Under Your Feet: Cambodia, Land Mines, and Unexploded Ordinances

In a few hours, I’ll be boarding a flight from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The last few days have offered some incredible vistas —ancient wats, crumbling temples and visual proof of the tireless battle between preservation and natural decay.

One of our last expeditions was to the temple of Beng Mealea, or “lotus pond”, dated (experts believe) to the 12 century. Marking the start of the well-trodden path, however, was a subtle reminder of Cambodia’s more recent —and resonant— history.

A sign warns visitors of ongoing de-mining operations outside Beng Mealea, a 12th century temple, 40 kilometers from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The scale of the US bombing campaign of Cambodia, between October 4, 1965, and August 15, 1973, continues to astound. According to Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen (in a 2006 project for Yale’s Genocide Studies Program), 2,756,941 tons of ordinances were dropped in 230,516 flights on 113,716 sites. Citing official (then-newly declassified) documents, their report revealed the bombing campaign in Cambodia had begun nearly four years earlier than previously known, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson. Owen and Kiernan, whose work was then published in The Walrus, write:

The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambo- dia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide.



But history never abates.

According to MAG, or Mines Advisory Group, citing the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System, more than 64,000 people were injured or killed by land mines (and other unexploded ordinances) between 1979 and 2013. MAG’s project in Cambodia started in 1992, but the organization says more than 9,000 mined areas (i.e. regions of varying size) have yet to be cleared.

*Caveat: The US might not have the monopoly on responsibility (when it comes to land mines, for instance) but the consequences of Vietnam War era bombing have resurfaced throughout my reporting in Asia.*


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