Restoring the Spirit of Asia’s Most Mine Affected Countries


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Various wars and internal conflicts have left the civilians of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam in serious need of assistance. Today, several organizations are increasing their aid to mine victims by addressing both their physical and socio-economic needs.


An amputee sewing in a workshop.
by Hayden Roberts, MAIC

Introduction

Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have much in common. However, one similarity often overlooked is that all three of these countries are carpeted by millions of landmines and UXO that have left civilians in a constant state of fear. From the Killing Fields in Cambodia to the mines laid by government and rebel forces in eastern Burma to the leftover mines of the Vietnam War, an evident humanitarian crisis exists within this area. Fortunately, in the wake of this crisis, many organizations have stepped up to face the problem by offering a wide variety of services and assistance programs to victims.

Cambodia

In 1975, after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime came to power, Cambodia faced one of the worst genocides the world has ever witnessed. During the regime’s brief tenure, which spanned the years of 1975–1979, an effort to create a classless utopian society brought about the death of over two million Cambodians.1 Although the regime came to an end, the succeeding years of internal conflict, warfare, violence and genocide left this nation covered with more than two million landmines and an infrastructure that has been torn apart.2 The mines sit unsuspectingly in the ground in every place imaginable—near towns and villages, water sources, paths and trails, and in the rice paddies. This has left Cambodia with the highest per capita percentage of mine amputees in the world, as one in every 236 Cambodian has lost one or more limbs.2 This has compelled many organizations to focus their efforts in this mine-stricken nation.

Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation

In 1991, the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) established a humanitarian program in Cambodia to provide rehabilitation assistance to landmine victims. Since then, the programs and services offered have grown to include three physical rehabilitation centers, an income generating project that is aimed at reintegrating landmine survivors into society, and a Cambodian volleyball league for the disabled.

VVAF has established three rehabilitation and prosthetics centers throughout Cambodia: the Kien Khleang Physical Rehabilitation Center, the Prey Veng Regional Rehabilitation Center and the Kratie Physical Rehabilitation Center. The oldest of the three, the Kien Khleang Center, was established in 1992 near Phnom Penh. Being VVAF’s largest overseas facilities as well as the largest rehabilitation center in the country, the Kien Khleang has the capacity to treat more than 240 patients each month and has assisted over 10,000 Cambodians to date.3 Rehabilitation Support Services (RSS) provide physical therapy to disabled people at the center, and teams are also implemented to visit patients in the greater Phnom Penh area ensuring proper use of prostheses, orthoses and wheelchairs. The Prey Veng Rehabilitation Center, located in the Prey Veng province, opened in 1994 to assist the needs of the eastern regions of Cambodia. RSS units as well as a mobile prosthetic team are the primary source of treatment for patients in this area. These teams have treated hundreds of amputees living in the remote areas of Cambodia and often return to repair and refit prostheses. The Kratie Physical Rehabilitation Center officially opened in August of 2000 and is VVAF’s newest facility. This facility is located in one of Cambodia’s most densely populated regions and is accessible to those living in the isolated and poor provinces of the northeast. According to the website, “The Kratie center includes a comprehensive polypropylene workshop in which quality prosthetic and orthotic devices are produced.”4 Because the center is located on the site of the provincial hospital, there is a greater opportunity for those with prosthetic and orthotic needs to receive quality medical support. Aside from receiving prostheses and orthoses, patients can undergo physical therapy here as well.

VVAF-Joom Noon Project

VVAF’s Joom Noon project was created with the goal of reintegrating landmine victims into society. This project gives victims the chance to utilize the skills of spinning and weaving silk scarves, shawls and sarongs to build a positive future. The workshop is located in the northern Cambodian province of Preah Vihear, where the Joom Noon products are produced completely by hand. Not only does the project teach those affected by landmines a useful skill and trade, but the reinvestment of profits from sales also revitalizes the community. To view the Preah Vihear Silkweaving Workshop, please visit their website (http://www.vvaf.org/fieldtrip/index.shtml). 

