PHNOM PENH - The Cambodian government will deploy 2,000 soldiers to train as deminers after Western nations, led by the United States, bolstered efforts to rid the country of landmines and other unexploded ordnance by 2025.
Children, curious or just scavenging for scrap metal, are often among the victims but it's a problem that afflicts the entire country and an economy in need of productive land for agriculture.
The economy has also been punished by the withdrawal of trade preferences by the European Union and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ruined a once-thriving tourism sector and halted exports from the lucrative garment and textiles industry.
Observers said that has prompted the Cambodian government to shift its economic focus to agriculture, particularly rice cultivation.
A 30-year civil war left the country among the most heavily mined nations on earth, with an estimated 4 million to 6 million land mines and other munitions littered across the landscape.
In 1996 Cambodia recorded 4,320 people killed or wounded by landmines and other unexploded ordnance, according to the United Nations Development Program.
That figure fell to just 77 casualties last year, with 55 victims reported for the first nine months of this year amid a concerted international effort to rid the countryside of the scourge.
Ly Thuch, first vice president of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority, said he now needs about $377 million to finish the job.
According to Ly Thuch, "5.7 million people have access to safe land thanks to the mine-clearing operation in this country and the United States by far is one of the largest donors."
"UXOs still remain a threat for Cambodian people and an obstruction to the country's development," he said.
An original 2010 deadline for clearing all landmines and other unexploded ordnance was revised to 2020 amid a low-level border conflict with Thailand around the ancient temples at Preah Vihear.
Other issues causing delays include geography and "sloping," where clearance work must be done on by deminers on their hands and knees, crawling up steep slopes and wearing full protective gear.
Ly Thuch said annual floods and the current monsoon season, with the heaviest rainfall in a decade, were also creating problems for deminers.
"Landmines might be moved by strong flood undercurrents or are uncovered by landslides to prevent people from entering or passing through," he said, urging people to mark and report sighted landmines and other unexploded ordnance.
To date, just under half of the mined land, or 1,893 square kilometers, has been cleared but another 1,970 square kilometers remains contaminated.
Tong Try, a demining adviser with the UNDP, said an extra 2,000 deminers would enable the clearance of an extra 85 square kilometers a year.
He said they would be deployed mainly along the northwest Cambodian-Thai border, where the Khmer Rouge retreated following the 1979 Vietnamese incursion.
That military intervention ended Pol Pot's reign of terror, but a civil war persisted, and the frontier was heavily mined until the war ended in 1998.
"If we have the 2,000 deminers from the Royal Cambodian Army to support the humanitarian demining, we will ask them to clear mostly the landmines along the Cambodia-Thai border," Tong Try said.
The broader strategy includes community awareness programs, victim support, mine education and new technologies.
The training of Magawa, a large African pouched rat, in detecting the scent of chemicals used in explosives and his ability to point them out to handlers has proved more effective than dogs.
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy said the U.S. has spent about $160 million clearing Cambodia of landmines and unexploded ordnance over the last 20 years.
"Whether we're working in agriculture, public health, education, environment, law enforcement, food security and demining, we have excellent partners here and we're making a lot of progress in helping Cambodia become more prosperous, and stable and hopefully more democratic as well," he said.
Australia has also been a major contributor, spending $100 million on mine-clearing over the last two decades, and recently announced a further $20 million. Australian ambassador Pablo Kang recently said the 2025 deadline was ambitious but achievable.
"There's a humanitarian aspect, given Cambodia's very tragic history and just the sheer number of mines and UXOs [unexploded ordnances] that there are around the country, but also increasingly the economic benefits of decontaminating land and then that being freed up for productive agriculture purposes," he said.
Millions of dollars have also been promised to the Cambodian Mine Action and Victims Assistance Authority for the next five years with Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Norway, South Korea and Japan chipping in.
David Potter and Ny Chann contributed to this report.