Senior Minister & First Vice President of Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority H.E. Ly Thuch spoke with Cambodia Investment Review detailing the vital work of the CMAA, as well as highlighting the economic benefits of de-mining and the role the private sector can play in achieving a mine-free Cambodia by 2025.
The CMAA and de-mining in Cambodia
The Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA) was first established by Royal Decree in 2000 as a government organization mandated to regulate, monitor and coordinate the mine action in Cambodia.
The President of the organization is Prime Minister Samdach Hun Sen, with day to day running of the organization falling to First Vice President H.E. Ly Thuch, who was happy to share some background on the CMAA with us, as well as show us around the command center.
“The government have been active with de-mining for over 30 years, with our Prime Minister taking particular concern for this having not only lost an eye in combat but also knowing firsthand what it was like to cross minefields. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1998 we were finally in control of the whole country, so could start making a truly concerted effort to rid the country of these deadly mines so that refugees could return. Hence the formation of the CMAA”.
The CMAA from a statistical point of view has been phenomenal, with casualty numbers dropping from 4320 in 1996 to 44 in 2021, although the Minister was keen to add that the Kingdom would not be satisfied until the country was mine-free stating: “Removing one mine saves one family, helps improve our economy and results in poverty reduction”.
A point emphasized by the fact that three brave de-miners lost their lives earlier this year with CMAA Advisor Salah Essa adding: “These workers died as four mines had been packed four on top of each other to cause maximum human damage. It is things like this and these dangers that we are fighting against”.
The economic impact of de-mining in Cambodia
As well to the human aspect that mines and unexploded ordinances cause, there were also the serious economic impacts on the country with H.E. Ly Thuch explaining: “While we are extremely grateful to the many donor countries, such as the USA, UK, Japan, Australia, Germany, Norway, Switzerland China, , Canada, Newzerland, Republic of Korea, Ireland, Hungary, UNDP and UNICEF and foundation and humanitarian among others, the current and biggest donor to the de-ming effort so far has actually been from the Kingdom of Cambodia”.
The Kingdom has so far spent approximately $260 million on de-mining in the country, not to mention the immense amount spent by both the government and NGOs on helping mine victims and their families through direct assistance, as well as prosthetic limbs and training for future work. Money that in an ideal world could have been spent on other worthy causes.
“We have spent so much because of how important it is to improve the lives and livelihoods of our people, but sadly this is still money that has been diverted from areas such as education and healthcare, thus slowing our growth as a country”.
When asked directly if countries such as the USA had a “moral obligation” to help the Minister replied diplomatically, referencing a conversation he had had with the previous US Ambassador to Cambodia who had told him that the US had a “Historic obligation” to help, with the Minister adding: “The past is the past, now we are happy for all help that we can get. We do though encourage more FDA (Foreign Direct Investment) towards de-mining”.
A combined annual price tag of approximately $30 million a year, is stated in the 2016 “Finishing the Job” report commissioned by the UN Development Programme, which, according to the Council for Development of Cambodia, represented demining funding at almost 10 percent of Cambodia’s total annual aid grants between 2013 and 2015.
The American Chamber of Commerce recently donated $10,000 in Prey Veng making it the second mine-free province in Cambodia. It is esteemed that it will cost an additional $300 million to have the country fully de-mined by 2025.
The economic benefits of de-mining in Cambodia
While the human impact is the usual focus of concerns around de-mining and the clearing of an ordinance, there are also huge economic rewards to be brought from the clearing of mines that span many sectors.
Currently, there is still approximately 2000 square kilometers of uncleared land throughout the country, meaning it is not being used for a multitude of reasons that could directly help improve the lives and economy of Cambodia, with H.E. Ly Thuch explaining: “Of the land, approximately 85% is reclaimed for agriculture, 15% goes towards local projects such as schools and hospitals, while the rest goes towards national projects like roads, bridges and power plants.
“And for these later projects, it is now a legal requirement for the companies taking part to ensure that these areas are de-mined”, with the Minister quoting the Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville road as such an example.
Increased yield from the reclaimed agricultural land though did not just come from the land itself, but also from a physiological level with H.E. Ly Thuch adding: “When wives are not scared if their husbands will come home, or whether their children can safely play they obviously feel freer. This has the effect of them not only feeling safer but of being able to be more productive with their work”.
Pailin province was then brought up as one example of where this had been successful as before de-mining there had been next to no agriculture, but they had now managed to resettle 25,000 families on agricultural land, with the output now being big enough to support the export of several products from the province to Thailand.
As well as on agricultural and infrastructural levels it was also pointed out how de-mining was helping the nation reach its UN Sustainable development levels, with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) directly linking the efforts to 13 of the 17 sustainable development goals in Cambodia.
Private sector involvement with de-mining in Cambodia
During the recent donation by AmCham in Prey Veng province the chamber President Mr. Anthony Galliano stressed that the main reason for the donation was its members wanting to “give back to the community” and this was a sentiment echoed by the Minister.
“We appreciate all that companies do here, such as creating jobs and wealth, and of course we need them, but when companies give back it not only shows they care, but teaches good morals and ethics to the people of Cambodia. In boxing, they say the first blow should be as hard as the last, so let’s all fight this together and get the job done.”
He further added that several MoUs (Memorandums of Understanding) had been signed with a broad range of entities from Khmer Times to the Malaysian business council of Cambodia and the Bavet Manhattan Special Economic Zone + MedTecs on sponsoring de-mining efforts.
He further added his hope that through increased media exposure more companies would feel compelled to get involved with de-mining efforts within the country.
Can Cambodia be de-mined by 2025?
Much of the remaining mines are spread in the Kingdom’s northwestern region after landmines were laid during Cambodia’s civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. The 2025 goal will mark the third “deadline” by Cambodia’s de-mining sector, first set for 2010 and then 2020.
With the government’s goal of de-mining by 2025 as part of its National Mine Action Strategy (2018-2025), Cambodia Investment Review asked if the goal could still be reached, to which the Minister was optimistic, but also programmatic
“Covid-19 and budget issues have certainly delayed things and not only that, but the older generation of de-miners need to be replaced by new ones. With that being said with more economic help and a real push by our people, it is still achievable”.
He did though clarify that being mine-free was not the same as being ordinance or munitions free, which could take “hundreds of years”. Much of continental Europe still regularly discover unexploded ordinance from World War Two, despite the conflict finishing over 75 years ago.
If Cambodia did not meet its 2025 target it is still obliged under international agreements to remove all landmines. As a state party to anti-personnel mine ban convention, Cambodia is obliged to clear all known mined areas (or minefields) from Cambodia.
Maintaining peace most important
Despite decades of peace, Cambodia is still one of the three most-mined countries on earth after Iraq and Afghanistan, but despite its own problems the country was now actively helping other nations with similar issues.
However recent border clashes between Cambodia and Thailand have complicated overall demining efforts. In 2011 a border skirmish over a disputed area near the Preah Vihear temple in Preah Vihear province killed at least six soldiers and civilians.
Because both Cambodia and Thailand had not acceded to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Thailand admitted using Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition during the clash, a type of cluster munition.
While this type of munition is not technically under the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, “Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to pilot mine action projects along their shared border, helping progress towards the 2025 goal,
The Kingdom was now also actively advising countries such as Colombia, Iraq and most recently the Philippines on de-mining as well as now sending troops as part of peacekeeping missions.
Cambodia currently deploys around 8,000 troops in seven different conflict zones as part of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces, or as H.E. Ly Thuch put it: “We are proud to say that we have gone from a country that needed peacekeepers to one that now provides them. We are also proudly helping share our expertise on de-mining where we can as an active part of the global community”.
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