On Deadly Ground: Unexploded Ordnance and Agent Orange in Cambodia

On January 10th 2022, an anti-tank mine killed three deminers affiliated with the NGO Cambodian Self-Help Demining in northern Cambodia. This tragic incident is a reminder that despite considerable progress, deminers have yet to clear 2,034 kilometres strewn with landmines and cluster bombs, according to the Phnom Penh Post. The Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA) issued a report last year stating that between 1979 and 2021, landmines and other ERW (Explosive Remnants of War) claimed 19,805 lives. Cambodia is also home to the world’s largest amputee population.

Multiple investigations in the Phnom Penh Post found evidence that the United States Army sprayed chemicals like dioxin, also known as Agent Orange, on southern Cambodian villages in the early seventies. People directly exposed to Agent Orange suffered from cancers, heart disease, and respiratory problems, while their descendants are born with crippling deformities and cognitive impairments.

Reports in The Atlantic added that researchers at Columbia University and the Institute for Cancer Prevention say that the U.S. military sprayed around 40,900 gallons of Agent Orange in Cambodia. However, the U.S. government has not offered any financial assistance to affected Cambodians who struggle to afford astronomical healthcare bills.

Moreover, at the height of the Vietnam War Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, in desperate attempts to stem the rise of communism in a newly decolonized Indochina, authorised B-52 planes to bombard Cambodia. The War Legacies Working Group (WLWG) says that American bombing raids dropped 2.7 million tons of ordnance between 1965 and 1973, including 26 million cluster bombs. Studies estimate that 25% of this ordnance has not detonated yet.

These unprovoked attacks against a neutral state nearly exterminated “anything that moves” in Cambodia, to quote National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Historians Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen argue that incessant and often indiscriminate bombings incinerated at least 50,000-150,000 civilians to death and ruined the economy. To this day, valuable farmland, rivers, and lakes are contaminated with unexploded munitions. Scholar Erin Lin discovered that rice farmers still avoid regions with rich and fertile soil for fear of triggering hidden bombs.

U.S. carpet bombings drove thousands of homeless, grieving, and vengeful Cambodians into the arms of the fanatical communist sect, the Khmer Rouge: “Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the KR.” Following their triumphant march into Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge instituted a totalitarian and borderline medieval autocracy that inflicted unimaginable horrors on the population. A Vietnamese invasion finally brought an end to this nightmare and ousted the KR in 1979.

The Vietnamese-controlled People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) in the eighties was also responsible for laying countless landmines along the Thai border to prevent the Chinese and American-backed Khmer Rouge from retaking Cambodia. General Lê ??c Anh, Commander of the People’s Army of Vietnam in Kampuchea, devised the “K5” defence plan to seal the Thai border. The PRK forced impoverished, famished, and sickly young men to fell trees in malaria-infested jungles and to lay thousands of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Historians and medical workers like Margaret Slocomb, Fiona Terry, and Esmeralda Luciolli say that disease, malnutrition, accidents, and terrifying Khmer Rouge ambushes killed 50,000 of the nearly one million peasants press-ganged into constructing Cambodia’s deadly “Bamboo Wall.” Amputees have flooded Phnom Penh’s prosthesis clinics ever since.

A retired government employee told Cambodia News English that he regretted the PRK sacrificing many people to create a barren no-man’s land littered with mines. However, he also said it was a price worth paying to stop the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal leader, Pol Pot, from regaining power. Survivors and witnesses beg to differ. An anonymous man fled to refugee camps in Thailand rather than suffer the fate of his brother, who was conscripted into a forced labor brigade. He never saw him again. A former Health Department official vividly remembered the primitive field hospitals devoid of surgeons and doctors. Unqualified orderlies had no choice but to perform emergency surgery on wounded labourers.

Tom Fawthrop says the United Nation’s shameful refusal to recognise the PRK as Cambodia’s legitimate government meant that medical supplies and humanitarian aid rarely reached exhausted and famine-stricken Cambodians. Aid mostly ended up in the hands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas lurking in Thailand instead—the remnants of a homicidal regime that tortured, starved, and executed approximately two million of their own people. Cynical Cold War politics ensured that the U.S., China, and the West in general covertly supported the disposed Khmer Rouge and its insurgency against Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia. Clearly, punishing Soviet-backed Vietnam took precedence over helping Cambodians to protect and rebuild their shattered nation.