VVAF-Sports for Life

There is no better therapy to one who has been disabled by landmines than the feeling of confidence, empowerment and unity, and the Sports for Life program offers exactly this to those who need it. Through the VVAF-organized volleyball team, the Cambodian Volleyball League for the Disabled, “people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and other disenfranchised groups are becoming visible within their societies.”5 Much of this is due to the fact that volleyball is a highly popular sport throughout southeast Asia. The team was officially launched on June 22–23 during the first round of competition held at the VVAF Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center volleyball courts. Eight teams participated in this event. Seven of the eight teams were sponsored by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work with the disabled in Cambodia. The volleyball league received a great deal of publicity and television coverage from the local stations, in addition to the support and cheers from fans, which has made a great impact in the participants’ lives.

Cambodian Handicraft Association

The Cambodian Handicraft Association (CHA) was organized by Hay Kim Tha and Heng Thai Ly to assist those people who have suffered from landmine and polio disabilities. Much like VVAF’s Joom Noon project, the objective of CHA is to reintegrate handicapped victims into society through employment opportunities. More accurately, “CHA takes people who have already been trained but who were unable to support themselves with their craft skills after the training was completed.”6 Initially, there was a skills training program that was started in 1991; however, Hay Kim Tha realized that merely having craft skills would not ensure employment or an adequate livelihood. The reason for this has to do with the fact that the government has not yet enacted legislation that would give disabled trainees access to the garment industry. So in 1997 CHA was created. Two buildings were opened, one in Siem Reap and the other in Phnom Penh, where mine victims could work to make items such as hand-sewn vests, woodcarvings, various items made from hand-woven silk, and home accessories.

According to Hay Kim Tha, some of the other objectives of CHA include:

  • “To provide the producers who spend time in these shops with a positive and profitable work experience, one which both hones their skills and gives them options for the future.
  • “To teach workers enough business and basic tailoring/weaving skills to help them become employable in business and organization in the urban centers of Cambodia.
  • “To build confidence and self-esteem of these Cambodians through a positive and challenging study environment, using tailors/weavers/teachers who are themselves disabled
  • “To participate in landmine awareness and the Campaign to Ban Landmines.”6

All CHA employees are able to work in one of two workshops and receive approximately $35 (U.S.) a month. They spend about $12 dollars on food, but because there are no rent costs, they have the ability to save the remainder or give it to their families. Individuals can train or work in either the tailoring or weaving workshop. As the trainees from the tailoring workshop find difficulty securing employment, CHA plans to invite back a group of people to put energy into improving the product line and quality. Those from the weaving workshop have an easier time after training, as they are not affected by government regulations on employment and “a high percentage of graduates have enjoyed success upon leaving the program.”6 Both workshops work together to assure that steady work and income will be made; the fabric in the weaving workshop will be sold to the tailoring workshop, where final products will be sold to customers who visit CHA’s showroom.

Although this program has helped many restart their lives, CHA faces many problems. Hay Kim Tha states, “In spite of working constantly, the artisans/trainees at CHA and I have found ourselves with over $30,000 in debt. We are facing bankruptcy and are in need of markets for the items made by our disabled artisans/trainees at CHA.”6 This organization is finding it hard to find customers to support the program that has brought hope to those affected by landmines. For further information about this victim assistance program, visit the CHA website (www.bigpond.com.kh/users/wthanchashop).

Thailand

A Thai boy learning to function with the help of his prostheses.

Recently, Thailand has been facing a compound dilemma. The region of Thailand that rests along Burma’s border harbors thousands of displaced refugees fleeing from this nation. Much of this is due to the fact that since Burma gained independence from Britain, about 30 ethnic minority groups have been struggling with the government—both sides rely heavily on mines. These groups include the ethnic Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan. Aside from this, drug traffickers and loggers also rely on this accessible, easily produced and cheap weapon of terror on the border region. In addition, Burma, a large producer of landmines, has not signed the Mine Ban Treaty. Civilians often detonate these hidden killers, but the medical facilities in Burma do not have the capabilities to serve the victims. Mine victims in Burma have received little assistance, and unless they are able to pay for the treatment, there is little that can be done for them. Those victims and landmine-affected refugees that have managed to filter into Thailand have a desperate need for assistance.

