In a speech to some 15,000 garment workers in Phnom Penh yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen returned to the topic of the United States’ war legacy in Cambodia, pledging to build a health centre for people purportedly suffering the after-effects of American chemical weapons in Svay Rieng province’s Koki commune.
Two barrels containing the tear gas CS were discovered in the commune in January, and removed earlier this month. Authorities say they have discovered 15 additional tear gas bombs, and health officials have blamed chemicals for sickening a handful of villagers, prompting a visit from Health Minister Mam Bunheng, who last week called for a health centre.
“Now we need to create the health care zone and find a way to neutralise the chemical weapons, and we will include local people in the [health] equity programme for free medical care,” the premier said. The centre would cater to the area’s 4,000 residents but would be free for those believed affected by chemical weapons, Bunheng said.
While lashing out at the US government for its pre-Khmer Rouge military role, Hun Sen also claimed that people’s health was affected in several other communes of Romeas Hek district, which he didn’t name.
“Have they [the US] thought about human rights and democracy? Our people in many communes got big heads and abnormal eyes and their body is itchy . . . Have you [the US] thought about that when you pulled the trigger to shoot and kill us?” the premier asked.
The symptoms of birth defects Hun Sen described may be related to Agent Orange, the defoliant dropped by American planes, but there isn’t scientific evidence that CS causes such deformities, though skin irritation is possible.
Provincial Health Department head Ke Roth said doctors and officials were not sure what had caused the skin problems among patients.
“We do not dare conclude that all of those people are affected by chemical substances . . . We know that normal people also can be infected with skin diseases as well,” he said.
In response to the premier’s repeated criticism of the US, Embassy deputy spokesman David Josar pointed to a September 13 security message “noting rising tensions and anti-American rhetoric”.
“That said, we remain proud of our continued partnership with the government, business, educators, civil society leaders, and thousands of ordinary Cambodians,” he wrote.