Cambodia’s Trouble with Landmines – is a Brighter Future Possible?

Written by Heather Wilhelm

For my birthday last week, my boyfriend bought me a beautiful necklace from a great fair trade store called Ten Thousand Villages.  The necklace is called a Peace Dove Bombshell Necklace, and upon reading the literature that came with it, I learned that this piece of jewellery was made in Cambodia by a group of artisans who had formed an organization called Rajana.  Rajana is completely owned and operated by the Khmer people of Cambodia, and offer fair salaries, education, interest-free loans and many other benefits to their workers.  They are working to create beautiful art by turning the ravages of decades of war and tragedy into prosperity for their people.  The Peace Dove Bombshell Necklaces are made from the remains of land mines that litter the land of Cambodia and have led the country to have one of the highest numbers of amputee populations in the world.  This birthday gift – as beautiful as it is – tells the story of a horrific past and the ever-present danger that face the people of Cambodia.

Between 1975 and 1979 the ruling party in Cambodia was a totalitarian government called the Khmer Rouge.  The party was led by Pol Pot and believed in extreme Communist principles including social engineering and agricultural reform.  Their radical social reform process was carried out by deporting all the inhabitants of major cities to the countryside where they combined populations with farmers and were forced into labour in the fields.  Anyone suspected of capitalism (a group that included teachers, professors, urban city dwellers, anyone connected to foreign governments, and even people who simply wore reading glasses) was arbitrarily executed, tortured or detained.  There is a large range of estimated deaths in the four years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, but most estimates but the death toll at 1.5 million people.  This included those executed by the government, as well as those who died of starvation from lack of experience growing food, and those who died of preventable diseases because of the government’s insistence that westernized medicine be kept out of the country.  Money was abolished; schools, hospitals, banks, industrial and service companies were closed; books were burned and as mentioned earlier, almost the entire intellectual population of the country was massacred.  Most notable in the long list of treacherous crimes performed by the Khmer Rouge was the separation of children from their parents (who were believed to be tainted by capitalism) and their subsequent brainwashing (children were often given leadership roles in torture and execution) into this dangerous form of socialism.  While the Khmer Rouge were toppled from government in 1979, the group itself survived as a group into the 1990s, causing death and destruction throughout these decades.

It is estimated that four to six million landmines were laid in Cambodia over the decades of war fought there, and every year hundreds of Cambodians fall victim to the lasting effect of these forgotten weapons.  In a population of approximately 12 million people, it is estimated that more than 40,000 amputees are living, or one in every 290 Cambodians.  These amputees are chastised by their peers and have been forgotten by their government, often having to try and make a living selling merchandise on the streets for small commissions.  There are many active mine removal organizations that work within Cambodia that are trying to clear mines in an effort to make the country safer, but this sizable job is nowhere near completion leaving the citizens of Cambodia in constant danger or death or amputation.

Organizations like Rajana are imperative to the turnaround of countries like Cambodia that are suffering the after effects of decades long war, as they play a role in creating job opportunities and education for its citizens.  By providing fair wages, health care, education and more to their employees Rajana is working to create a different future for Cambodia.  Aside from creating a better social welfare system, it is imperative that the international community become active in the banning of land mines and cluster bombs.  The Ottawa Treaty also known as the Mine Ban Treaty became effective on March 1, 1999, and as of early 2009 had 156 parties to the Treaty.  Once a country has signed, they are required to cease production of anti-personnel mines as well as destroy any stockpile of mines within four years (except for a small number they are allowed to retain for training purposes).  Thirty-seven countries have not signed the Treaty, including the People’s Republic of China, India, Russia and the United States of America, all of whom are some of the largest producers and carry some of the largest stockpile of anti-personnel landmines.  By refusing to sign this Treaty, some of the most powerful countries in the world, namely the United States and China, are perpetuating a problem that has caused countless deaths and produced mass destruction.

The Peace Dove Bombshell Necklace is just one small way that we can make a difference in the eradication of land mines while at the same time allowing us to contribute to the social development of a nation.  A portion from the proceeds of every necklace sold between the International Day of Peace (September 21) and Remembrance Day (November 11) goes to Mines Action Canada while the remainder goes to the artisans making a change through the Rajana organization.  While I hazard to use this site to advertise for companies, Ten Thousand Villages has spent decades providing international communities with a venue to sell fair trade items and I feel their work should be recognized.  If you’re interested in learning more about Ten Thousand Villages and their fair trade items, visit them at www.tenthousandvillages.ca.  To learn more about the work of Mines Action Canada, visit them at www.minesactioncanada.org.  While it is often hard to read about the horrors occurring in other countries, at times I feel our minds can be eased by trying to make any kind of difference, however small or insignificant it may seem.

hw

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