Thailand has admitted that it fired cluster munitions into Cambodia during border clashes in February. The admission has drawn sharp criticism from the Cluster Munition Coalition.
Cambodian Mine Action Center staffer Ouch Ol with the remains of explosives from fighting around Preah Vihear
Thailand's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva told an international campaign for eradicating cluster munitions, the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), earlier this week that his country had fired cluster bombs into Cambodia during border clashes in February.
The fighting took place around Preah Vihear temple, a World Heritage site on Cambodia’s northern border, and left around 10 people dead.
Cambodian armed vehicles were deployed in the four days of clashes
Cluster bombs are often packed into artillery shells, which can carry between 50 and 60 of the weapons at a time. When the shell explodes, the bombs rain out in all directions.
Most explode but a considerably high proportion fail to go off, and usually remain scattered on the land until triggered by civilians, often years later.
Thailand’s ambassador reportedly told the CMC that his nation used cluster munitions in self-defense, and only after Cambodia had shelled Thai civilian areas.
Clean-up needs to begin
Speaking via Skype from northwest Cambodia, Sister Denise Coghlan, CMC’s representative in Cambodia, said she was saddened that Thailand had used cluster munitions, not least since the country was once so outspoken in pushing to outlaw landmines.
She said Thailand must provide Cambodia with information that would help to clean up the contaminated areas, such as the number of shells fired, and in which areas – since the clean-up needs to begin.
"To me it's a miracle that nobody else has been injured since that time because on the second observation mission there were cluster munitions quite close to people’s houses – places where the children of the families there play. So they have a devastating effect on children," she said.
Thousands of families could be affected
Cambodian residents fled the fighting in February, now they could be injured by cluster munitions
The job of clearing up cluster bombs will fall to a government body called the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC).
Heng Ratana, the CMAC’s director general, said his main concern was the humanitarian impact the cluster bombs could have on thousands of families.
He added that the CMAC would shortly start to survey the seven sites that it knows were shelled before work commenced to make them safe for civilians.
"I just would like to convey this message to the international community," he said. "Please kindly put pressure on Thailand to ensure that they do not use this kind of weapon against Cambodian people. And also provide assistance as soon as possible so we can conduct our survey or clearance."
The Preah Vihear Temple lies in a disputed border area claimed by both Cambodia and Thailand
The CMAC has already undertaken work to educate people about the dangers of cluster bombs in the affected areas, including putting posters up on trees and in schools.
Sister Coghlan said she hoped that the news that cluster munitions had been used would make both nations realize that it is time to sign the international treaty.
Decades of conflict from the 1960s mean that millions of landmines and bombs already litter Cambodia. Last year, they killed more than 70 people and injured around 200.
There is still a vast amount of work needed to clear up the debris of past wars. What Cambodia’s people do not need are even more bombs littering the countryside.
Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Anne Thomas