Logistics prevent Laos from signing mine pact
By Bhanravee Tansubhapol, The Post, 30 June 1998
No country wants its innocent nationals hurt by landmines or other unexploded fatal devices, but not every country has the capacity to clear its lands.
As one of the world's poorest nations but Southeast Asia's richest in unexploded fatal devices, Laos could be expected to rush to sign the global pact banning anti-personnel mines. But Vientiane hasn't.
The main reason Vientiane is staying out of the Ottawa convention is the obligation to rid the country of the devices within four years, according to Phonesavanh Chantavilay, the chief of the Laotian Foreign Ministry's United Nations Division.
There is no way Laos can meet the four-year deadline, the Laotian official told a recent conference in Chachoengsao in central Thailand. The Laotian government does not even know how many unexploded fatal devices are strewn across the country and has no new technique for removing them, he said.
The Ottawa convention prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines, and commits signatories to destroy their stocks of mines no later than four years after the convention comes into force.
A total of 126 countries signed the convention in Ottawa in December last year. The convention will come into effect six months after 40 countries have ratified it. So far only 17 signatories have done so, with Thailand expected to take the step later this year, according to a foreign ministry official.
More than half of Laos's 236,800 sq kms, covering 12 of the country's 18 provinces, are covered with unexploded bombs. Last year only 150 hectares (937.5 rai) were cleared in an operation costing $10 million (430 million baht) that was largely provided by international sponsors.
This year about 200 hectares (1,250 rai) are set to be cleared, said Mr Phonesavanh.
Unlike Cambodia, which is widely covered with landmines planted from the time of the Vietnam War to recent internal conflicts, Laos is largely threatened by unexploded small bombs carpeted by the United States during its secret war in the 1970s to prevent the spread of communism and Vietnamese influence in the landlocked country.
But a source says the timeframe is not the only factor in Laos's decision not to sign the Ottawa convention. Security concerns also play a part, he said.
The Laotian government wants to stay outside the pact for reasons of national security as long as China and Vietnam, its neighbours to the north and east, are not a part, said the source.
Laos is not the only member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Southeast Asia which has opted to stay out of the pact promoted by Canada.
Vietnam, Burma and Singapore have also not signed the pact. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand did sign, as did prospective Asean member Cambodia.
The omissions defy the hope of campaigners keen to see Southeast Asia become a mine-free region.
But simply signing the Ottawa convention does not secure such a guarantee either, said participants at the conference in Chachoengsao. Southeast Asia will not be rid of the device until international assistance is provided in other areas, including better technology on de-mining, better training skills, exchanges of information and experience and money, they said.
Bill van Ree, a landmine expert with Auscare, an Australian non-government organisation, said the development of technology was important and helpful for workers to clear the device faster and at a cheaper cost.
Each mine clearance device now costs $300 (12,900 baht), according to Mr van Ree, who has experience in this field in Afghanistan, one of the world's most heavily mined countries. And it takes an hour to find mines in a 300 sq m area, or approximately 200 years to clear 10 million mines, he said.
"The problems we face are the exact number of mines, the contamination and the restricted use of land, as well as the noise pollution issue," he told the 40 officials and NGO representatives who attended the international meeting.
Laos and Cambodia can play an important role in sharing their experience with other countries because they have set up their own de-mining training centres, said the participants.
Thailand plans to set up a training centre to de-mine areas along its borders, especially those with Laos and Cambodia, where mines are prevalent.
Each country has to be sincere in disclosing information about landmines and their stockpiles, said advocates.
Although the hopes are dim of seeing the entire Southeast Asian region free of landmines, the advocates at least are happy about the commitment of countries in this region to combat the issue.
Southeast Asian countries have made clear that landmines are a major threat to their people and that the de-mining effort needs international help and political will. To this end, they urge attention to the issue from Asean, the Asean Region Forum, and the Committee on Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.
Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 1998