Thai forces fired at least 100 cluster rockets into Cambodia during four days of fighting over contested borders in early February, explosives experts announced yesterday, adding that it might take more than a year to clear the ordnance that failed to explode.
The announcement was the first public estimate since the clashes ended on Feb 7 of how many of the widely condemned weapons Thailand may have launched.
Human rights groups take particular exception to cluster munitions, which split open in midair, scattering dozens of smaller munitions across the area of a football field or more. They forgo precision by design and often fail to explode on impact, maiming and killing civilians years after fighting has ended. More than 100 countries since 2008 have signed a voluntary treaty to ban the weapons.
The Cambodian Mine Action Center, the government’s demining arm, has been reluctant to offer figures. Persistent border tensions with Thailand have kept CMAC and its partner, Norwegian People’s Aid, from finishing a survey of the area.
But the NPA’s Jan Erik Stoa, a cluster munitions expert who recently arrived from fieldwork in Lebanon, said yesterday during a news conference in Phnom Penh that NPA had drawn the new estimates from the 13 sites that the organization already knew were contaminated in February. “We might even find more,” he said, noting that more sites remained to be surveyed.
Those 13 sites alone mean there are at least 1.5 million square meters of contaminated land directly affecting between 10,000 and 20,000 local inhabitants, he added.
Two unsuspecting border police officers died after picking up one of the small metal canisters. The same explosion injured seven others. The greatest fear is that the unexploded bomblets they have not found may kill and maim more people. At the very least they will hold up farming and other development efforts in an already impoverished region until they disappear.
“There is a need to continue the survey. There is a need to clear the areas as soon as possible…because there are still people and kids living with these things,” Mr Stoa said.
Cluster munitions are hardly new to Cambodia. During the Second Indochina War, the US dropped 26 million bomblets on the country’s eastern provinces in pursuit of Vietnamese supply lines and forces. More than seven million of them may have failed.
But northern Preah Vihear province had been virtually free of the weapons until February’s fighting along the Thai-Cambodian border. The clashes also marked the first use of M42 and M85 bomblets against Cambodia.
Thailand has admitted firing the Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions used to carry the bomblets, at least 56 of them per rocket, but claims these do not constitute cluster weapons.
The UN, which sponsored the 2008 treaty to ban cluster weapons, says otherwise. Mr Stoa called them a “classic example.”
He also said an unusually high number of the bomblets fired into Cambodia in February appear to have failed.
Some reports put the M42’s failure rate at 14 percent, but in Preah Vihear, Mr Stoa said, “we think that we are looking at a failure rate of up to 20 percent.”
With 100 rockets carrying 52 sub-munitions each, that means more than 1,000 armed and unexploded bomblets may still be out there, turning farms and backyards into virtual minefields.
Denise Coghlan of the Cambodian Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munitions yesterday praised the work the government had done in warning locals of the risks and starting to clear the area. But she and others say the government could do more.
Like Thailand, the country has yet to sign on to the cluster munitions ban treaty, variably citing the threat from Thailand and difficulties assessing its own stockpiles.
Besides a clear moral impetus to ban cluster munitions, some believe it may also give a much-needed boost to cash-strapped programs to clear mines, cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance.
“Thailand and Cambodia should both sign the treaty,” Mr Stoa said.