CHHUK DISTRICT, Kampot province – Villagers here, many who are former Khmer Rouge fighters, are familiar with the sound of gunfire, but the crack from a single shot fired on Thursday morning startled a crowd of about 1,500.
They gathered in front of the Taken commune office to witness fire destroy 473 weapons used by the Khmer Rouge, which was active in the villages of Chhuk district through the mid-1990s.
Another snap from a stray bullet drew gasps. A round had apparently been left inside a rusted chamber, while 15 other bullets had been removed from that chamber. More villagers backed away. The growing flames heated the already hot morning.
The blaze that would melt AK-47s, M-16s and rocket launchers was intended to be symbolic of the area’s willingness to leave behind its turbulent past and send the message that it is eager for development dollars and national assistance.
“These 473 weapons are the symbols of war and resistance that lie in the past,” said David de Beer, program manager for European Union Assistance on Curbing Small Arms and Light Weapons in Cambodia. “A symbol that the violence and destruction is behind you. With peace comes security and development.”
EU/ASAC has been responsible for ridding the country of 107,644 weapons since May 1999 in “Flame of Peace” ceremonies. Thursday’s blaze was the 23rd orchestrated by the weapons destruction program.
Last week in Stung Treng province, it rendered 2,535 weapons useless.
But the inferno in Chhuk was a departure from its other ceremonies.
These weren’t from stockpiles, taken from large caches or from discarded government arsenals. The mass of guns trucked to Koh Sla village were the result of two years of work by the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, an organization that canvassed the area’s far-flung villages looking for the weapons.
In exchange, the EU/ASAC offered to fund the digging of community-owned water wells in area.
But regardless of promises of a weapons for development swap, the guns probably wouldn’t have been surrendered without a nod from Taken Commune Chief Tum Phuong, also known as Ta Koul, a former high-ranking Khmer Rouge commander.
“This area was reinserted into society in October 1996,” he said in a speech during the ceremony. “We appeal to NGOs and in particular to the European Union to please help us develop this area by digging wells, building schools and a hospital.”
As for other weapons stashed in the community, he “appealed to people living here who still illegally own a gun to please give it to authorities.”
Ta Koul wasn’t the only former guerrilla commander who gathered under the satin tents avoiding the blazing morning sun.
Neam Noeun joined the Khmer Rouge in 1976.
“Four AK-47s in that pile belonged to me. I gave them to the authorities for the ceremony because I felt tired with the war. I don’t want to fight any more. I want peace,” he said.
The 45-year-old former fighter said that two of the weapons belonged to him during the war; another two he found in the jungle. “I think there are more guns hiding in the jungle from the war,” he said, but he doubted anyone would be able to find them because the people who buried them “might already be dead.”
Suos Phorn was shot in the leg during fighting in 1994. Now he’s first deputy commune chief of Trapreang Phleang commune. “I think I used a few of those guns for fighting during the war,” he said.
Weapons are still occasionally being unearthed around houses and rice paddies. Tes Vanny walked from his home in nearby Choam Sraloam village carrying the rusted barrel of an AK-47 he discovered in a field about 300 meters from his house.
“I saw it under the ground yesterday evening. I remembered authorities telling me to hand over any guns, and I heard there is a gun destroying ceremony here today. That’s why I brought it here,” he said. “I’ve never worked for the army. I hate it.”
The weapon was tossed on top of the pile of guns before it was set ablaze. EU officials said this is a first in their 23 burnings that someone had walked up carrying a weapon.
Robin-Edward Poulton, a consultant for the EU, was instrumental in starting the weapons collection and destruction program, which was originally intended to gather up guns to bring peace and stability to Cambodia’s rural regions.
“Here ,this is completely different circumstances, because peace has come,” he said.
But getting rid of guns is still key to the overall stability of a region “because those weapons can never again be used to shed Cambodian blood,” said Poulton, who now works as a professor in the US state of Virginia.
Some of the villagers may have relinquished their rifles and machine guns simply because of the promise of development, but “this is not a guns for wells” exchange. Instead, Poulton said, it should show the rest of civil society that Taken is ready for development.
After the fire burns for about 36 hours—the guns left twisted and charred—the remains might be shipped to Vietnam or Thailand and sold for scrap. But officials aren’t exactly sure what will happen to the ruined weapons.
De Beer said the EU/ASAC is trying to secure the money to turn many of the weapon remains into a monument or memorial to the victims of gun violence, but he said on Thursday that just leaving the pile of scorched guns in front of the commune office may be a fitting memorial.