Arms race in reverse. How CMAC is clearing weapons from Cambodia

CMAC getting rid of 11,000 rifles.

Search and destroy. 11,000 remnants of civil strife 30+ years ago. CMAC is quietly ridding Cambodia of a stockpile of potential trouble. (Photo from CNE Cambodia News.)

Decades have passed since the final shots were fired between the Khmer Rouge soldiers and other Khmer, with some of the last battles taking place in Kampong Kdei, East of Siem Reap. A friend of mine has a house there that boasts bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge.

But in all the upheaval of the Pol Pot years and after, troops were armed mostly with Chinese rifles, though I would not be surprised if some Russian armaments and perhaps a smattering of US firearms were included in the mix – carry-overs from the Vietnam war.

Since the conflicts most attention has been paid to landmine clearance, and this work has been chiefly co-ordinated by the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) which is  Cambodia’s leading de-mining organization,.

CMAC currently has 1,715 staff across Cambodia,  according to the CMAC website, and over recent years they have supplemented their anti-mine activity with the repossession of firearms with the objective of destroying these to promote peace in Cambodia.

On March 1st CMAC Director Heng Ratana (picture above) announced that the Cambodian Mine Action Center will transfer and deliver light weaponry collected from more than 11,000 people for destruction. The weapons are a mix of war remnants discovered in the ground, military firearms and homemade rifles, reports the CNE Cambodian News English service. (Follow them!)

Cambodia must be riddled with these remnants of war.  I recall seeing two or three Chinese rifles hanging in the local policeman’s office near our school in Bakong. In 2016 the law was modified to ensure that police could only carry guns while on duty: but not when they are off-duty.

While firearms are for most people illegal to possess armaments are still permitted for higher ranking officers in the military, even outside ‘office hours.’

In 2016 The Phnom Penh Post reported:

The early 1990s saw countless guns fall into civilian hands as the civil war wound down. Since 1998, the government has embarked on a gun amnesty and confiscation drive that it claims has seen hundreds of thousands of weapons taken off the streets.

But while overall recorded gun crime was down this year (2016) compared with 2014, the number of those killed with firearms went up, according to official figures.

Click here for a story about road safety.

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Revision exercise? China and USA argue over recent Cambodian history

During the years of the Vietnam War, and for some time afterwards I used to view the Voice of America (VoA) news services with deep suspicion. It was propaganda. In recent years my respect for their service as an independent and fair news provider has climbed.  I really think they’re offering a much needed service, especially since the Phnom Penh Post has been degutted to become, shamefully,  little more than a government mouthpiece. The VoA keeps its eye on stories that matter.

Today 11/01/2019 I saw a piece on their website that caught my eye. It concerned the current tit for tat between the US and China over who did, or didn’t drive the fall of Sihanouk at the hands of Lon Nol and the subsequent rise of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Says the VoA in their report:

The online skirmish began when the U.S. Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Jan. 30, saying the Khmer Rouge “ignorantly depended on a superpower,” an apparent reference to China. The embassy later issued comments claiming Washington was not involved in the coup led by Lon Nol that ousted Sihanouk.

The inference is that China was boots and all involved in supporting Pol Pot and that US attitudes had little to do with the events that led, ultimately to the awful genocide.

China has responded said the VoA:

In response, the Chinese Embassy posted a statement on its Facebook page, Feb. 1, mocking the idea that the coup “was not related to the U.S., but the CIA.”

The truth is China and the USA were both instrumental in events. One history of Chairman Mao, I read, said even the Chinese viewed Pol Pot  as dangerously extreme, or even crazy. I need to check my references on that one – but the picture was clear: any backing by China was arms length, but included supply of landmines.

But the USA already had blood on its hands with Kissinger’s vast and illegal bombing campaign in Cambodia’s north east.  The closest the current embassy comes to acknowledging that is to state:

“The United States has addressed its war legacy by long-standing and substantial efforts for humanitarian de-mining and removing unexploded ordnance (UXO), including the removal of hundreds of thousands of Chinese-made mines, which have injured and killed people for decades,” she said in an email.

