Two months on from the latest round fighting between Thailand and Cambodia over the 11th Century Preah Vihear Temple, Thai authorities have finally confessed what activists long suspected: they used cluster munitions during the conflict.
For those unaware of how these weapons work, the essence is as follows: a large shell releases dozens of smaller shrapnel-filled submunitions or ‘bomblets’ that scatter over a vast area, exploding and causing serious damage to anything in their vicinity. The major problems with this are twofold: firstly those deploying the weapons have no control over their exact dispersal and secondly many submunitions fail to explode on impact, yet remain live, effectively becoming landmines. Thus whilst troops may utilise cluster munitions with no explicit intent of harming civilians, they cannot avoid ripping apart innocent people caught by stray bomblets or maiming farmers, children and other locals unfortunate enough to stumble across unexploded ones.
A sickening practical demonstration of the effects that cluster munitions produce long after fighting ends, is visible in Southern Lebanon where ‘bomblets’ dispersed by Israeli forces during their 2006 conflict with Hezbollah continue to claim the lives and limbs of Lebanese civilians, including youngsters who frequently mistake them for toys. This tragic situation provided a key impetus for the Convention on Cluster Munitions – a treaty banning the weapons, which came into force last year after prolonged campaigning by groups such as the Cluster Munition Coalition. Although this is only binding upon those states opting to ratify it, which currently number fifty-six and do not include either Thailand or Cambodia, it has nevertheless served to stigmatise the weapons and create a worldwide shift away from them. Despite the protestations of states such as Israel and the USA, which respectively deem cluster munitions as “completely legal” and “legitimate”, Thailand’s deployment in February was the first and only since the Convention was originally opened to signatures in 2008.
This underscores the fast-and-loose attitude of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his administration towards human rights. However, after deploying troops to murder protesters and allowing immigration authorities to cast refugees into the open sea, it is hardly surprising that they should add the inexcusable and unforgivable use of cluster munitions to their ever growing repertoire of abuse. With an estimated 5000 Cambodians now at risk from the unexploded bomblets, the only way that the Thai government can begin to make amends for this specific act is to disclose all information concerning where the munitions were deployed and fund a clean-up operation…then sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions and destroy their remaining stockpile. Nothing less is acceptable.