggars or theives.

Most people would argue that laying even one more mine in Cambodia is an abomination.

Others point out the "sick" irony of a Government spending money on a national

institution, CMAC, to clear mines while also paying an army that continues to lay


However, some deminers say that the new mines are not in "significant"

areas of habitation. Route 10 to Pailin, for instance, is probably the most heavily

mined area in the world but few people live there (though it is home to thousands

of IDPs, many of whom have to venture back each year to try and live).

Mines laid in obvious "hot" areas, where fighting traditionally ebbs and

flows, are not yet a de-mining issue. It will be eventually, but there's plenty of

work to do elsewhere for the time being.

The co-operation between demining groups is good "after some teething problems,"

said one deminer. There was initial suspicion that CMAC would monopolize demining,

but that hasn't been the case.

CMAC has the final say on where all demining teams work, the priority always being

to get people housed and onto arable land. CMAC is in charge of issuing demining


The NGOs are "reactive" and can move smaller teams on to sites quickly,

says MAG's Bedford. "CMAC takes longer to plan but can work on large areas more

cost effectively."

The GAO said that mines are denying access to "vast tracts of farmland".

In Battambang that may be true. According to Mines Clearance International (MCI),

a new demining organization looking to work in Cambodia, 40 per cent of arable land

in Battambang is mined.

CMAC - which has 42 de-mining platoons of 30 men each, a number that hasn't changed

since 1992 - last year spent $7 million and cleared about 10 square kms of land.

In total, just over 27 square kms of Cambodia has been demined, by all organizations,

since 1992.

By GAO figures, that land would support fewer than 1,500 families. "The Cambodian

Government has cleared little land of mines and [has] devoted few resources to the

task since 1993," the GAO said.

At the present rate of demining, it will take more than 35 years to clear only land

that CMAC has to date confirmed is mined. Also, its only checked out half of the

suspected minefields, so there might be another 30 to 50 years work or more still

to come - if the funding and staff numbers don't improve.

In defense, experts say by its very nature humanitarian demining is slow and dangerous.

Local staff have had to be trained from scratch and much of the infested land consists

of laterite soils that can activate mine detectors, and is prone to flooding. The

KR also regard deminers as "legitimate" targets of war; MAG deminer Chris

Howes and his interpreter are still today being held hostage by guerrillas.

Given that, CMAC's clearance rate is "pretty darn good," said one Western

advisor, adding however that more money and trained staff are urgently needed.

That task is in the hands of CMAC director Sam Sotha, who began work in January this

year after having spent 15 years in high-level administrative jobs in the US.

"It's not that good," Sotha says candidly about CMAC's clearance rate.

"We need to increase productivity, and we're looking at ways of doing that."

Sotha talks about the use in the near future of mechanical demining devices and mine-sniffing

dogs, to predicting an increase in commercial demining, and to doubling his staff

from 42 platoons to 80.

Sotha himself will head up a new public relations office within CMAC. "This

year will be our big launch, our big strategy for fund raising. When I came [to CMAC]

there was no future plan and funding wasn't in place. When I looked at the problem

I thought 'there is no competition here, we're a national institution'."

He organized a five-year plan for CMAC within six weeks of arriving and began a spree

of hand-shaking and lobbying that has put CMAC on track for a $40 million, five-year

funding "cushion".

"In the last year there was only worry, even down to the individual deminers.

I told them all don't worry, you get on with your job, and I'll get on with mine...

raising money," Sotha said.

Australia has already pledged $9m for three years "and the Australians waited

to see how CMAC would turn out before investing money, but they now believe they

are backing a winner," said one Western advisor.

The Japanese are good for $1.25 million a year; and the Gover-nment's share has gone

from $40,000 in 1994, to $400,000 in 1995, to hopefully $1m this year. Donors in

Tokyo this month have been asked to give the rest.

Most of CMAC's budget is in a trust fund administered by the United Nations Development

Program (UNDP), something originally insisted on by donors.

The UNDP takes seven per cent of this money for itself each year. In two years, around

$17m has gone through the UNDP/CMAC trust account, of which the UNDP has taken $119,000

for "overheads".

Given the harrowing sights and stories of Khmers maimed and killed by mines, it might

be considered heresy to argue that demining is a business, and that any business

can be trapped by vested interests. Is it in the interests of CMAC and other demining

organizations to highlight the horrors and scale of the problem because they want

money? (Killing Fields director, Briton David Puttnam, featured only the British

NGO MAG in his recent BBC documentary about Cambodia. Similarly, a recent French

documentary focused only on the French deminers Cofras-Cidev.) Secondly, can the

problem be overstated by politicians as an excuse that the country's economic development

has not been as rapid as it could?

One Cambodian expert said he did not agree with the political claim that the development

of the country could not be achieved till all the mines are cleared. "That's

a fallacy," he said. "It is a good excuse for the Government."

The GAO noted too that the Government didn't have a plan to integrate mine clearing

within its wider goal of economic development through poverty alleviation and rural


"Sure there might be a bit of truth to all this," said one Western expert,

"because most of the mines weren't laid in rice fields, but in out-of-the way

areas or in areas of key [military significance and] infrastructure.

