Cambodia Remembers the Mixed Blessings of Diana’s Demining Legacy

A recent anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect honestly about her mine clearance legacy.

Cambodia Remembers the Mixed Blessings of Diana’s Demining Legacy
Credit: Flickr/Eric Molina

Diana, the late Princess of Wales, was a well meaning advocate, passionate about landmines and the dreadful damage they have caused to untold thousands of people. But when speaking to deminers on the ground in countries like Cambodia or Afghanistan, the response was always less sanguine.

Demining has never really suffered from a lack of money, nor did the sector need the hype generated by Diana who once stood to become Queen of Britain and of Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada as well.

The removal of landmines is a slow, methodical and laborious process. Typically deminers from Western militaries, retired or otherwise, are responsible for training locals in the dangerous task and that takes time and patience, not so much the money.

This was highlighted recently in Cambodia where the release of the latest statistics covering landmine victims coincided with the 20th anniversary of Diana’s famed entry into the demining world through her visit to Angola with Britain’s HALO Trust.

It was a trip that would help earn her the title the People’s Princess.

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In Cambodia, casualty rates have fallen and were announced as a reason for applause. But they still remain stubbornly high, particularly in the border regions with Thailand where the Khmer Rouge clung to their dwindling support base until the end of the 1990s.

Almost 20 years since the end of Cambodia’s long running wars, landmines still claimed 83 casualties in 2016. That is substantially lower than almost one a day in the early 2000s – but still too many.

Statistics were also released one day after a deminer with HALO was killed while a colleague was wounded at work, near the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, not far from the Thai border.

That should not come as a surprise.

In 2011, Cambodia announced it had revised its deadline for the removal of all landmines by the year 2020, after missing it’s original 2010 deadline. If any European country was suffering that many casualties in the mid-1960s, from World War II ordnance, a public outcry would surely have followed.

While praising their work Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn said 4,175 Cambodian demining experts have been deployed to African countries like Chad and Mali where they have served as United Nations peacekeepers — with 892 currently on active service.

“Cambodian peacekeepers have had many achievements during the 11 years of their mission,” he said. That in itself is a noble byproduct of the global effort to stamp out landmines.

But Diana’s legacy remains mixed at best and certainly not up to the hype generated by her and the media, which was always eager to shell-out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a photograph of the late princess contrasted against a backdrop of the world’s less fortunate.

Because of her status, millions of dollars was poured into third world countries with landmine issues but given the corruption levels that often accompany many of these countries more money, particularly in the wrong hands, was not always welcomed.

Perhaps more important was an international ban on landmines.

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This has significantly helped to reduce statistics since it was signed more than two decades ago, with the United States under Barack Obama taking a lead role since then. The United States has not used landmines since the first Gulf War in 1991, it hasn’t exported them since 1992, or produced them since 1997. Washington is also the biggest donor to mine clearance programs around the world.

Diana’s work should not be undervalued anymore than it should be overhyped but it should also be remembered that political machinations and behind the scenes bureaucrats have had far more to do with limiting and perhaps one day ending the scourge of landmines – even if it did come too late for countries like Cambodia.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt