Prime Minister Hun Sen has paid tribute to deminers across Cambodia, whose efforts in the last 25 years have led to a dramatic decrease in mine-related casualties.

He made his declaration in a letter to commemorate the 23rd National Day for Mine Awareness observed on February 24.

The premier expressed appreciation for the work carried out by deminers that have led mine-related casualties to be reduced from 4,320 in 1996 to just 44 in 2021.

But he warned that the risks from unexploded ordnances (UXO) were still high across the Kingdom and that he considered it a “great loss” were anyone’s life to be impacted by explosions. He reminded people living in areas with high risk of UXO to be constantly alert to potential danger.

“I always regard the loss of life, disability and injuries caused by landmine or UXO among ordinary Cambodians and deminers – even just one person – as a great loss and a great sorrow for the whole nation,” he said in the letter.

After Cambodia achieved comprehensive peace in 1998 through his “win-win” policy of Khmer Rouge soldier reintegration, the government turned its attention to the remnants of war – landmines, cluster bombs, and other UXOs – which had led to casualties and loss of socio-economic potential, he added.

In the 29 years from 1992 to 2021, a total land area of 2,325sq km had been cleared and turned into usable land, with 71 per cent of the land having been allocated for use in agriculture, eight per cent in public infrastructure, and 21 per cent for building of homes, schools and health centres.

It has been estimated that over 7.3 million people have benefited from mine clearance in Cambodia, from a total of 1.12 million anti-personel landmines, 26,000 anti-tank mines, and nearly three million cluster bombs being found and destroyed, according to the letter.

“I take this opportunity to express my profound thanks to all donors and development partners, national and international operators, and deminers for their efforts [and cooperation with] the government on mine clearance. I regard mine clearance as a priority of the government [as it] provides safety, reduces poverty, and is an economic driver,” he said.

But he stressed that the work was far from done as Cambodia still has 794sq km yet to be cleared from landmines and 1,240sq km from cluster bombs.

He also noted that there was still an ongoing need to raise awareness about the dangers posed by UXO.

The premier expressed his appreciation for all involved in demining and urged them to continue working towards the target of making Cambodia landmine-free by 2025.

He reiterated calls made by NGOs and local authorities for the public to avoid contact with UXO to prevent explosions that could cause injuries or deaths, and to always be wary of entering any location suspected to contain UXO. He urged them to report such encounters to authorities, who are trained to destroy them safely.

He also stressed that it is illegal to sell and keep all kinds of UXO.

Ly Thuch, first vice-president of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA), hailed the achievement of peace in the Kingdom as having been an important catalyst for mine clearing activity.

During mine awareness day commemorations in Preah Vihear province, Thuch said: “Under the ‘win-win’ policy of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia achieved peace … enabling the government to deal with the threat posed by landmines and other UXO effectively, providing safety to people and reducing poverty.”

He said he believed that the vision of a landmine-free Cambodia would be built upon the commitment and dedication of people across the Kingdom.

British ambassador to Cambodia Tina Redshaw, who was present at the commemoration, said the courage and determination of Cambodian deminers was “inspirational”. Despite much of the world having been paralysed due to the pandemic, she said, hard-working Cambodian deminers have continued their life-saving work.

She said she was “saddened” by the death last month of three deminers from the NGO Cambodia Self-Help Demining in Preah Vihear province while carrying out their duties at the request of local residents.

Redshaw took the opportunity to highlight the UK’s support of Cambodia’s pledge to be mine-free. Since 2010, the UK has provided $24 million to NGOs including Halo Trust, MAG and NP to support mine clearance activities in Cambodia – placing it among the largest development partner to have contributed to mine action in Cambodia, she said.

The UK supported over 350 deminers and other operational staff in 2020, whose combined efforts resulted in the safe release of over 15 million square metres of land back to communities, she added.

Alissar Chaker, UNDP Cambodia resident representative who also attended the commemoration, commended Cambodia’s commitment to make the country landmine-free by 2025.

“UNDP remains a strong and committed partner to the Royal Government of Cambodia in the pursuit of a mine-free Cambodia by 2025, leaving none of the affected communities or people behind,” she said.