In call to cancel debt, Cambodia asks: When war is over, who cleans up the mess?

About 130 square miles of Cambodia are thought to be contaminated with unexploded ordnance dropped by US forces during the Vietnam War – one reason the prime minister says the country should not have to repay a wartime debt of $500 million.

Jerry Redfern
Sorl Blaet stands in the spot where a US cluster munition blew up and injured her as she cleared a farm field in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.

On Aug. 15, 1973, a flurry of American planes flew at least 225 military missions over Cambodia. It was the last day of a years-long covert bombing campaign, and it was ending because the secret was out – Congress demanded an end to the onslaught.

The Vietnam War was right next door, and the United States aimed to stop the North Vietnamese from moving troops and equipment into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, part of which ran through Cambodia. To that end, US forces dropped 2.7 million tons of ordnance on more than 100,000 Cambodian sites – more than Allied forces dropped during all of World War II.

Sorl Blaet, a young woman in the remote northeastern province of Ratanakiri, was not yet born when those last bombs fell. But today, 44 years later, she lives with their consequences. Each morning, she wakes with soreness in her arms, legs, hands, and chest – the result of a 2008 accident when one of those bombs finally exploded, after lying dormant for decades. On bad days, she can feel the tiny fragments that remain embedded in her flesh. As a farmer, she worries about digging, and she fears for her two young children. “I’m still afraid there are more bombs underground,” she says.

Cambodia and the US have moved far beyond the war since its messy end more than 40 years ago. But its legacy regularly upends the lives of people like Sorl Blaet, prompting a complex debate: In the aftermath of war, who should clean up the mess? And what do governments owe people in post-conflict zones?

The relevance of these questions extends far beyond Cambodia. Ethicists have debated “just war” issues for centuries, but some say modern warfare demands new attention to post-conflict responsibility. And in this small Southeast Asian nation, the answers became even more complicated this year when the government again demanded that the US forgive a $500 million war-era debt — and the US, once again, said no.

Dangerous fields

On the day of the accident, Ms. Sorl Blaet was clearing brush from the field where she grows cassava. “I was cutting, cutting, cutting – then BOOM!” she says.

After the explosion, Sorl Blaet fell unconscious and awoke in the hospital. She couldn’t work for two months.

The family lives in Phum Saom K’ning, a remote farming village belonging to the Jarai, an indigenous ethnic group along the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

The Jarai had nothing to do with the conflict, says elder Poeuy Malep. “None of us ever joined the war. We were only running, escaping.” When Mr. Poeuy Malep was about 12 years old, he, too, had an accident, which blinded him in one eye and took off part of his left hand.

At least ten villagers have died in explosions since. Locals say they have found roughly 50 unexploded bombs in the past few years alone.

“We think about the bombs still there,” says elder Glan Lo, who lived through the war. “The bombs that stay underground, deep, which we cannot see.”

No one knows exactly how many unexploded bombs remain in Cambodia. US forces dropped approximately 26 million explosive submunitions, which had a significant failure rate: somewhere between 1.9 million and 5.8 million of those bombs didn’t detonate when they fell. About 130 square miles of the country are thought to be contaminated with these baseball-sized bomblets, dropped by the hundreds. Failed cluster submunitions look like rocks or toys and often sit inches below the surface – still deadly.

During the war, the Jarai abandoned Phum Saom K’ning to escape the incessant bombing. The village used to sit where Sorl Blaet had her accident. After the bombings ended in 1973, that land was heavily contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO); elders remember seeing bodies strewn across the fields.

So the village moved a couple of miles away, and used their old land for farming. In a dangerous, desperate move, villagers collected and destroyed as many bombs as they could.

“We had to; we didn’t have any other free land,” says Mr. Glan Lo.

Jerry Redfern
Soth Diep, Operation Manager for the Mines Advisory Group in Ratanakiri, Cambodia, points to markers placed near suspected buried US cluster munitions along a road.

Clearing the land

For years, Cambodia has had clearance groups working in the central and western parts of the country to clear one of the world’s worst landmine threats, remnants of the Cambodian Civil War. But there were no clearance groups working near Phum Saom K’ning when Sorl Blaet had her accident.

That changed the following year. Now, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) – one of the primary clearance organizations in Cambodia – has an on-call team to assist locals. When villagers find a bomb, they report it to Sorl Oum, a 20-year-old volunteer who then reports to MAG. The MAG team identifies, records, and destroys the ordnance, in what’s known as “rapid response.”

Another other main method is “area clearance,” in which every inch of a particular plot is methodically searched with metal detectors and cleared of all dangerous items. It’s a painstaking process that takes months of planning, mapping, outreach and coordination, whereas rapid response happens on the spot, typically the same day. MAG has teams of both types working full-time in Ratanakiri, but the job is enormous. Only a small percentage of contaminated land has been cleared.

Villagers say rapid response is both comforting and worrisome – comforting to have a professional team to remove the danger when found, but worrisome to have the lingering fear of what remains below the surface.

“I still come here to farm,” Sorl Blaet says, standing on the open plain where the explosion knocked her to the ground. “If we don’t come here to farm, how can we support our lives?”

