amputees and blind people; many lost their feet or legs or eyes after
stepping on landmines -- farmers working in the rice fields, children
playing, ordinary people going about their business. Cambodia has one
of the highest concentrations of landmines in the world, left over
from the military conflicts of the 1970-80s.
In 1953 Cambodia gained independence from the French. For the next 15
years, under King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia remained relatively
prosperous and peaceful, though it couldn't completely isolate itself
from the war in neighboring Vietnam.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon authorized the secret bombing of
Cambodia, in an attempt to drive out North Vietamese forces. The
bombing began along the border with Vietnam but soon spread deep into
the interior as Vietnamese communists retreated deeper into Cambodia.
Several hundred thousand refugees fled their homes. See a map of
bombing targets on the Yale University website at
During the US bombing campaign, more bombs were dropped on Cambodia
than had been used by all sides during WW II. By 1973, when the
bombing was halted by the US congress, roughly 250,000 Cambodians an
an unknown number of Vietnamese had been killed.
In 1969, while Sihanouk was on a trip to France, General Lon Nol
deposed him as chief of state and Sihanouk took up residence in
Beijing where he set up a government in exile, in alliance with a
Cambodian revolutionary movement, the Khmer Rouge.
In 1970, US and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia. Vietnamese
communists then joined with Khmer Rouge forces to destabilize the Lon
Nol government. The Khmer Rouge rapidly established control over the
On April 17, 1975, two weeks before the fall of Saigon to the North
Vietnamese, the government of Lon Nol collapsed and Phnom Penh
surrendered to the Khmer Rouge. The victory of the Khmer Rough then
led to one of the most brutal restructurings of society the world has
ever seen. For details, visit Yale University's website at
Immediately thousands of people were executed -- anyone connected with
the Lon Nol government, journalists, teachers, doctors, nurses,
business people, anyone with an education. City dwellers fled to the
countryside. Chaos followed as families were broken up, children
forced to work in rice fields, parents taken to "reeducation" camps,
and the sick or weak or elderly eliminated.
An excellent personal account of the experiences of a 5-year old girl
during this period is the book, "First They Killed My Father: a
daughter of Cambodia remembers" by Loung Ung, 2000. Today, Loung Ung
lives in America and works for
During the 1970-80s, landmines were laid by the Khmer Rouge, the
Vietnamese and the Americans. They were manufactured by many
countries, including the US, China and Russia. One of the most popular
landmines, the M18A1 is manufactured by the US company, Morton
Thiokol. The design of this particular landmine has been copied by
(sometimes licensed to) companies in other countries as well.
Landmines cost only a few dollars to manufacture, but they are
extremely difficult to locate and defuse after they are on the ground.
They generally remain live for several decades, so even long after a
war has ended, landmines remain a dangerous threat to civilians living
in the area.
We visited the Cambodia Landmine Museum in Siem Reap. The museum was
founded by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who personally laid
thousands of landmines. Later he defected to the Vietnamese and
eventually, after the war was over, made it his personal mission to
defuse as many landmines as he was able. See his story at
For more information about mine clearing efforts in Cambodia, visit:
The Landmine Relief Fund
The Vietnam Veterans Mine Clearing Team - Cambodia