The number of victims killed or injured by landmines or other unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from Cambodia’s decades-old wars is projected to have dropped below 100 last year, for the first time since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, as far as annual figures go back.
Officials in the demining and rehabilitation sectors called it an important milestone for one of the most heavily mined and bombed countries in the world.
“This is very good news and we strongly believe this is important for Cambodian people,” said Heng Ratana, director of the government’s Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the largest demining operator in the country.
According to the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, which oversees CMAC, 77 Cambodians were killed or injured by mines and UXO between January and November, averaging seven a month. The number of casualties last month had yet to be tallied, but the country has not seen a month with more than 20 casualties for many years.
At the current rate, Mr. Ratana said the total for last year would fall below 100 “for sure.”
Mines and UXO have caused more than 64,000 casualties since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power, killing nearly a third of them and leaving many of the survivors with debilitating lifelong injuries.
Casualties fell drastically after the regime’s fall in 1979. But they soon started climbing into the thousands again as remaining Khmer Rouge rebels and government forces littered the western provinces with millions of new mines and rockets over the course of a protracted civil war through the 1980s. Ahead of the Khmer Rouge era, the U.S. had already dropped millions of bombs on Cambodia in its fight with North Vietnam, many of which failed to explode on impact.
The casualty numbers have been falling steadily since peaking in 1996 at about 4,200, thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars that foreign governments including the U.S. have poured into decontaminating the country, coupled with the public’s growing awareness of the remaining dangers.
Despite dropping casualties, farmers should now know better than to let their guards down, Mr. Ratana said. “I believe people will feel safer to use their land, but people have more knowledge [about the risks] and are more careful about using the land.”
The risks are far from over. Demining operators have released about 1,500 square km of land back to the public since foreign donors started funding the work in the early 1990s. But they have some 1,950 square km left to go, and a dwindling budget to do it with.
Casualties unexpectedly rose slightly in 2014 before falling to 111 in 2015, and Mr. Ratana said the same thing could happen again.
“It’s possible if we do not take every effort and strategy to address this problem,” he said. “That’s why we need to keep up the effort.”
The Mine Action Authority is in the process of finalizing a new action plan to carry it through to 2025, by which time it hopes to finish clearing the bulk of the anti-personnel mines that are left.
But a recent assessment of Cambodia’s mine action sector by the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining, commissioned by the U.N. Development Program, said the country was not focusing enough resources on the deadliest and most densely contaminated fields and was at risk of missing its self-imposed deadline.
The report also said that the quality of rehabilitation services for survivors was on the wane because falling foreign funding was not counterbalanced by enough of an increase in government support.
Chann Layheang, who runs the Regional Physical Rehabilitation Center in Battambang province, one of the most heavily contaminated areas in the country, said his funding was secure at least through 2018.
“It’s great that the casualties from landmines are falling,” he said. “It’s good for the people who used to live in dangerous areas. They can do their own farming…with less danger from landmines than 10 years ago.”
Mr. Layheang said that just three years ago, his center alone was seeing about 100 new mine and UXO victims a year. Since 2015, there have been less than 10 a year.
“If the government continues receiving financial support to keep clearing,” he said, “the number will keep going down.”
(Additional reporting by Ouch Sony)