An inter-ministerial team of underwater ordnance recovery specialists recently found a soldier’s remains at the site of the warship sunken in the Mekong River in Meanchey commune’s Veal village in Kampong Cham province’s Srei Santhor district during Cambodia’s civil war in the 1970s.
The working group was set up by Prime Minister Hun Sen on August 28, last year, to study the site of the shipwreck and remove the unexploded ordnance (UXO) found in and around it.
The discovery of the remains was announced as Minister of Interior Sar Kheng met the underwater UXO clearance team on February 12. The team identified the soldier as Chhim Chheangly and concluded that he was likely a guard on the ship.
“At the site, besides the ordnance, we have found the remains of a young man inside the ship. He was probably a guard and his name was Chhim Chheangly. That is what his name tag made from aluminum clearly states.
“I would like to appeal to the family of the deceased – to any family who lost a member with this name. We don’t know if this name was his name from birth or it could be that he changed it later, but that is the name stated clearly on his name tag.
“I would like to call on Chheangly’s family to contact the provincial authorities to claim his bones in order to put him to rest with a traditional ceremony,” Sar Kheng said, adding that there may be other bodies in the shipwreck.
The minister has instructed the diving team to collect all the name tags and bones that they find so that they may try to locate the families of the deceased to allow them to hold funerals for them.
Sar Kheng said that so far the team at the site has found about 10 tonnes of UXO in the first section searched but that there are still three more sections left that could have up to 30 to 40 tonnes of UXO between them.
He further noted that all of the UXO at the shipwreck site was potentially still explosive despite the ship and ammunition being nearly a half-century old – dating from 1973 or early 1974.
He added that there are still four other known locations where warships loaded with UXO sank into the river. Two of them were around the Lvea Em district hall in Kandal province and two others were under the Neak Leung Bridge connecting Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces. Many people may have died in those incidents.
Sar Kheng also told the divers to make plans to retrieve the ammunition from those four locations as soon as possible without waiting for the completion of the work at the site in the river in Kampong Cham.
Sem Sovanny, director-general of the Institute for Peacekeeping Forces, Mines and Explosive Remnants of War Clearance, said on February 12 that as of February 11 divers have found 722 UXO consisting of 60mm and 105mm shells and 54,925 hand gun and machine gun bullets in the first section of the ship. The team will continue to explore the three remaining sections.
Sovanny said the operation to collect munitions from the Mekong River in Kampong Cham province over an area of 1,500m, or 150ha, began at the end of October 2020. It is scheduled to be completed in early May of this year.
Mey Sophea, commander of the UXO Clearance Unit of the National Centre for Peacekeeping Forces and Explosive Remnants of War Clearance (NPMEC-ERW), previously told The Post that the warship was left over from the French-colonial era and that it was used by then-Marshall Lon Nol in the civil war to ship supplies from the Ho Chi Minh City port to a military base in Kampong Cham province.
He explained that it was a large warship – 45m long and 8m wide – of French manufacture and design and that it could carry over 100 tonnes of ammunition and weapons.
During the civil war of 1970-1975 the ship was used to transport ammunition and it still bore the name Khmer National Marine in French.
“In general, this kind of ship could have a crew of up to 30 people including sailors and guards. However, it is not known how many people were on-board at the time of the explosion – so we don’t know how many people may have died – or if anyone survived,” he said.