Sunday, 26 October 2008

Betrayal at the border

Bangkok Post
Saturday October 25, 2008

When Thailand and Cambodia signed and later ratified the 1997 Ottawa Convention outlawing anti-personnel landmines, both countries joined 154 others in promising to destroy any stockpiles and do everything in their power to rid themselves of the deadly devices within a set deadline. Implicit in this was an understanding that none of the signatories would acquire or lay landmines ever again.

Both countries were believed to be honouring their commitments until, on Oct 6, something went horribly wrong. Two Thai paramilitary rangers from the Suranaree task force stepped on mines and their legs were blown off, while on a routine patrol deep inside Thai territory to the north of Phu Ma Khua in an area adjacent to the Preah Vihear temple in Si Sa Ket province. The explosion was so powerful that parts of the wounded soldiers were blown up to 5-6 metres into the air.

The Thai Mines Action Centre and other non-governmental organisations identified the culprits as Russian-made PMN2-type landmines which were retrieved and appeared to be new as no rust was found on them. They were also in an area marked as landmine-free and used regularly by villagers to get to their farms as well as by soldiers on patrol. These landmine-free areas were separated from those yet to be cleared by a barbed wire fence and both of the wounded soldiers were outside that fence.

Quite rightly, anger has flared on the diplomatic front. The Foreign Ministry noted that the new mines appeared to have been laid after a brief clash in the area on Oct 3 and called on Cambodian authorities to investigate whether any individual had violated legislation banning the use of anti-personnel landmines. It recalled that the Phnom Penh government had submitted a report to the United Nations secretary-general in 2002 noting that 240 PMN2-type landmines from a total of 3,405 were transferred from its Interior Ministry to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre for development and training. It asked the Cambodian government to verify where the remaining mines were and expressed disappointment and alarm as the mine blasts indicated a violation of the 1997 Ottawa Convention as well as a threat to international peace.

Not so, said Cambodian officials in Phnom Penh. The Hun Sen government denied it had recently planted landmines along the border and said any there "are the remnants of almost three decades of war."

Now a question mark and suspicion cloud the air. If, as Cambodia claims, the two mines in question were not new, why were they not detected in previous sweeps and clearing operations? And if the mine ban treaty is being flouted, what a dreadful omen this would be for mine-clearing operations in the future and joint demarcation of the border. We already have enough trouble with mines strewn along the Burma-Thai border and elephants, their mahouts and villagers being blown up with disturbing regularity. But Burma isn't a signatory of the Ottawa Convention; Cambodia is.

Any weakening of the Mine Ban Treaty increases the threat to the half a million Thais living in 27 provinces along the Cambodian, Lao and Burmese borders who are exposed on a daily basis to death, dismemberment or disability from uncleared mines. Aid agencies say from 30 to 100 people are maimed or killed in these mine-contaminated areas every year.

It would be a terrible betrayal of trust for anyone to lay more of these barbaric devices on our soil after pledging not to. Anti-personnel mines have no place in the civilised world.

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