Even then, in reviewing its war legacy, the US takes a snipe at who made many (or most) of the 4-10 million landmines said to be laid in Cambodia. Journalists and commentators lay the blame for laying these landmines on several forces during Cambodia’s decades-long war: by the Cambodian army, the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge, the non-communist fighters and US forces.

cambodialandmine

Around 50% of all landmine fields have been cleared. Since Since 1979, more than 64,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines in Cambodia – 15,000 from Battambang province and 5,000 from Rattanak Mondul. (Al Jazeera)

In any case, the USA blotted its reputation by suddenly pulling out of landmine removal in late 2017.  “Well just have to raise the money ($2million annually) by going elsewhere,” said Hun Sen at the time.  To that date, the US had sent $132 in removing unexploded mines and bombs.

Why the war of words today?  It appears that the USA is trying to remind the China-leaning Hun Sen Government that they are the good guys here and that it is unwise to put 100% faith in China.  But the words may prove a cheap shot in a losing battle. If you follow the flow of money, then the US has very little to do with Cambodia relative to China. Phnom Penh is mushrooming with Chinese cash and large tracts of Sihanoukville are basically Chinese.  Moral arguments are not effective with this government: especially when they are flawed, revisionist or simply too cheap.

Link to the Voice of America

Landmine clearing organisations:

Landmine Monitor – relevant figures on mine clearance in Cambodia.  Click here.

Mine clearance is undertaken mainly by the national operator, CMAC, and two international mine action NGOs, The HALO Trust and MAG. A national NGO, Cambodian Self-help Demining (CSHD), has been active since 2011.

More discussion. Is China’s investment going to choke Cambodia? click here.

 

 

The intricate politics of water

JINGHONG DAM

Rivers are commonly referred to as the lifeblood of nations. Rivers provide water but also sustain plant and animal life both on the banks and beneath the surface. Fish travel up rivers to spawn. Rivers feed the ground-water supply and help farmers keep an equilibrium between wet seasons and dry.

But who controls the river? What rights do various nations have when the river flows through their territory? One only has to look at the fate of the Colorado river in North America to see the downstream impact of up-stream actions. Thanks to the water consumption of California, the mighty Colorado no longer even makes it to Mexico where it flowed for thousands of years.

What if China did the same to the Mekong that flows through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam?  Pictured above is the awesome Jinghong dam in China, built to generate much needed electricity. But this dam can effectively turn-off the Mekong tap, and limit the river flow – affecting water supply and fishing.

China is not alone here. Since 2006 some 11 dam sites have been nominated for hydro dam construction in Thailand, in Cambodia and – with 7 slated projects – in Laos. Everybody wants a slice of the resource.

In attempt to co-ordinate management of the Mekong resource, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand governments formed the Mekong River Commission with which Myanmar and China also confer. The MRC was formed in 1995, but this last year has faced serious internal problems through lack of funding and very divisive disagreements between the member nations. In particular, the dam projects planned by Laos threaten to seriously impact the fishing on the river – estimated by the MRC to be an annual 4.4 million tonne catch worth almost $17 billion. That represents around one eighth of the value of the world’s total freshwater fish catch.

Make no mistake, as China flexes its economic muscle in the region, downstream nations namely Cambodia and Vietnam have a lot to lose.  Decreased flows from the Mekong have already led to increasing salination – from salty sea water – of delta flats in Vietnam, rendering farms and local freshwater fisheries unsustainable.

This year, in the face of the SE Asian drought experienced by the Mekong nations, China scored a diplomatic coup by announcing to the MRC that the Jinghong dam would release a substantial flow of water to alleviate the drought situation downstream for one month to mid-April 2016.

It was a generous gesture, but it was also a reminder that what can be turned on can equally be turned off.  The Mekong River, more than ever before, is up for grabs.

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Could Cambodia get an earthquake?

