Cambodia leaps ahead, but old war still preys on the most vulnerable

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Cambodia’s rapid growth in the past decade has been stunning. Towering buildings, gleaming store windows and busy markets across Phnom Penh obscure signs that some 20 years ago, the country had just emerged from a long and bloody civil war.

But the shadow of that war lingers. For many, landmines and explosive remnants of war are harrowing reminders of conflict. While the threat of landmines may not be immediately felt in the city centre, their lasting impact in some rural provinces is all too real.

Causalities caused by landmines leave permanent scars not only on the individuals harmed, but on entire communities. Cambodia is still one of the most highly mine contaminated countries in the world. Since 1979, more than 64,700 casualties have been attributed to mines and explosive remnants of war, with the highest concentration of landmines found in the northwest regions, bordering Thailand.

This enduring impact on vulnerable communities can be felt in fear and stress, and also in reinforcing cycles of poverty. Landmines prevent communities from utilising land and natural resources to improve their livelihoods. In many cases, vulnerable communities feel as if they have no choice but to try to farm mine contaminated lands in order to survive. More than 36,020 injuries have been attributed to landmines since 1979.

The Royal Government of Cambodia is committed to clearing all landmines by 2025. With the support of Australia, Switzerland, Canada and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Royal Government’s mine clearance activities focus not only on the socioeconomic benefits of land clearance, but also on providing security and peace of mind back to these communities. So far, the project has released 238 square kilometres of mine-contaminated land for use by the affected communities. Nearly 1 million people have directly benefited.

 

Supporting people’s wellbeing

 

By preventing causalities, mine action seeks to transition communities from those affected by the conflict’s trauma to resilient communities. This strengthening requires providing support to those most in need, including people injured by landmines. Mine-risk education, victim assistance and advocating for the rights and services of landmine survivors are all vital in providing the necessary support to build the resilience of affected communities. This is especially relevant, as Cambodia has one of the highest rates of disability in the Asia Pacific region, partly as a result of landmines and unexploded ordnance.

Beyond mine action, Cambodia is undertaking other initiatives to promote social inclusion and the  wellbeing of persons with disabilities at a national level, again with the support of the Australian government.

As a highly committed partner, Australia has championed mine action and disability rights in Cambodia. With their support, in partnership with UNDP, Cambodia has developed key policies and guidelines on disability and poverty reduction. These include a National Disability Strategic plan and National Policy Framework, which aim to ensure that persons with disabilities benefit from access to sustainable and inclusive services. Efforts have also been made to increase employment opportunities by promoting employment quotas for public and private sectors.

Cambodia’s commitment to achieving the long-term goal of improved quality of life for persons with disabilities, including increased opportunities for participation in social, economic, cultural and political life are key to building prosperous, inclusive and resilient communities.

 

Border area progress

 

There is some good news here. Recent research by UNDP shows communities in remote rural areas, including those living in areas affected by landmines, are catching up with their more prosperous fellow citizens in Phnom Penh. Those living in the border areas are still poorer, but their rate of progress is faster than those in the cities. This has been driven by major improvements in key indicators such as infant, child, and maternal mortality.

The support of Australia, and other development partners, led by the Royal Government of Cambodia has been key to the success of demining efforts and programmes to serve and empower people living with disabilities. It helps ensure that as this fast growing, rapidly urbanising middle-income country continues to progress, rural communities hit worst by remnants from the civil war are included and given the extra support they need. The continued success story in demining and assistance to victims of war is an essential part of balanced growth for Cambodia to ensure that no one is left behind.

 

Angela Corcoran, Australian ambassador to Cambodia, Nick Beresford, resident representative, UNDP Cambodia, Julianna Saoud, advocacy and partnerships junior consultant, UNDP Cambodia 

 

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