​International mines conference "a good get together" | Phnom Penh Post

International mines conference "a good get together"


Publication date
30 October 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : James Eckardt

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There have been a dozen international demining

conferences this year and Cambodia's own -

"International Forum on Demining and Victim

Assistance: Towards Zero Victims Based on Ownership and

Partnership" - was professional, well-organized and

unique. For once, a demining conference was held in a

country that actually has mines, 4-6 million of them.

The forum opened with Second Prime Minister Samdech

Hun Sen's welcoming speech, followed by Cambodian Mine

Action Center (CMAC) Chairman Ieng Mouly and Nobutaka

Machimura, State Secetary of the Ministry of Foreign

Affairs of Japan, which was footing the $300,000 bill for

the October 26-28 forum.

Assembled at the Inter-Continental Hotel were 118

delegates from 31 countries: ten mine-afflicted and the

rest aid donors. Another 105 delegates came from diverse

UN and NGO agencies, Cambodian ministries and CMAC.

Was Cambodia's forum worth the $300,000 price tag?

Program Manager of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Archie

Law, said that could have financed a single 12-man

demining team for a year. Only last week, he said, MAG

escaped downsizing after the Princess Diana Foundation

stumped up with an overdue $1.3 million contribution.

Veteran delegates acknowledge that such big

conferences are often unwieldy and unfocused and do

little to advance real dialogue on demining problems.

Amidst the fog of turgid speeches, however, were

flashes of technical brilliance from people with years of

experience in the minefields.

The CMAC presenters were among the best: Director

General Sam Sotha, Chief of Mine Awareness Tang Sun Hao,

Chief of Staff Phan Sothy and Chief Advisor of Operations

Fred Lewis. Each gave straight-forward pitches about

CMAC's past, present and future.

The first morning session was devoted to wrangling

over the concept of "ownership". Who runs

demining? An independent government agency like CMAC? The

United Nations, as in Afghanistan, where there is no

stable government? Or private companies contracted by a

government like Mozambique?

Dr Leonardo Santo Simao, Foreign Minister of

Mozambique and Demining Program Chairman, said: "I

see two problems. We need new technology because at the

rate we're going it will take 80-160 years to demine our

country for agriculture. And two, productivity. We can

compare NGOs and commercial companies. We need an

incentive for production and to measure basic standards

of operation. Some go as slow as possible because they

count on the continued generosity of donors."

In Mozambique, the government awards contracts to nine

commercial companies and six NGOs on the basis of

productivity, safety and quality control.

Sam Sothy said of the need for a high-tech

breakthrough: "We've dug up 90,000 mines and 190

million pieces of metal, each as time-consuming as

finding one mine."

Veteran deminer Tore Skedsmo, who first came to

Cambodia with UNTAC, cautioned delegates that afternoon:

"The demining industry is only 6-10 years old. It's

been a sharp learning curve. The Wright brothers did not

first design a 747 [jet aircraft]... We will misuse this

afternoon if we have no sharp-edged discussions about how

to get things moving. Mine-afflicted countries should be

more vocal in speaking out about their needs. Donors

should address transparency, the effectiveness of

programs. Cambodia has a clear policy; others see donors

as a source of income."

Diplomats spoke long about their contributions to

demining programs; NGO heads touted their efforts; a

United Nations Volunteer official proposed South-South

cooperation between Asia and Africa as "an

international expression of solidarity"; the

Vietnamese delegation asked for money...

Piercing the fog was Dr Gunter Mulack, Director of

Humanitarian Assistance at the German Foreign Office:

"I've been attending conferences since Copenhagen

[1996]. There are too many conferences just to have

people say what they have been doing... Humanitarian aid

is a business. Competition is good to get the best

results. We must listen to the people in the field and

face problems on the ground frankly."

He was rewarded with the day's first round of real


On day two, a convoy of buses took the delegates to

the CMAC Training Base at Kompong Chhnang. Here CMAC

officials treated them to an choreographed display of

manual demining, UXO detectors, community mine awareness

teams, two Finnish flail machines and 18 Swedish

mine-sniffing dogs.

Ian Mansfield - a four-year veteran as a UN Demining

Manager in Afghanistan, said: "There haven't been

any real technical advances in demining. In Afghanistan,

dogs were the best for road clearance, area reduction,

mine detection in areas heavily strewn with metal. They

worked ten times faster than manual demining. We'd run

them two times through an area for quality control.