The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology issued a statement Wednesday saying that Cambodia does not have natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunami.  The statement came out after there are reports about an earthquake in Phnom Penh and Kampong Cham province.

People in buildings around Phnom Penh and in Kampong Cham province claimed they had experienced what they believed to be a mild earthquake.

Secretary of State Ngor Pin said what people had experienced was not an earthquake. Although he could not say what caused the tremor, Ngor Pin said the ministry is investigating it.

So its official: Cambodia has no earthquakes or Tsunamis.

But not so fast. Recently a hydro dam project on the Sesan River situated on a site in Stung Treng province was delayed following the discovery that the site was virtually the epicenter of a 5.2 magnitude quake in 1978.  This was revealed by a local impact study which concluded that a similar ‘eruption’ could happen again. This view was promulgated by the 3S Rivers Protection Network, an environmental group who have lobbied, unsuccessfully against the widely unpopular dam.

“It is quite a concern,” they said. “If it erupts, the dam will collapse, which would be destructive for people downstream.”

The dam, a joint venture between Cambodia’s Royal Group and a Chinese company, with a total investment of $861 million, was recommended to have additional strengthening.

A 5.2 magnitude quake is not so catastrophic in scale compared to the big quakes that hit international headlines (usually these are 6.0 – 7.5 on the Richter Scale) but would be strong enough, given Cambodia’s jello-like land structure to cause very serious damage.

I also found reference to a major quake in the 15th Century when a quake that lasted for several minutes was recorded.

Meanwhile the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have published a risk assessment which suggests Cambodia has at least a 20% chance of experiencing at-least a Degree VI earthquake event within the next 50 years. They have used, I believe, the European “macro-seismic scale” and here a Category VI equals:

Felt by everyone indoors and by many to most outdoors. Many people in buildings are frightened and run outdoors. Objects on walls fall. Slight damage to buildings; for example, fine cracks in plaster and small pieces of plaster fall.

 

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An unlikely outcome – how praCh Ly’s Khmer rap music opened up and healed old war wounds

praCh Ly didn’t know it, but his limited release rap CD was going to Number 1 in Cambodia, and was bridging two generations.

Rap music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In the early 90s the gangsta rap sound from the meaner suburbs of Los Angeles assaulted the radio waves and split black culture down the middle with old-school R&B on one side, with a younger edgier generation on the other.

For any teenager growing up in LA it would have been impossible to ignore artists such as Run DMC, NWA, Ice Cube – and if the epicentre of rap music was the suburb of Compton, then in neighbouring Long Beach, home of several hundred thousand Cambodians in the USA, rap music provided an outlet for a generation of young migrants who had grown up with a feeling of displacement that came from being war refugees in a fairly unsympathetic foreign land.

praCh is the seventh child of a refugee family. He was born in 1979 near Battambang, and his family came to United States to escape the Khmer Rouge. His family was quite typical in that the adults seldom talked about their experiences of war: the focus was on the new life, though the new life was extremely tough. Out in the streets, the conversations of young people seem to be mostly about gangs, guns and drugs. praCh Ly loved rap music, but he found his lyrical home when one of his older brothers started telling him stories about the Khmer Rouge and about the family’s desperate escape to a refugee camp. Soon he was recording samples of music, using a karaoke machine, and throwing over these beats his hard-hitting lyrics. His album, Dalama, pieced together a song by song his own life story.

This was in the year 2000, and praCh manned booth at the New Year celebrations held by the Khmer community of Long Beach each year. There was to be live music at the event, but he was told that his music was too aggressive, that he was not able to perform. But an artist is an artist – and displaying a precocious confidence – praCh got up on stage before the main acts which were due to play, and he introduced himself. He told the audience that he was going to do a rap piece, once in Khmer, and once in English – and that if they didn’t like it – then they were welcome to boo him off the stage.

He performed his piece called welcome, first in English – just him and the microphone with no beats or accompaniment – and the younger members of the audience loved it. When he then performed it in Khmer he got a standing ovation from old and young. “Do another one,” they yelled. This was his breakthrough.

