Thai Bomb Talk

The government is diverting from the real issue of munitions by focusing on the type of weapons used at Preah Vihear.

Luke Hunt

When the last round of fighting erupted between Cambodia and Thailand around Preah Vihear Temple earlier this year, vigilant journalists suspected cluster bombs were being used, putting civilian populations at great risk. Cluster munitions are explosives that contain smaller bomblets and are too often detonated by civilians long after battles have subsided.

They’re a favorite for children who unwittingly pick-up what they think are toys.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen initially claimed that Thai soldiers had used cluster bombs; a charge denied by Bangkok, which determined it was in fact the Cambodians who’d used the munitions.

Now, experts from the international group Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), who visited the Thai-Cambodia border and interviewed people injured by the fighting near the Preah Vihear, have confirmed that almost half of the 12 border sites they recently toured were contaminated by unexploded cluster bombs. More importantly, they’ve pointed the finger of blame at Thailand.

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Neither Cambodia nor Thailand has signed an international convention outlawing use of the weapons, which has been agreed to by 108 other countries. Perhaps they think technically, this means they stand on solid ground from an international legal standpoint.

But in a classic case of doublespeak Thailand admits that while it didn’t use actual cluster munitions, it did deploy the also-controversial Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM), in response to Cambodia's attacks with BM-21 rocket launcher systems, which struck at targets indiscriminately.

‘Such attacks had impacted Thai civilians. It was therefore necessary for Thai troops to act in self-defense against such military targets,’ the Thai foreign ministry stated last week. This admission was soon picked up by CMC Director Laura Cheeseman, who said a DPICM is in fact ‘a classic example’ of a cluster munition.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi responded, quickly dismissing CMC's claim by saying the group ‘misinterpreted’ the Thai Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva Sihasak Phuangketkeow who’d confirmed the use of DPICM.

According to latest reports, the Thai defense ministry continues to insist that clusters were not used and its sources are now saying that the weapon in question could be the Caesar self-propelled howitzer—whose artillery also bursts into bomblets. It added the army has suspended its use however, after the border clashes in February. Cheeseman says armies do categorize weapons differently, however, that no country besides Thailand has ever questioned the DPICM as a cluster munition.

CMC investigators are urging both Cambodia and Thailand to ban all cluster munitions by joining the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the international treaty that prohibits the use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs—instead of muddying the waters with questions over definitions.

Importantly, it wants Thailand to release more information about the bombs it’s used so the mess can be cleaned-up and perhaps a few lives can be saved.

Less doublespeak would also be welcomed.