Phum Saom K’ning villagers seem to hold no grudge against the forces that battled across their land and left it hazardous for future generations. But while they appreciate the work done by MAG, they do have a couple of questions: Since everyone knows the bombs are there, why isn’t there more of an effort to take them all away? And whose responsibility is it to do so? 

Jerry Redfern
A team from the Mines Advisory Group uses a large-loop metal detector to find and mark possible US cluster munitions in a field along a road in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.

Mounting costs

These are questions increasingly debated among scholars, policymakers, military leaders, ethicists, and religious leaders. And they came to a head late last year when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen asked newly elected President Trump to drop the country’s war-era debt, calling it “dirty” money in light of Cambodia’s wartime suffering – a request he also made, unsuccessfully, to the Obama administration. The US again said no, igniting a public spat.

By the 1970s, the massive bombing campaign had prompted tens of thousands of villagers to flee the countryside. With no farmers at work, crops weren’t grown, and the US provided $274 million in loans to purchase food and goods for displaced Cambodians. With interest, those loans have grown to around $500 million. In March, when the US reiterated that it expected to be paid, Mr. Hun Sen refused, calling the money “blood-stained” by US bombs.

Then, in May, US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt hinted the US may reduce its funding for UXO clearance, suggesting Cambodia should “begin to take more responsibility” for those expenses. Over the past 24 years, the US has given Cambodia more than $114 million for clearance, about $8.4 million of that in fiscal year 2015.

“We are committed to addressing our legacy in Cambodia, including unexploded ordnance of US origin,” says David Josar, US Embassy spokesman. “To speculate on proposed budget cuts would be inappropriate at this time.”

Any notion of funding cuts makes clearance workers uneasy. “The US has been the largest and most long-standing donor to mine action in Cambodia, in terms of support to both minefield and cluster munition clearance,” said Greg Crowther, MAG Regional Director in Southeast Asia. “Any decrease in funding would therefore be a significant blow.”

Sophal Ear, an author and associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says Cambodia should brace for that blow in the Trump era of “America First.” Plus, he says, it doesn’t help that Hun Sen “likes to needle the US with alarming regularity.” Since the debt-related dustup, the Cambodian government has been targeting US-backed media groups working in the Kingdom.

“There’s really nothing President Trump will do for Cambodia except cut foreign aid unilaterally,” he predicts.

Jerry Redfern
Ethnic Jarai kids and adults sit in the shade beneath a stilt house in Phum Saom K'ning village in Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia.

Laws to look backward

Ethical questions about who owes what to whom in the aftermath of conflict fall under an area of study known as jus post bellum, or “justice after war” – a burgeoning field that some scholars hope will influence international law.

For centuries, a doctrine called Just War Theory has offered guidance on the “right” way to undertake and engage in war. But those criteria lacked a key element for modern times: What happens after war? (For that matter, when does a war really end?) Chemical weapons, cluster munitions, and depleted uranium rounds can kill or maim well after fighting stops, and weren’t around in the times of Aristotle or von Clausewitz. As recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere show, questions about postwar responsibilities are increasingly germane, and murky.

Brian Orend, the director of International Studies and a professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo, has called for a new Geneva Convention centered on postwar problems, as the current Conventions primarily deal with treatment during war.

“Academic and even military-officer interest is substantial and growing,” he says, but “these things take a long, long time to get the attention of state governments. Plus, there are reasons why states might never agree to such a new Convention, mainly as they are leery of restraining themselves at all.”

International bodies have put forth several documents to address post-conflict responsibilities. But few are binding by law, and the US has not signed several of them. Furthermore, most initiatives look only toward ongoing and future wars, not past conflicts.

The US ratified Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War (ERW), for example, which requires warring parties to survey, assess, and clear ERW as soon as feasible after conflict. But “you can’t apply it retroactively,” according to Britta Sjöstedt, a postdoctoral fellow and senior lecturer in international law at Lund University in Sweden.

When it comes to the Jarai questions about responsibility and postwar cleanup, Dr. Sjöstedt says, “there is nothing really that you could argue” in terms of international law: nothing that compels a country to clear all that land, so long after war.

Forty-four-year-old messes present questions less in the realm of legal obligation and more in the area of moral duty, she says. However, countries don’t operate on morals: they run on laws and self-interests.

“Governments are fickle when it comes to moral claims, and are much more responsive when it comes to interests,” Dr. Orend says. “So, an argument needs to be made as to how it's not ‘merely’ moral, or just to attend to postwar reconstruction, but that it's usually, quite overwhelmingly, in one's national interest to do so as well.”

But Cambodia “is of no importance to the US,” says David Chandler, an emeritus professor at Monash University in Australia, who has studied Cambodian society for more than 50 years. 

The other question posed by the Jarai — who is responsible for cleaning this up? — has a simple legal answer, for now:

No one.

But that answer leaves Blaet hanging. Meanwhile, she has a message and one last question: First, she thinks someone should clear all the bombs from her field and village so she and her children can live and farm without fear.

And second, she wonders: Can anyone help her? The explosion happened in 2008. Almost one decade later, she still hopes the fragments inside her, an ever-present reminder of that day, will be removed.

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