His CD sold locally in modest numbers, but unbeknownst to him, a Cambodian DJ took a copy back to the Phnom Penh, and played tracks on the radio. They got a huge reaction – partly from the government who wanted to ban these tracks, but after it was argued that the subject of the rap music was history and not the present government, the authorities relented, and the fan reaction was so strong that pirated copies of Dalama sold in huge numbers; making praCh the first Cambodian rap star.

This got him big publicity with mentions in Newsweek and other mainstream media, and it took praCh into circles he never expected. In 2002 he was shoulder tapped to become chief organiser of the Khmer New Year’s festival in Long Beach – a role that put him right into the middle of his own community. In the past 12 years he has continued to be published as a rap musician and as a poet – and he has been in big demand on the speaking circuit, lecturing on human rights.

Rap music may not be your cup of tea – but what is interesting about praCh is that he uses an in-your-face medium to tell honest stories, and expose the history faced by so many families who lived through the 1970s. He was quite surprised at how his music has served to open up conversations with families – with the younger generation, informed by his music, beginning to ask their parents about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. This has been a healing process.

praCh is now probably regarded as the elder statesman of Khmer rap – and there are now several other names of Cambodian rap and hip hop artists both from Long Beach and from the homeland of Cambodia. It is a lively, dynamic genre. In 2004 he went on a 23 States tour across the United States and was a subject for Japan’s documentary film, which won NHK’s Best Documentary of the Year (2004).

He has also become active scoring movie soundtracks including the Khmer baseball documentary ‘Rice Field of Dreams’ (2010) and creating original music for the excellent Sundance Award Winning and *Oscar short-listed movie ‘Enemies of the People’ (2010).

Among his recent activities has been the founding and organising of the Cambodia Town Film Festival which ensures an outlet for Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry. He has been described as Khmer-America’s most influential citizen.

44 years since the Kent State Massacre – how many more?

Image

John Filo’s photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard. The protest was over the bombing of Cambodia.

By 1970 public sentiment in the USA toward their war in Vietnam had turned almost decisively. In late 1969 the spotlight had fallen on the My Lai massacre in which a village of innocent people were murdered by out-of-control US soldiers. There was no moral defense for this. The war was increasingly unjustifiable – except to the so-called political Hawks who saw Vietnam as the place where the communist dominoes would be stopped from falling (into Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia.)  Now on April 30th 1970 President Richard Nixon announced to America that, in fact, he was extending military action into Cambodia.

In fact the US had already been actively bombing the eastern parts of Cambodia, adjacent to Vietnam. This was Nixon’s “secret war” urged on by Henry Kissinger (three years later recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.)

The announcement on April 30th spurred a planned demonstration by peace protestors across dozen of university campuses including Kent State University in Ohio. Here on May 4th 1970 the protestors were met by the National Guard who, under specific orders, aimed and fired their rifles at incredulous protestors. (Witnesses thought surely they were using blanks.)

Four students were killed.

The photo (above) was taken by a passer-by and widely published. Of all media images this is the one that took the horror of the Indo-China conflict right onto America’s own doorstep. Days later, fuelled by singer Neil Young’s anger over the event, Crosby Stills Nash & Young released the single Ohio which to me, even 44 years later distils the feelings I have toward wars in general.

Alas, the photo has echoes today, not in the USA so much as in the Freedom Park of Phnom Penh where Hun Sen’s soldiers have killed protestors seeking fair elections and living wages. A common element when I look at the photos of both events is that the soldiers are masked. The Ohio National Guard soldiers were wearing gas masks – their use of teargas was not successful because the breeze dispersed this – while the Cambodian riot police wear motorbike helmets.

I wonder if this is for physical protection or whether it reflects the shamefulness of meeting a peaceful protest with unnecessary brute force.

GARMENT WORKER

Source VoA News. A garment worker protesting low wages meets police force in Phnom Penh.