Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Monday evening that China will begin funding demining efforts, just days after the US said it would pull financial support for a removal project with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre in the eastern part of the country.
“China told Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] that the landmine and UXO clearance is a prioritised action of the Chinese government,” reads a statement posted to Hun Sen’s Facebook page last night.
A final decision on the new funding will be made before Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visits the Kingdom in January, according to the post.
The US Embassy announced last week that its annual $2 million in funding to CMAC would instead go to a “world-class removal program” that will be open to bids – a decision that followed weeks of near-daily criticism from Hun Sen and other officials of the US’s handling of its war legacy in Cambodia.
CMAC head Heng Ratana accused the US of downplaying the impact of chemical weapons it dropped during the Vietnam War, prompting a response from the US Embassy accusing the government of politicising the issue.
Ratana said last night it was unclear if the new Chinese aid would go to CMAC or another demining group, as it is still “in the process of discussion”. He confirmed that up until now, the government’s demining and ordnance removal body had never received funding from China.
Earlier in the day, the CMAC head kept up his critique of the US, posting to his Facebook page various pictures of young Cambodians with severe birth defects consistent with those caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.
“Is it true that the chemical substances that the Americans dropped really have no long term side effects to the Cambodian people’s health?” Ratana asked rhetorically, apparently referring to past US statements.
“We have documents and evidence and equipment, we are not stupid like cows and buffalos,” Ratana added.
The critique, however, like many of those lobbed by government officials, appeared to conflate Agent Orange with old tear gas bombs found in Svay Rieng’s Koki commune – the nonlethal bombs the US accused the government of politicising, which scientists have not found to cause defects.
Some of the victims shown in Ratana’s post yesterday were previously interviewed in a Post investigation that first uncovered the likely effects of Agent Orange in Svay Rieng.
Khoun Chanthy, the mother of one of those previously interviewed who was also featured by Ratana, said that while CMAC came to take photographs, no tangible help was offered.
“There is no provincial authority, district authority or Health Ministry coming to our village . . . CMAC did not ask us anything. They just walked around and checked the location,” she said.
Ratana acknowledged yesterday that The Post article helped spark the government’s own investigation, adding that he “strongly believes” the defects are linked to Agent Orange.
However, he said the Cambodian government is waiting for assistance from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons both in verifying the types of chemicals present and for offering aid to those affected.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs submitted an official complaint to the OPCW in October. Last week, the group confirmed receipt of the complaint, but declined to comment further yesterday, citing “strict confidentiality”.
David Josar, spokesman at the US Embassy, said America welcomed an OPCW investigation. “We are aware of the letter to the OPCW and we welcome their technical expertise. The Embassy remains in close touch with the U.S. Mission to the OPCW in The Hague and Washington on next steps in the OPCW process,” he wrote via email.
Political analyst Meas Nee yesterday lauded the Chinese aid, but questioned why it had not been offered before, noting “Chinese landmines have affected a lot of people”.
Nee contrasted the government’s virulent anti-American rhetoric – delivered while also benefiting from US aid – with its silence on China, saying the apparent double standard hinted at a “political motive”.
Additional reporting by Niem Chheng
Updates Wednesday 15 November 7am.