"But on the other hand, even if local people think there is a mine in an area,

then that becomes land that they won't use. And it takes just as much time to 'demine'

land where there are no mines as it does an actual minefield."

Sotha says: "Six million to ten million mines, this is not a number made up

by the Government or by CMAC. That was done by UNTAC. Now people are saying four

to five million. I tell you, the number doesn't matter.

"By 1996 CMAC will track down all the expected minefields, and it might be 50

to 60 per cent of what we know now," he said.

Bedford of MAG agrees: "We're still talking in terms of millions of mines. Cambodia

still has the highest amputee rate in the world.

"It's a problem on every level, from village, to commune, to district, to government,"

Bedford said.

Former CMAC director Lao Mong Hay said: "It must be agreed that the cost in

time and money is far outweighed by the lives and limbs that have been saved."

Mong Hay said the CMAC model as a state corporation could be repeated in other areas

of government.

"We felt that CMAC needed to be run in a modern, transparent way, with aid money

handled by the UNDP. But in all areas of decision-making and hierarchy and establishing

rules and procedures, it is Cambodian... no doubt about that," he said.

"It is punctual, very disciplined, and it's working."

IT didn't work however - for CMAC or anyone else - in the Battambang communes

of Dun Kot or Perk Sbike or Poet or O Prakeat.

By January 1995, CMAC and MAG deminers had cleared enough land in Perk Sbike commune

to resettle about 120 displaced families, and national television news broadcast

the handing-over ceremony to the community.

Today, most of this land has been mined again.

Commune leader Nok Ren said that within weeks the land had been taken over by soldiers

for a "strategic base" after renewed security problems in the area. The

soldiers stayed 14 months.

"World Vision had planned to set up a school, a pagoda and a hospital,"

Ren said, but today only five families have settled along one kilometer of road,

fearing to go any further. The pagoda is empty.

"We set up our houses on the site of the former [RCAF] camp," said a villager

named Sokhom. "Here there are no mines. But I am still afraid to go out of this

area because I know that the military laid mines to protect their camp."

"I am sorry about what happened in this place," said a CMAC deminer involved

in clearing the land. "We found nearly 9,000 mines along the road and - after

all that - the land still did not go to the people."

A former demining manager who asked to remain anonymous cited two other places where

land ownership is still an issue two years after demining.

"In Poet and O' Prakaet about 10 kms from Snoeng, a list of people who were

supposed to settle there was signed over by local and provincial authorities. Half

of them actually settled. For the rest, powerful people or soldiers kept the land

for themselves."

"We have no way to control the utilization of the land," he said. "No

one is strong enough to make the authorities respect what they have already signed."

In Dun Kot commune too, demined land has been taken over by military, who have now

apparently settled their own families there, instead of IDPs.

Norman Stewart, formerly of MAG and now applying for a license to operate his new

NGO MCI, says: "Currently, no provision has been made to ensure that land cleared

of mines will directly benefit the most needy. Incidents have occurred in the past

where land has been cleared for the most needy only to be taken by Government, military

and police. This situation needs to be stopped."

Stewart is advocating a land titling system, with a 15-year right of ownership during

which time the land cannot be sold, done in conjunction with provincial and village

development committees. Stewart stresses he is not criticizing MAG or CMAC, merely

pointing out a problem that has to be resolved.

MCI's single six-man team would cost $206,480 a year to run, including $120,000 a

year for Stewart's own salary, insurance, travel and support, according to MCI's

new prospectus. CMAC has yet to grant MCI a license, but Stewart says: "There's

enough mines for everyone in Cambodia."

MAG's Bedford, and other deminers spoken to by the Post, acknowledge that problems

similar to that in Perk Sbike have occurred but said that they were nothing more

than isolated incidents and shouldn't be overstated. CMAC was working closely with

local development committees, they said.

However, Paul Davies, a CMAC technical advisor in Battambang, said: "The rural

development office does not do its job properly. It did not give us a list of land

they wanted us to clear."

He said that CMAC set up its own target land along with NGOs and sent the list to

Phnom Penh to be approved by CMAC headquarters.

In Battambang, CMAC has been pressured by provincial authorities to clear recently

captured land along Route 10 to Pailin.

"We could be ordered to go," said Davies. "Right now, we are being

pressured to go there but it is too early. The wet season is just starting and we

want to see what will happen in the next months."

In Siem Reap, Cofras-Cidev, the French demining agency, relies on the rural development

office to tell it where to demine. Cofras is demining around Angkorian temples, and

has been asked to demine land for the Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient

and for the Angkor Conservation.

"As soon as you clear a mine field it is already humanitarian. Whether it is

in a rice field or in a temple, it does not change a lot," said Colonel Jean-Pierre

Billault of Cofras-Cidev.

"In the temple, we save the legs of English or Japanese tourists. And economically

speaking, the opening the temple has a much higher [earning capacity] than the money

that will come from a rice field."

- Additional reporting by Soly Vann Pok and Chhun Phaveng.


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