Villagers in Mondolkiri province have found a pair of rusty barrels believed to date back to the early 1970s and which officials suspect hold chemicals the U.S. used in its war against the Viet Cong to defoliate trees and eliminate cover.
The officials said they did not yet know the exact origin of the barrels or precisely what they contain. The Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), the government body charged with disposing of Khmer Rouge and civil war-era ordnance, is sending an expert team to the area today to investigate further.
CMAC spokesman Sam Socheat said villagers came upon the two barrels on Monday about a kilometer apart near Andoung Kraloeng village in O’Reang district.
“It is the third time that we have found them in Svay Rieng and Mondolkiri provinces. Now we found two barrels of chemicals, again in Sen Monorom commune, but a different village,” he said.
CMAC Director-General Heng Ratana said the barrels contained about 200 liters each, but would not hazard a guess as to what exactly was inside.
“We [did] not yet test it, so we cannot confirm,” Mr. Ratana said. “We will send our team to assess the situation very soon.”
Mr. Socheat said CMAC staff who had already arrived at the scene of the find believed the barrels were dropped by the U.S. and contained some kind of defoliant.
“It is according to my experts over there,” he said. “It was used for burning the tree leaves…so the planes can see the area well.
“They drop it, then the green leaves fall…and it’s easy to find the Viet Cong.”
Mr. Socheat said he did not know whether the barrels contained Agent Orange, the common name for the notorious defoliant the U.S. sprayed extensively over southern Vietnam during the war. The substance has been blamed for both health ailments among U.S. soldiers who handled it and crippling deformities in the children of Vietnamese parents who came in contact with it, though the U.S. government officially denies any link.
Local villagers and health workers say the defoliant was also used during the war in parts of eastern Cambodia, mainly Kompong Cham province.
Mr. Socheat, however, also described the substance in the newly found barrels as “CS,” but could not explain what the initials stood for.
According to a 2007 report in the Army Chemical Review, a publication of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, CS was one of a number of chemicals the U.S. used in its arsenal of “riot control agents,” or tear gas, during America’s war with Vietnam.
According to the report, the U.S. Army used different techniques to deploy the powdery substance, including 55-gallon drums wrapped in explosives that were rolled out the back of a helicopter and detonated just above the ground using wire cords.
It says CS would irritate the eyes, nose and skin and could cause blistering.
District deputy police chief Sok Sovan said the two barrels still posed a health risk and had been roped off in order to keep locals away.
In 2012, villagers found 11 similar barrels in the district believed to date from 1972, by which time the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime was fully engaged in fighting with Communist forces along Cambodia’s eastern border with Vietnam. The U.S. had by then already heavily bombed the area in pursuit of Viet Cong forces, who were using the Ho Chi Minh Trail—part of which snaked through eastern Cambodia—to smuggle fighters and arms from the north of Vietnam to the south.