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.

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.


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.



World War 2 deeply affected Siem Reap


Ahh! The romantic French influence. In WW2 the Vichy-led French rulers handed over much of Western Cambodia to Thailand. For 5 years Siem Reap lived under Thai rule.

The history of Cambodia is a pulsating story in which for well over 1000 years the Khmer people have both embraced and occasionally repulsed the influence from outside kingdoms. Even today Cambodia sits uncomfortably with Thailand to the west, and Vietnam to the east: uneasy bedfellows in south-east Asia.

Visitors to Cambodia reflect chiefly on three historic periods from Cambodia’s past: the most recent being the rise of Pol Pot.

But tourists also focus on the great Angkor empire from 10 centuries ago. Historically, apart from the stone inscriptions and carvings found on the temples themselves there is little written evidence of the life or politics of Cambodia at the time. Historians can only bravely guess at what society must have been like 1000 years ago. There were royal families, and there was the patronage which even today is a hallmark of Cambodian life. There were slave owners, but evidence also that some slaves themselves owned slaves. All that remained certain of this era is the glory of the temples themselves. They embrace mystery, and they suggest a very sophisticated society. The temples themselves also reflect a collision of cultures including Hindu as well as Chinese.

Then in the mental map of the tourist in a hurry, we skip forward several centuries to the end of the 19th century when the French colonised Cambodia.

Ahh! The romance of the French influence! We see traces of it in the grand hotels, and we taste remnants of the French influence in the fresh and fluffy French bread as baked by locals. Older generations are still fluent French speakers.

But just as the British in the late 19th century absolutely plundered the wealth of China, so to the French plundered Cambodia for its riches. Priceless statues from Angkor Wat still reside in Paris, I think, to the shame of modern France. Historians suggest that there was little real resistance to the French rule however, and the bureaucracies and governance imposed by France appears to have added a layer to society, rather than  to have directly challenged the Cambodian way of doing things. Cambodia might be said to have absorbed French rule.

However in World War II the story changes abruptly. For a start, back in France, the government was overthrown and France was put under Vichy rule: a government that was compliant and sympathetic to the objectives of the Nazi government of Germany. In Cambodia the French control changed hands similarly. And the new Government was nominally sympathetic to Japan. It was in the interests of France, as well as in the interests of Japan to do a deal rather than to fight. Colonial authorities signed over the rights for Japan to use Cambodia as a highway to other battlegrounds.

Meanwhile the Thai government, which itself was now also pro-Japan, decided to use this moment to recapture lands that had historically been in dispute with Cambodia. The Thais, under the strongly nationalistic Prime Minister Phibul Sangkram had been hostile to French colonial forces already and, abetted by the Japanese who turned a blind eye, the Thais first conducted random border attacks in late 1940, then more daringly invaded Cambodia’s Western provinces in March 1941 following a brief war with the French. The Thai PM, a military man, had visions of creating a unified Thailand that included Laos and Cambodia. The French were outraged and, despite being short of resources conducted strong counter-attacks and executed a remarkable naval victory, with four shabby gin-boats sinking the pride of the Thai naval fleet.

Historian C. Peter Chen sums up the military casualties of this Franco-Thai conflict:

The war saw the French suffering 321 dead or wounded, 178 missing, and 222 captured; the majority of the losses were French, Vietnamese, Lao, or Cambodian, with a small number being North African. The greatest loss suffered by the French was in the domain of the air force, which saw 30 of the already small 100-aircraft fleet being destroyed. Thailand suffered 108 killed, 374 wounded, and 21 captured.

War histories seldom assess the civilian losses. The war included aerial bombing and strafing raids on cities and villages by both the Thai and French colonial air forces. The Thais bombed Stung Treng, Battambang, Siem Reap, Sisophon, Ream and Mongkolborey.  Offers of money were used by the Thais – largely unsuccessfully – to encourage Cambodian troops to desert with their weapons and defect: to join Thailand. Much of the fighting took the form of bloody skirmishes along the Thai-Cambodian border and echoes of these disputes flare-up from time to time, decades later. Accounts are mixed over which side emerged victorious. In the end it didn’t matter because Japan had it’s own agenda to roll-out.

The Japanese mediated negotiations in Tokyo in May 1941 and French Indochinese colonial officials, who did not have the available resources sufficient for a military vistory, were compelled, despite their erstwhile victories, to sign over roughly one third of all of Cambodia to Thai rule. This included Battambang, Siem Reap, Koh Kong an extension of land between the 15th parallel and the Dangrek Mountains in Stung Treng Province. The number of Cambodian citizens who were now under rule from Thailand were in excess of 500,000. The annexed provinces were now called (at least by the Thais,) Phibul Sangkram Province. What Thailand gained was the bulk of Cambodia’s rice harvest as well as fishing resource of Tonle Sap. In return for the favour Sangkram pledged loyalty to Japan, though privately he was willing to side with whichever force was going to win WW2. “Whoever will lose: that is our real enemy,” he once confided.

Phibun Songkhram province
renamed Phibun Songkhram province.
renamed Phibun Songkhram province.
renamed Phibun Songkhram province.

This signing-over of land to Thailand inflamed Cambodians, and ultimately gave birth to the modern Cambodian government, free from foreign rule. Thai troops recall the uneasy time they had – receiving much verbal abuse from Khmers.

As World War II ground on, the Japanese found themselves stretched too thin, militarily, and they began doing deals with local leaders. By 1945 Japan removed the French control from Indochina, and French military forces were disarmed forcibly. The objective of the Japanese was to put countries such as Cambodia back into local hands, and thereby win the loyalty and support for the rest of the Japanese war effort. So it was that on March 9, 1945 the young King Norodom Sihanouk became the head of the new Kingdom of Kampuchea. He was expected to be a puppet leader, but a few months later, by August 1945 Japan had surrendered to the Allied forces.

The political landscape of Southeast Asia was now quite different to that prior to World War II. However with the ending of the war, the French government – aided by allies who refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Thai annexation – reimposed control over Cambodia, and punished heavily, those protesters who had been so inflamed by the sell-off of the western provinces to Thailand. In forcing Thailand to hand back the western part of Cambodia the French facilitated what they imagined would be a welcome return of French rule by the general Khmer public. Again, they probably saw Sihanouk as a puppet figure. By now Cambodians, in increasing numbers, were beginning to think of independence.

It would take just another decade for Cambodia to truly become independent, and part of this process, utimately, involves the story of the Khmer Rouge and the rise of Pol Pot. But that’s another story, and one I’ll write about later.

The point of this piece, however,  is to alert readers to the idea that there is a rich and complicated history to Siem Reap before Pol Pot ever came to power, and well after the French first arrived.

Siem Reap today welcomes visitors from all over the world, and it exercises a pride for its past, and a sense that whatever happens in history, the Cambodian people are able to absorb the impact and weather the storms. I should very much like to interview locals who lived through the world war two years. What was the impact of Thai rule? What was the reaction of locals when the citizenship was signed over to neighbouring Thailand? These aspects of history need to be captured while survivors are still alive. The monuments and temples of Siem Reap are staggering to see, but do they speak as loudly or as clearly as the voices of people who there to witness history take place?

For more detail of this history click here. I also referred to this Wikipedia entry here. More on the Franco-Thai conflict here.

Reading up on Cambodia? Here are 10 Recommended reads.

BOOK WITHDRAWAL MARCH 4th - $800 - 2013  109

Below is a list of 10 books about Cambodia that I can recommend. I do urge you to look at the vibrant history going back way before Pol Pot, and to read the social commentary post-Pol Pot also.