The last time Mao Vanna visited the remote villages in southern Cambodia to conduct mine surveys, there was cause for caution. Khmer Rouge soldiers in those days were known to take potshots at the newly arrived Untac helicopters.
Villagers and commanders from all sides often greeted Mao Vanna and his signature blue helmet with stony stares and suspicion, hiding the truth, exaggerating, or simply refusing to talk to him. It was in that environment that most of Cambodia’s minefield mapping was produced.
Seven years later, the veteran deminer and his men from CMAC are returning to some of those same villages and receiving quite a different reception—with quite different results.
Shepherded around like visiting VIPs and told accounts of mine accidents free from the distortions of war, Mao Vanna and his men are gathering a new picture of Cambodia’s minefields that is at sharp variance with what was previously thought.
It’s the beginning of a new nationwide survey by Cambodia’s largest demining agency that is billed as one of the keys to the beleaguered organization’s reform efforts. And the effort is in accordance with the Ottawa Treaty to ban land mines, which requires countries to take an inventory of their stockpiles of land mines.
A preliminary survey of the first province in the study, Kampot, has shown 85 percent less land is now mined there than previously thought. The team has “discovered” 20 villages not listed on maps. Minefields believed to have existed are clear, or found to have been nothing more than bluffs. New fields have materialized. Thirty-year-old, unexploded bombs have been located.
“We used to have big problems,” Mao Vanna said, recalling the frantic effort to survey the country during the Untac period. “Now the military is tired and don’t want to hide anymore, they don’t want to lie anymore.”
The study has been planned for some time. It is another component in the agency’s evolution from a conglomeration of emergency response units to one that more carefully plans its activities.
But the fraud and mismanagement scandal that has wracked the 90-percent foreign-funded agency has raised the profile of the study.
It began in Kampot last July, shortly after revelations that CMAC units there had used donor money to demine land used as a plantation by former Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin—the man who led a train ambush that ensnared three western backpackers in 1994.
That revelation outraged British, Australian and French officials, shocked to discover they were apparently funding Chhouk Rin’s farming at the same time they were pushing to bring him to trial for the deaths of their citizens. An audit released in September also took CMAC to task for shoddy record keeping of its work.
For the initial survey—called level one—deminers are entering villages and interviewing the village chiefs and elders about mine accidents, then investigating suspected fields. The first phase will be followed up with more detailed surveys.
Back at CMAC headquarters, techies are entering the information into a new computerized information-tracking system. The computers can cross-check information with data from the US government on bombing sorties to find out what kind of unexploded ordnances teams are dealing with. The system can check to see if mine awareness or demining teams have been deployed in the area.
“We need a true picture of mines in Cambodia and we haven’t really had one,” John Dingley, a technical adviser from the EU, said. “We’re not interested in the reasons why the information is wrong, we just want to get it right.”
The results are expected to be dramatic.
During the Untac period, some commanders exaggerated the size of their minefields, suspecting the surveyors were spies, or that peace wouldn’t last. Others omitted important fields.
Because the UN wanted to keep its staff safe, entire areas were blocked off for suspected mines.
“The old techniques were lousy,” said Reto Gass, a computer expert from Unicef who helped set up CMAC’s data tracking system.
“There was instability. There was no quality control. Some people were pleasing superiors. The areas were exaggerated by Khmer Rouge to keep people away.”
Now the leaders in no less then the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin are asking for demining, CMAC officials say. Survey teams are slated to visit there next year. In some formerly suspicious hamlets, Mao Vanna and his men share potatoes with villagers and are led to the soldiers who once laid the mines.
CMAC has trained 16 survey teams of two people each. At least 60 more individuals will soon complete training. A team is deployed in Takeo province. In the coming months, teams will move into Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey, Battambang, Pailin and Banteay Meanchey.
The magnitude of difference between the old and the new surveys in Kampot has taken everyone by surprise, CMAC officials say.
One strip of minefields along the provincial border has disappeared, according to Dingley. Most of it never existed. A former Khmer Rouge area larger then Phnom Penh was marked mined. It is now broken up into manageable plots.
One minefield marked as cleared by CMAC deminers was found to contain mines—a testament to the lack of oversight and other problems CMAC must still address.
The Canadian government has committed money to conduct the remainder of the survey. Although many donors—and some CMAC insiders—say the reform picture remains murky, most agree the survey is a positive step.
“I think it gives Canada an opportunity to do something that is identifiable, clearly defined and tangible,” Canadian Ambassador Normand Mailhot said.
Government officials back in the capitals of donor nations, he added, are now demanding financial accountability and tangible results for donations.