America to Cut UXO Aid to Cambodia: an explosive legacy forgotten

Reports from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) suggest that the US government will cut its $2.5m a year funding to help rid the Southeast Asian country of the scourge of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).

A Mines Advisory Group worker lays out his daily find in Cambodia

It is estimated that the US dropped more than 2 million bombs on Cambodia between 1963 and 1975, largely as part of efforts to flush out Vietcong insurgents and destroy both their training camps and logistical supply corridors.

The Richard Nixon administration intensified what had been a more subtle bombing campaign in 1969 when ‘Operation Menu’ was launched. This began the process of B-52 aircraft carpet bombing vast swathes of eastern Cambodia in a bid to wipe out Vietcong bases. It was followed by ‘Operation Freedom Deal’, which had an expanded remit focused on halting the advance of the Khmer Rouge communist rebels.

Simultaneously, the Americans carried out a strategic air warfare campaign in neighbouring Laos, which also faced its own communist insurgency in what became a bloody civil war. The (il)legality of this bombing rampage caused controversy at the time in America, although its scale was largely covered up until Bill Clinton released classified documents relating to it in 2000.

It is difficult to know how many civilian casualties were caused by America’s bombing of Indochina at the time. What is certain, is that the legacy of UXO in the region (much of it American) provides a constant menace to the civilian population.

A victim of the UXO legacy in Laos

Coupled with an horrendous land mine problem – remnants of the civil wars fought throughout the region – large tracts of land remain contaminated. That these are generally poor countries whose people require access to farmland only exacerbates the problem, and increases the risk of deaths.

As the rap rockers The Transplants succinctly put it:

Well, drop more, two million tons,
Ho Chi Minh’s trail was sprayed with bombs,
Jungles of Laos, knew all along,
That the American war would finally come,
America, land of the free,
Purveyour and leaders of democracy,
Debauchery, luxury,
Bacchanalia’s alright to be.

This is a rare reference in popular culture.

Whilst this particular stain on America’s recent history hasn’t been completely forgotten at home, it is, understandably, overshadowed by the more personal tragedy of the Vietnam War. As such, the funding and expertise offered by the US government to help mitigate the risk of UXO in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is not only a rightful penance but also helps retain a vestige of memory amongst those Americans involved in the clean-up effort.

The number of UXO-related incidents across Cambodia remains staggering

Strong support from NGOs and UN-funded organisations will continue to play a crucial role in freeing up hectares of fertile land from the explosive remnants of war. But the withdrawal of US funding in Cambodia is as much a symbolic defeat as it is an economic one.

UXO is not an issue that has been resolved; rather it is being gradually resolved in a country whose suffering extended long after the US intervention, as the dystopian vision of the Khmer Rouge resulted in genocide.

Cluster munitions, chemical weapons, herbicidal agents; all of these continue to blight a landscape increasingly admired by adventurous tourists of the West. Along with land mines and air-dropped bombs they have combined to create a toxic burden that will be forcibly carried by generations for decades to come.

The Agent Orange defoliant – designed to remove tree cover and reveal the Vietcong but also a vicious herbicide – is sprayed during the Vietnam War

Most worryingly, this is just one small part of the Donald Trump administration’s foreign aid cut, and the implications could be massive. It begs the question of what is next. Why should the American government turn its back on the catastrophes it helped conceive, and condemn to struggle those born into less fortuitous circumstances than its own members?

Hardly befitting of the land of the free, nor the purveyor and leaders of democracy.