By Irwin Loy
PHNOM PENH, Apr 19, 2011 (IPS) - Allegations that Thailand used controversial cluster munitions during recent border clashes with Cambodia have become the latest wedge driving tensions between the two neighbours.
The disarmament advocacy group Cluster Munition Coalition earlier this month announced that it had confirmed the Thais used the weapons as part of February skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian troops around a disputed area near the Preah Vihear temple.
The group said this marked the first time such weapons have been deployed since a landmark treaty banning their use came into effect last year – though Thailand continues to dispute whether or not the weapons should be classified as cluster bombs.
The CMC said Thailand’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, acknowledged in an April meeting that Thai troops used 155mm Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions, or DPICM, during the February clashes.
Laura Cheeseman, director of the CMC, said it was "appalling" that Thailand had resorted to using cluster munitions. "Thailand has been a leader in the global ban on antipersonnel mines and it is unconscionable that it used banned weapons that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians in a similar manner," Cheeseman said in a statement.
However, Thailand is refusing to classify the weapons as cluster bombs. Thai officials said soldiers used the weapons in response to Cambodian forces firing rockets into Thai territory.
"(Thai) soldiers defended themselves when attacked by multiple rockets," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told IPS. "When the civilian targets in Thailand were attacked, they defended themselves by using a particular kind of weaponry, including (DPICM)."
Cluster munitions are designed to explode in mid-air over their targets, unleashing smaller bomblets over the blast radius. But critics have sought to outlaw the weapons, arguing high fail rates mean the bomblets often fail to explode on impact, leaving a deadly legacy for civilians long after fighting has stopped.
The CMC said its members have examined two contaminated areas around the UNESCO-listed Preah Vihear temple and found multiple kinds of cluster bomblets, including M85-type DPICM submunitions.
A 2007 report by the group Norwegian People’s Aid found that failure rates for the Israeli-produced M85 submunitions were unacceptably high. Though equipped with self-destruct mechanisms meant to ensure no more than 1 percent of the bomblets fail to explode, the report estimated previous use of the weapons in Iraq and Lebanon resulted in ‘dud rates’ as high as 12 percent in some cases.
A typical 155mm projectile can carry 49 M85 bomblets, meaning that a single fired rocket could leave at least five unexploded submunitions over a three-hectare blast radius.
Denise Coghlan, director of the group Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, was part of a group that visited the Preah Vihear area shortly after the February fighting. She said two men were killed and another two people lost appendages after the cluster bombs exploded.
"I was really outraged that people were killed and that people were injured by cluster munitions," Coghlan told IPS. "This is such a flagrant breach of the new international law."
Though Thailand continues to insist the DPICM are not cluster bombs, other observers have issued sharply worded criticisms nonetheless.
"Norway condemns all use of cluster munitions," Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre said in a statement this month. "These weapons kill and maim civilians and have unacceptable humanitarian consequences long after they are used.
"South-east Asia is a region that is already badly affected, and the incident on the border between Cambodia and Thailand demonstrates clearly why this weapon is now prohibited."
The United Kingdom has also raised its concerns over the allegations with Thai authorities, a spokeswoman with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told IPS. "That cluster munitions may have been used is of serious concern to the UK," she said. "We condemn in the strongest terms the use of cluster munitions, which cause unacceptable harm to the civilian population."
The CMC, meanwhile, says Thailand’s apparent use of the weapons should provide further impetus for both countries to sign on to the global Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty banning signatories from using and stockpiling the weapons came into effect last year with neither Cambodia nor Thailand on board.
But it appears the February incident may hinder, rather than encourage, either country from doing so.
Cambodia had been a vocal proponent of the treaty. But it surprised observers by not signing on to at its first opportunity in 2008, citing the on-going border tensions with Thailand as well as a need to ascertain its current stock of cluster bombs.
Analysts say the question of signing the ban in Cambodia has been one that balances political will with caution from military officials. Any confirmed use of cluster bombs by the Thai side, then, could add more weight to the arguments of Cambodian defence officials already hesitant to join the treaty.
Cambodian Secretary of State Prak Sokhon is an advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the cluster bomb issue. He said his country’s goal remains to sign on to the global pact. But Thailand’s reported deployment complicates the matter.
"We’re still studying. But from a military point of view, it’s hard to make a decision while the other side uses these kinds of munitions against us," Sokhon told IPS. "If the two countries can find a peaceful solution in the future, then we will reconsider our stance."
Thai officials say they are still considering the treaty. (END)