CMAC Boss Spotlights US War Legacy

The director of the government’s demining arm took to Facebook this week to renew criticism of the U.S. bombing legacy, saying that traces of the Second Indochina War laced Cambodia’s soil, water and air.

Reacting to news that U.S. President Barack Obama had pledged $90 million to Laos on Tuesday to aid in demining efforts there, Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) director Heng Ratana said the U.S. unloaded nearly 3 million tons of ordnance in Cambodia, including cluster munitions, chemical bombs and conventional bombs that killed over half a million people.

US President Barack Obama, right, looks at old ordnance in Vientiane on Wednesday. (Reuters)
US President Barack Obama, right, looks at old ordnance in Vientiane on Wednesday. (Reuters)

While Laos and Vietnam re­ceive generous support from Washington, Cambodia has re­ceived “marginal assistance” to address the same problems, he wrote in a post on Tuesday, de­scribing the lack of aid as “unfair and unjust for Cambodian people” given ongoing fatalities from unexploded ordnance.

The post was accompanied by some 40 photographs of Mr. Ra­tana mingling with U.S. officials, historical shots from the Second Indochina War, CMAC clearance activities and American protesters decrying Cambodia’s human rights record.

On Thursday, Mr. Ratana upload­ed a similar album alongside a more detailed tally of the land mines and other ordnance that the U.S. deployed in what he said were at least 250,000 bombing sorties.

Mr. Ratana also noted the toxic traces of chemical warfare, add­ing that the U.S. had spread the toxic herbicide Agent Orange on 70,065 hectares of land and also used chlorobenzalmalononitrile tear gas—the health and ecological ef­fects of which remain unknown.

“We cannot afford to do research and figure out the extent of its ef­fects!” he said. “Our mission is to get the secret killers out of our land, farms, rivers and sea, so that there will be no more threats, loss of freedom, injuries or deaths re­sulting from UXO left from wars on our farmland and forests.”

The U.S. first made bombing for­ays into Cambodia to attack North Vietnamese hideouts along the Ho Chi Minh trail, later going af­ter Khmer Rouge guerillas as they closed in on the U.S.-backed government in Phnom Penh.

Researchers Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen found in 2006 that some 2.7 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Cambodia—a figure echoed by Mr. Ratana—though they later revised the num­ber down to 500,000 tons.

Death totals also vary, with most historians agreeing that tens of thousands of Cambodians were killed by the bombs.

Figures from Laos are even grislier, with the Lao National Regu­latory Authority for UXO estimating that the U.S. dropped 270 million cluster munitions on the country, making it the most bombed country per capita in the world.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman contested the notion that Washington had not done enough to clean up its lethal legacy in Cam­­bodia, saying the U.S. had spent more than $100 million over the past 20 years on land mine and UXO clearance, as well as education and rehabilitation programs for survivors.

“The United States is one of the largest donors in this sector” and is “proud of the progress that is being made to rid the country of landmines and UXO and of our sup­port for these efforts,” Mr. Raman said in an email on Friday.

The U.S. has moved much of its $5.5 million in annual humanitarian mine action funding from Cam­bo­dia’s western border with Thai­land, which was heavily mined by the Khmer Rouge and Cambo­dian gov­ernment, to the east, where U.S. munitions are concentrated.

Sophal Ear, author of “Aid De­pendence in Cambodia: How For­eign Assistance Undermines Dem­­ocracy,” said the U.S. had still not taken the most basic step to make amends.

“If someone has done something wrong, they should apologize,” he said in an email. “The U.S. has not apologized to Laos or Cambodia, so its leader (President Obama) does not consider what hap­pened to be something the U.S. should apologize for.”

Mr. Ear, a Khmer Rouge survivor, said questions remained about how to adequately atone for mass crimes.

“What I wanted was my dead father alive again, but that’s not going to happen, so the next best thing for me was some communal compensation to help improve education in Cambodia,” he said.

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