Landmines and unexploded bombs remain a huge challenge for Cambodia. Khmer Times’ Alan Parkhouse spoke to Ly Thuch, the man in charge of making the country mine-free.
KT: Could you give us an insight on your career with the government and how you became secretary-general of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority?
Ly Thuch: When I left France for Cambodia, I started my public life with a strong purpose to serve my country and my people. Since then I have had positions in different institutions in the government. I was undersecretary at the Ministry of Environment, then moved to the Ministry of Rural Development and became a minister in the government.
I was an MP and chairman in the parliament. The Prime Minister picked me to be the youngest senior minister at that time. I started my public life at the age of 25. Now I am 42 and doing well.
I was an orphan child. I lost my parents in the war and stayed many years in a temple. My strong desire to serve the country and people has been fulfilled. I have always done my best to serve our country through different institutions and agencies and I believe that most government officials and officers are also committed to doing the same.
So far my dream has become true that our leader has trust in me. I am able to serve the country and people with my own limited capacity. I am optimistic about the future of the country that we have been building together from a very tough situation, as you are well aware.
We started very poor and with limited means and now Cambodia has been through different political stages. I am optimistic in the sense that our country is better off. We have moved from starving to making real progress. Hopefully the future will be bright for all of us and our young people. I think we are laying good and strong foundations for the future of this country and the future of our people.
KT: What are your tasks as a senior minister and what special function do you have?
Ly Thuch: When I was in the Ministry of Rural Development in 2000, we focussed on how to change the mindset of our rural people, in particular those who suffered in the previous wars and from poverty and so on. So we introduced projects for them, in particular rural healthcare, rural infrastructure, roads and bridges, rural markets and integrated rural programmes to assist and lift them up. It has been very successful.
I was picked by the Prime Minister to become a senior minister when I was serving the National Committee of Disaster Management. I am honoured to be a senior minister. I am also president of the Asia Pacific Commission on Social Economic Affairs for the government. I regularly represent my government and travel overseas to attend conferences.
We have a very heavy legacy of war, starting with the Vietnam War. Cambodia was a victim of that. About two million tonnes of bombs were dropped inside Cambodia in those periods in the western part of the country, mainly Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri and Stung Treng province.
Of course we also had a civil war in the northern part of the country along the Thai border, where millions of landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) are still causing casualties to our population. We have been trying to deal with this. Our actions over the past 25 years have been very successful.
We reduced the number of minefields. We have now cleared more than two thousand square kilometres of minefields across the country and released the land back to our rural farmers to continue growing their crops for their livelihoods.
KT: Has the number of casualties dropped significantly?
Ly Thuch: The casualty numbers in the ’90s were high, with the highest number of casualties in 1996. There were 4,000 casualties per year then. We had less than 100 for the first time last year. But for many years we had 200, 300, 400.
KT: Are landmines a bigger danger than American bombs. Which cause the most casualties?
Ly Thuch: All landmines or bombs and ERW are dangerous for the lives of our people. According to the number of casualties in the northern part of the country, it is a mix of landmines and ERW. The northern part has suffered the heaviest casualties so far.
KT: Do you think the US should scrap the debt Cambodia owes from the war days?
Ly Thuch: It is a good question. The United States of America had a very bad relationship with Asia historically because of the Vietnam War and the Indochina War. There is a moral obligation to our region and Cambodia is one of the countries that was a victim of the regional war at that time.
Lately myself and US ambassador William A. Heidt have been to Ratanakkiri province in the north to see the minefields and our operators who have been doing mine clearance. The US ambassador’s own words were “historical obligation”. On behalf of the government and the Prime Minister, who is also chairman of the CMAA, I reminded His Excellency, the Ambassador for the United States, that there is an obligation and responsibility to clear up this mess.
What we want is to get the US to lead clearance operations in that part of the country. But let me say a word about the United States. The US, from 1993-94 until now, has provided $120 million for mine clearance. The US has also provided support to different operators. Our national operator, CMAC, as well as the Halo Trust and other small operators in the country, are working closely with them.
Besides the US, we have also had countries including Canada and France assist us in the past. Now we have Japan, Switzerland and Australia. Over the past 25 years, from 1992, Australia has committed more than $90 million to mine action in this country. Other countries too have given support in the northern part of the country. There are three provinces where we have had good results in minefield clearance – Battambang, Banteay Meanchay and Pailin.
It is always our wish to get the debt cancelled. But we have to look at different ways. The US is the biggest market for us. They offer financial support to our workers through their market and they continue to support us in mine clearance here. But I think the debt question is one for the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deal with.
I just focus on my work. What I can say is that we express our appreciation to the US for supporting mine action over 24 to 25 years in this country and their committed funds for us. On other political issues I don’t want to make any comment.
KT: What are the main goals of your office?
Ly Thuch: We are the authorities in this field and presided over by the Prime Minister. We work in coordination with the donor community, CMAC and PMAC on the military side, plus other international operators. We are also in charge of working on a mine clearance strategy. We have designed a national action strategy and are now in the final stages of drafting a new strategy for 2018-25.
We want to commit to being mine-free in 2025. We are going to finish our job on landmines and other munitions. It takes longer in terms of landmines, but we feel confident that we can get Cambodia landmine-free by 2025.
I work a lot with local governors and with villagers in provinces that have minefields. We have more than 1,000 villages in this country and 46 percent of those have landmines, munitions or ERW. We centralise data on that and categorise it into specific minefield locations.
Other organisations do the mine clearance on the ground. We focus on the priorities agreed by all concerned parties. Our role is also to represent the government at conventions. So we regularly attend the world body on mine action in Geneva, presenting our policies and strategies and our commitment. We are a member of the Ottawa convention on landmine bans.
KT: Have donors played an important role in mine clearance?
Ly Thuch: On behalf of the Prime Minister, we want to express our appreciation and gratitude to our donors who support humanitarian mine action in this country to reduce casualties. Their money and support are lifesaving and improving livelihoods. We have been able to give our people safe land so they can build their own communities.
The Prime Minister has put mine action as one of our government’s top priorities. We put mine action in the UN Millennium Development Goals. The UN had 17 goals and we added one more to make it 18. The Prime Minister is very committed to getting Cambodia free from landmines and ERW. That is one of his top priorities.