The Khmer Rouge also used landmines to sow terror and mayhem. Pol Pot called mines “perfect soldiers” because they never require food, rest, or orders to defeat enemies. KR units infiltrated PRK labor camps at night and sprinkled landmines everywhere, which caused untold panic. Lydia Monin argues that in the early nineties, when the Khmer Rouge invaded around 10% of Cambodia’s territory, Cambodian authorities and departing Vietnamese troops surrounded besieged villages, towns, and cities with landmines to halt the KR’s advance. Deminers like Guy Willoughby of the HALO Trust even admitted that Pol Pot would have reconquered the whole country had Phnom Penh not taken such drastic measures.

The British government’s damning role in teaching the Khmer Rouge how to use landmines is noteworthy as well. Journalists John Pilger and Simon O’Dwyer-Russell revealed that “British and Americans in uniform” trained Khmer Rouge fighters in secret Malaysian military camps. Members of the elite British Special Air Service (SAS) claimed they taught Khmer Rouge troops mine laying and provided off-route mines which detonated by sound. These devices release thousands of miniature pellets that lodge themselves in bodies and are extremely difficult to find or remove. Pilger even spoke with a KR veteran who chillingly confessed “We liked the British. They were very good at teaching us to set booby traps. Unsuspecting people, like children in paddy fields, were the main victims”.

Worst of all, the top-brass in the Cambodian army today is obstructing deminers and their laudable efforts to rid Cambodia of its minefields. Political scientist Matthew Breay Bolton worries that, despite the Khmer Rouge’s defeat and disintegration in the late nineties, there are powerful people in Phnom Penh and Bangkok who refuse to demilitarise the K5 border zone. A lingering Cold War mentality has convinced elderly generals that mines are an integral part of Cambodia’s antiquated security doctrine. As a result, deminers are not given complete access to border minefields.

A stubborn devotion to an outdated and useless defence doctrine is endangering lives. Grinding poverty is pushing Cambodians to venture deeper into arable lands laden with mines and other dangers. This has given birth to what anthropologist Lisa Arensen calls a “hierarchy of risk”: wealthy landowners hire poor labourers or tenants to farm plantations that may be filled with unexploded ordnance. In certain villages, landowners are known to lie about the safety risks to lure unwitting workers onto hazardous terrain.

Furthermore, CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) maps of “cleared areas” do not necessarily correspond to mine-free areas on the ground. CMAC deminers occasionally make mistakes and cut corners—much to the frustration of Cambodians already wary of a distant, corrupt, and authoritarian government. Some villagers find local deminers more trustworthy and efficient because they possess intimate knowledge of the terrain and stand to lose so much personally and professionally if they under-perform.

What can be done to undo this terrible legacy of conflict? Above all else, as the WLWG recommends, American citizens must urge congressmen and women to pass legislation that fully acknowledges the true extent of the U.S. military’s illegal actions in Cambodia. It also grants yearly multi-billion-dollar aid packages to abandoned communities plagued by unexploded ordnance, and provides access to funding for scientists to conduct thorough testing of suspected dioxin hotspots.

Meanwhile, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) must build more amputee rehabilitation facilities, especially in remote areas and northwestern provinces like Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Pailin, which contain a significant number of landmines. Existing clinics need extra funding and resources as well. ARMAC (ASEAN Regional Mine Action Centre) reports argue that the Covid pandemic dealt a severe blow to clinics such as the Jesuit-run Mindol Metta Karuna Reflection Centre. Volunteers from Japan, South Korea, and Australia are unable to fly overseas due to strict travel restrictions and donations are currently few and far in between.

Life as an amputee in Cambodia is very challenging. Friends, colleagues, and even family members, particularly in the countryside, often interpret disability through the lens of Buddhist theology. Losing a limb is perceived as a sign of great misfortune or punishment for evil deeds amputees committed in past lives. Abuse and neglect are not uncommon. This is why rehabilitation centres are so important and must be maintained. They teach amputees how to adapt and thrive with work skills courses, instill a strong sense of community, and serve as bases for activists campaigning for a world without landmines.

Jean-Philippe Stone is an Irish post-graduate who recently completed a PhD in Modern History at the University of Oxford. He works as a Senior Correspondent at the Organization for World Peace. Read other articles by Jean-Philippe.