Disarming a country with seven rounds of ammunition for every man, woman and child—and at the very least one weapon per every 23 people—is no small endeavor.
Since the Cambodian government banned private gun ownership in April 1999, the authorities have collected about 100,000 small arms.
But during 30 years of war, arms from an array of sources poured over the border for Cambodia’s various factions, said Prince Sisowath Sirirath co-minister of National Defense.
Some donors say they don’t track the existence of weapons in Cambodia. And experts in the field can only offer broad estimates. Edgar Janz of the Working Group for Weapons Reduction (WGWR) says 500,000 to 1 million small arms remain in Cambodia.
Statistics compiled in 1993 by Untac indicated soldiers of Cambodia’s four political wings had between them 320,443 light weapons and 80.7 million rounds of ammunition.
But that number would account for fewer than one weapon per soldier and fell short of reality, according to a 1998 weapons reduction report.
In that report, Janet Ashby and Neb Sinthay detailed the difficulties of tallying the numbers of guns in Cambodia.
“There are no good statistics on the number of weapons in the country, no good statistics on the number of weapons which are covered by some sort of registration permit…” they wrote.
Janz said the situation is the same today.
Sizable weapons caches reportedly remain hidden, often buried in the jungle. Some of these armaments, from small arms to artillery pieces, have deteriorated to the point of uselessness. But others are still usable.
Thousands of other weapons have been illegally traded to neighboring countries. The occasional report of weapons dumps found along border areas often come from second- or third-hand information and can be either false or exaggerated—making weapons counting all the more difficult.
But this lack of solid figures betrays the fact that arms still litter Cambodia, where automatic weapons are commonplace in the hands of rural civilians—farmers, strongmen or loosely organized militias.
“Cambodia has more weapons than is healthy for any country,” Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, regional coordinator for Nonviolence International Southeast Asia, said Monday.
A distrust of the police or of the government’s ability to protect citizens is likely to keep Cambodians over-armed, says Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.
That, according to Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, encourages the violence that still plagues the country.
“When there are weapons, people use them,” Kao Kim Hourn said.