The Incredible Task of Removing Landmines in Cambodia

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SEATTLE — The southeastern Asian country of Cambodia is located on the Gulf of Thailand, surrounded by Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Although the most recent 2013 elections were relatively peaceful, its dark past still very much lingers in the form of landmines in Cambodia. In 1975, under the Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge came into power after capturing the capital of Phnom Penh and began a brutal four-year project of turning Cambodia back into an agrarian society. The regime executed intellectuals and middle-class Cambodians and implemented drastic measures such as banning the use of money, religion and private property. During these four years, an estimated two million Cambodians were tortured and executed, culminating in one of the most brutal genocides of the 20th century. The Khmer Rouge was toppled in 1979 when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, beginning their ten-year occupation.

During its time in power, the Khmer Rouge planted landmines to protect land and after their demise in 1979, tens of thousands of local Cambodians were forcibly directed to plant a minefield wall along the Cambodia-Thailand border. Additional landmines were planted by the Cambodian government to defend territory from opposing forces. As of today, there are said to still be six million landmines planted in Cambodian land, and their precise locations are relatively unknown, as they were planted by various groups, none of which documented their landmines.

The Consequences of Landmines
Landmines in Cambodia have had detrimental consequences, as a recorded 64,000 individuals have been killed due to landmines and another 25,000 individuals injured since 1979. Although around 50 percent of landmines have been removed thus far, landmines still cause major problems in terms of limiting the development and infrastructure of land, roads and water services.

In addition, according to research by the Lotus Outreach’s Girls’ Access to Education program, there are intergenerational effects of landmines as well. Landmine victims and their families are 40 percent more likely to face food insecurity and are more likely to go into debt, as they have to pay for medical treatments. Landmine accidents may also decrease the ability of parents to pay for their children’s schooling and thus perpetuate the poverty trap.

Unfortunately, removing landmines in Cambodia is not an easy task and requires extensive money and labor. It is estimated that one landmine, although it costs only $3 to manufacture, costs up to $1000 to identify and remove from the land.

The Work of Incredible Organizations
There are numerous organizations that are working to remove landmines in Cambodia and help landmine victims and their families. These organizations are by no means an exhaustive list, but are worth expanding on as their work has had meaningful and far-reaching impacts.

The Halo Trust is an international not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1988 to respond to the global devastations caused by landmines. They currently operate in Colombia, Ukraine, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Angola, Zimbabwe, Syria, Georgia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. They were one of the first organizations that responded to Cambodia’s landmine problem and they train individuals to clear landmine-affected regions. The Halo Trust has also collected extensive information regarding the scale and reach of landmine pervasiveness in Cambodia, which is regularly updated in the national database. This provides other organizations with accurate and reliable information to aid the clearing of landmines, so it can be done as efficiently as possible.

Cambodian Mine Action Centre was established in 1992 and is the leading organization working to clear landmines in Cambodia. Although their original mandate was to assist the safe return of refugees to Cambodia, they recognized a need to address the landmine problem in Cambodia and became an autonomous organization in 2000. Their national office is in Phnom Penh and they have various focuses, which include mine education and awareness, training and land surveying, mine clearance and research.

Handicap International is an international nonprofit organization founded in 1982 to respond to landmine devastation using a comprehensive approach including rehabilitation, economic integration, landmine clearance, and landmine education and awareness. They also advocate for the rights and assistance of individuals with disabilities. In regards to landmines in Cambodia, they provide victims of landmine explosions with prosthetic limbs, rehabilitation programs and disability inclusion projects.

The Successes and Challenges Ahead
There is no doubt that there has been a drastic reduction in landmine fatalities in recent years and the majority of landmines are now concentrated in 21 districts in the northwest regions of Cambodia. Numerous organizations are dedicated to landmine clearance and new methods of landmine extraction are now being pursued, one of which is using large African-native rats to sniff out TNT, the explosive used in the landmines. These rats are light enough to avoid triggering landmines and have an extraordinary sense of smell, which make them a promising alternative to human-held metal detectors.

Yet, landmines are still pervasive in Cambodia and their effects and consequences are far from being in the past. Landmines in Cambodia are still a major threat and heavily affect vulnerable communities in the border districts. By concentrating on these regions, and working with local actors, various organizations can help to overcome the challenges regarding landmine contamination and significant improvements can be made to secure the increased security and livelihoods within these communities.

– Miho Kitamura

Photo: Flickr

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