"The problem with flails is they tend to flip out

mines to other areas. None are perfect... In Afghanistan,

we were in an emergency situation in the beginning:

clearing areas for returning refugees. Later we could

figure costs per square meter and hire commercial

companies that bid the lowest: a business-like

accoun-tabilty. For the long term, though, NGOs are the

best at the village level and for training their staff. A

company just finishes its contract and is gone. A mix of

the two is best."

The highlight of the forum's final day was the session

on technical developments in mine clearing, moderated by

Dr Mulack. Giving the most crisply professional

presentation of the three-day forum were CMAC Chief of

Staff Phan Sothy and LTC Fred Lewis, CMAC Chief Advisor


Of the past four years of mechanical mine clearing

trials, Lewis said: "The classrooms were the mine

fields. Most of the proposals coming from [international

conferences], or indeed the meetings themselves were, I

am told, often very much out of touch with the realities

of the field."

One simple machine of value, Sothy suggested, would be

a low cost, armored brush cutter since detecting

tripwires and cutting vegetation takes up 70% of a

deminer's time.

Beyond this, a mechanical mine clearer must achieve a

99.6% success rate. "To date nothing we have tested

can reach 99.6%," Lewis said. "Our Finnish

Flail has reached upwards of 85% under certain

conditions. This doesn't mean that it is not useful, far

from it. It deals with our vegetation problem very

effectively, but it is much more than a super brush

cutter. It reduces the risk by that 85 or so percent to

the manual deminer who must follow up to achieve full

mine clearance... speeding up the miner's work by up to


Looking to the future, there is talk of ground

penetrating radar that would detect the shapes of mines,

differentiating them from other metal debris in the soil,

or of a chemical sensor that would duplicate the sniffing

talent of a dog. But Lewis said: "Although there may

be pie-in-the-sky hopes for technology here, and there

may even exist classified military systems that do it,

they have not been made available to CMAC."

Former Brigidier General Patrik Blagden, Technical

Director, Geneva International Center for Humanitarian

Demining, said: "We've tried many machines and

failed, expecting too much."

That said, he stressed that mechanized mine clearing

in Angola had increased the scope of operations by a

scale of four or five. He urged researchers to get out of

the lab and into the field, and veteran deminers to

network constantly. "Use the club," he advised.

"The number of people who work in demining is small;

the people who talk about it, large."

Other delegates stressed the need for military

researchers, the space industry, military intelligence

and chemical labs to focus on mine clearance.

Looking at the forum as a whole, Gunter said it was

good for Cambodia, the first held in a mine-affected

country. "People can see the stability here now. It

gave the Cambodians confidence."

He is, however, still fed up with conferences.

"People are always saying what they are doing.

Diplomats and donors are invited and must be given their

say. There should be a focus on problems, new technology,

free and open discussions addressing the needs of

deminers. I'd prefer working in small groups."

MAG's Archie Law agrees: "It was good to get

together, good for Cambodia and for CMAC to show what

they are doing. But the conference set-up was not

constructive. I'd prefer workshops with small groups of

people in the field. We could feed this information to

UNMAS [United Nations Mines Actions Service] in New York

to spread around the world."

The forum ended with closing remarks by CMAC Chairman

Ieng Mouly. Later he presided over a press conference

with other speakers: Sotha, Machimura, Mansfield and


Mouly was asked about a news report that day. In

Battam-bang province, several thousand displaced persons

were leaving camps for Samlot, intending to demine farm

land by themselves. Since some 70 sq kms of land have

already been cleared by farmers in Cambodia, would CMAC

consider some kind of fast deployment that would not

approach a 99.6% clearance rate but still reduce mined

areas to lower risk?

"No, we have a plan and international

standards," Mouly replied. "70% clearance is

not our tradition. The Ministry of Interior has to let us

know before we can begin planning."

He recalled the June massacre at a CMAC camp on the

Thai border in Banteay Meanchay. "We had to withdraw

from that area. We have to wait for peace to come back


Sotha stressed the limited resources of CMAC but ended

his statement on a hopeful note: "Five years ago, we

estimated it would take 170 years to clear Cambodia of

mines. Now we think it will take 20-30."

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