CMAC Verifies Thai Cluster Munitions Fire

Demining and unexploded ordinance experts yesterday said they had confirmed reports that Thailand fired cluster munitions at Cambodia in the latest round of border fighting.

Heng Ratana, director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Center, said CMAC staff stationed nearest Preah Vihear temple, where fighting broke out Friday over a disputed stretch of border around the World Heritage Site, had investigated the reports Monday.

He said the team found remnants of M42 and M46 submunitions but could not complete a thorough survey of the area due to the persistent threat of fighting. An uneasy calm has held at the border since the last shots were fired Monday morning.

Mr Ratana said Thai forces loaded the munitions onto 155 mm rockets, which can carry more than 70 bomblets each.

Suffering a legacy of US bombing during the Indochina War, Cam­bodia is one of the most heavily cluster-bombed countries in the world. But until now, Preah Vihear pro­vince had been virtually free of the weapons, internationally condemned for the indiscriminate damage they cause.

By scattering tens to hundreds of bomblets, cluster munitions—whe­ther dropped from bombs or fired from rockets—forgo precision by design. They are also known for failing to explode on impact, only claiming lives years and decades after the fighting ends.

“The purpose of cluster munitions is to stay in the ground after the fighting,” Mr Ratana said. “It will last long, and we are very concerned about the impact on the civilian population after the fighting is over.”

But he said it was too soon to say how the cluster munitions may hamper efforts to return the thousand of Cambodians who have fled the fighting thus far.

In the southeastern provinces, where the US concentrated its massive bombing campaign in the 1960s and 1970s, old cluster bomblets continue to claim civilian lives every year.

The M42 and M46 bomblets CMAC staff found in Preah Vihear this week are also US-made.

In a 2007 report to the Red Cross, Chris Clark, a UN program manager for mine action in Southern Lebanon at the time, said M42s and M46s would sometimes fail to explode even when they had properly armed themselves and struck concrete or rock.

Along with one other make, he said, they “have proven to have a higher than average or expected failure rate and…pose the greatest danger and have caused the highest number of post-conflict civilian casualties.”

Israel employed cluster munitions extensively and to widespread international rebuke during its war with Lebanon in 2006. Some reports put the M42’s failure rate at 14 percent, more than one in 10.

“That means they lie around for years in the ground for kids to bump into,” said Denise Coghlan of Jesuit Service Cambodia and the lead campaigner against cluster munitions here. “The possibility is they can be causing casualties in the area long after this is over.”

Though an early champion of an international cluster munitions ban, Cambodia, like Thailand, has held off on signing up to the UN-sponsored Cluster Munitions Convention since it took effect in its first 30 states parties last year. Among the reasons officials have offered for not signing has been Thailand’s own absence from the convention’s roll.

Government officials have refused to elaborate on Cambodia’s stockpile or deployment of cluster munitions. But Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong yesterday insisted that Cambodia has not used any in Preah Vihear.

“So far, no, absolutely no,” he said.

Defense Ministry officials could not be reached, and Thai officials in Bangkok did not answer requests for comment.



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