Rear Admiral Samuel Perez Jr., Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Plans, Programs, and Operations at the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs traveled to Cambodia and Laos from late January to early February as part of U.S. efforts to help the countries clear land contaminated by land mines. Following his return, Sarada Taing of RFA’s Khmer Service interviewed him about the state of unexploded ordnance in Cambodia.
Q: After you returned from your mission working on land mines in Cambodia, what is your evaluation of the situation of land mines in the country?
A: The first evaluation is that I really didn’t appreciate the difficulty that the Cambodian deminers have in the country of Cambodia. The magnitude of how many mines were placed out there during the conflict was just staggering. I was unprepared for that. The other piece that I was unprepared for was the terrain—the fact that it is very, very difficult terrain … So the fact that you have millions, no records of where they are, and very, very tough terrain, makes it a very challenging problem.
Q: Since 1993, the U.S. has spent millions of dollars in support of the campaign to clear land mines from Cambodia. So what have been the results of this expenditure?
A: I think the result is that we are making Cambodia safer for everyone who lives in Cambodia. For instance, I got to see several villages while we were in Cambodia and we had just cleared [a mine] in this very small village that was going to support approximately six families. So six families were immediately impacted in a positive way by the work that those deminers had done. And they were Cambodian deminers. They were working with nongovernmental organizations, but nevertheless, it was Cambodians that were doing the work and it was just thrilling to see.
Q: When do you expect Cambodia to be free from land mines?
A: I think that a better question is: When can we make Cambodia impact-free from land mines? If you look at Western Europe, you’ve got ordnance that was left over from World War I. That was 100 years ago. There’s still tons of ordnance that’s left over from World War II—70 years ago. It’s still there, it’s still a hazard. But those countries have a method to deal with that problem. And that’s what we’ve got to do—we’ve got to clear those areas. The Cambodian government is doing a wonderful job at prioritizing those areas that need to be cleared, at establishing a database, clearing those areas, and then making sure that the rest of the population knows how to deal with those land mines if they come across them.
Q: The Cambodian government always promises to the U.N., to America, that they will fully clear land mines by 2015, but they haven’t done so. What is your opinion about that?
A: Every time you start a project, you may have aspirations that are unrealistic. And I think that by 2015 it was unrealistic, given the scope of the problem. I’m not sure what the right number [of years] is. All I can say is that we’re going to work with our partner, the government of Cambodia, for as long as it takes to make sure that their country is impact-free.
Q: Most land mines, bombs, or cluster bombs are reportedly made by Russia, China and America. Are there any calls to hold these countries to account for 40,000 Cambodian amputees and the thousands who were killed by the weapons they produced?
A: Our effort here is not to find out who is to blame. When there is a war, everybody gets impacted, and everybody gets impacted in many, many different ways—some people more than others ...What we’re really focusing on is helping the government of Cambodia find these mines, dig them up, and make their country safe for the generation of people who are still in Cambodia today and then hopefully for the future—for the children that are out there.