William A. Heidt, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia, says he is “very aware” of the historical role the United States played in the conflict in Cambodia, which is why he is seeking to prioritize the clearance of unexploded ordinance left behind by years of bombing.
During a study tour of a training center in Kampong Chhnang province run by the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) on Friday, Heidt said while he hoped the group’s work could receive more support from Washington, it was unclear what position the current administration would take.
“Those of you who are watching the news right now, we have a new administration and they are formulating our budget right now. We don’t have figures yet for our budget,” he told reporters in a press conference after concluding the tour.
“My message to Washington has been that supporting humanitarian demining should be one of our very high priorities in Cambodia,” he added.
From 1993 to 2016, the U.S. government spent more than $120 million on clearing mines and unexploded ordinance in Cambodia, a deadly legacy of decades of conflict.
Heidt said he was “proud” that Cambodia had become a world leader in demining, which also contributed to the country’s economic growth.
“As I mentioned in my statement, I am very aware of our history here during Vietnam War, American bombing and the legacy of unexploded ordnance here. And that is why for many years, we’ve supported cleaning that up,” he said.
The U.S. is believed to have dropped some 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia between 1965 and 1973 during its covert war in Indochina under the supervision of President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Some estimates place the death toll of the bombing in the hundreds of thousands, while conservative estimates claim only sparsely populated areas were targeted and civilian casualties minimized.
Villagers in Tbong Khmum province near the border with Vietnam - a focal point of the bombing campaign - still remember the fear they felt as U.S. bombers flew sorties overhead.
Uon Samath, 59, said his village of Tuol Vihear, where he lived out the war, was repeatedly hit by bombs dropped by U.S. ally Lon Nol’s regime during the 1970s. He and his wife were both injured in the attacks.
“I was in shock because they dropped bombs every day. They targeted Vietcong who passed through the area near the Mekong River,” he said.
More than four decades later, the unexploded bombs are a cause for concern. He’s found four such bombs on his farmland in recent years and reported the finds to CMAC, which removed them safely.
“I still suspect that there are more bombs left,” he said. “I still feel that there are bombs left. If they explode, I will be disabled for life.”
“I told the tractor workers not to plough some areas, but I don’t tell them that there are bombs from the past,” he added. “If there is any danger, I have to take responsibility.”
Teng Pov, 53, a farmer who works the fields nearby, said the changing flow of water in the Mekong basin region meant that the unexploded bombs often move, creating unknown dangers.
“I know there were bombs here, so CMAC asked me to show them the locations. I told them this area was a valley of bombs before,” he said.
Heng Ratana, the director general of CMAC, said the government had committed to clearing all remaining anti-personnel mines by 2025. About 1,000 square kilometers will be cleared, a painstaking and costly task. He estimates about $400 million in additional funding will be needed to make that goal a reality.
“We’re short by about $4 million to $6 million each yer. We never raise funds equal to our needs,” he said.
Ambassador Heidt said that to achieve the government target “we need to have close cooperation between government and all development partners”.
Other countries funding the work include Norway, Australia, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands. CMAC says that over the past two decades it has disabled about 4 million landmines and unexploded bombs, clearning some 1,500 square kilometers of land.
Correction: This article originally cited an estimate by Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen of 2.7 million tons of bombs dropped on Cambodia by the U.S. military during its covert war in Cambodia. The oft-cited figure was revised down to 500,000 by the authors of that study in 2010.