Clear Path International
Clear Path International is an active organization that was initially created with the intention to remove landmines and other UXO throughout the region. As the directors of Clear Path International realized the landmine crisis in southeast Asia was growing at an exponential rate, the organization turned to more victim assistance activities. Currently, their ultimate goal is to ensure that victims are able to return to the lives they once led. As the website states, their goals include:

  • “Raising awareness of the landmine/UXO problem in the world, particularly in southeast Asia.
  • “Sponsoring programs to assist victims of accidental landmine/UXO explosions through emergency medical treatment, surgery, long-term health care, nutrition support, special scholarships and other initiatives that support the victims’ reintegration into their communities.”7

At the beginning of 2002, Clear Path International began a working affiliation with the Mae Tao Clinic. This clinic, founded by Dr. Cynthia Maung, is located in the small town of Mae Sot near the border of Burma. As many Burmese often stumble haplessly across landmines, either within Burma or during their trek to Thailand, the first medical facility that can be found in this region with the capability to treat this type of trauma is the Mae Tao Clinic.

Due to the lack of adequate provisions as well as the decrepit medical infrastructure in the border region of Burma, many mine victims do not make it to medical facilities before they die. In addition to this, the cost of an amputation or corrective surgery at other local Thai hospitals costs more than two times the annual wage of most refugees.8 Clear Path International recognized this alarming reality and decided to act. Not only has Clear Path International been offering free medical assistance to Burmese refugees as well as dental and eye care services, but a Burmese landmine survivor has also opened a new prosthetic shop in Mae Tao. Additionally, with the help of volunteers such as Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, a pediatrician at the clinic, a project to expand Mae Tao has been provided for. Clear Path hopes to support the addition of “a 10-bed ward for survivor rehabilitation, materials for the production of 100 prosthetic devices, training of five new prosthetists (mine victims themselves), and funding for orthopedic surgery and a risk-reduction education program for medical technicians and refugees returning to Burma.”8

Handicap International (HI)
According to their website report Landmine Victim Assistance, World Report 2001, “Handicap International has acted since 1985 along the Thai-Burma border on behalf of disabled people, mainly through the provision of prosthetic and orthotic devices and community-based rehabilitation programs.”9 This organization acknowledged the large number of refugees who are amputees or disabled and targeted them in its victim assistance programs. To better serve those who are in need of rehabilitation, HI opened 15 orthopedic workshops in provincial hospitals or refugee camps throughout Thailand. On average, the workshops produce about 40 prostheses a month.9 A wheelchair distribution program in Bangkok is implemented under the auspices of HI, and many of the workshops throughout Thailand receive this type of equipment. As it is primarily the provincial hospitals that have been adequately equipped for the rehabilitation of victims and amputees, HI-Thailand will commence “a community-based rehabilitation program in selected mine-affected villages of the Tak province.”9

Vietnam

For over 20 years now, Vietnam has witnessed a long-term era of peace after several decades of turmoil and strife. The largest conflict was the Vietnam War, which endured from 1961 through 1975, and left this nation decimated and covered with millions of landmines. To illustrate this point, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) states:

  • There are some 3.5 million landmines and 350,000–800,000 tons of UXO scattered throughout Vietnam.

  • “It would cost an estimated $4–15 billion to clear these mines/ordnance.

  • “Over 38,000 people have been killed by UXO/mines since the end of the American War in 1975.

  • “At least 64,000 additional people have been injured by UXO/mines since that time.

  • “The Vietnamese government estimates that there are some 2,000 UXO/mine related casualties a year.”10

UXO are primarily responsible for many of the injuries and casualties that occur in Vietnam and children are extremely susceptible to this threat.

Viet-Nam Assistance for the Handicapped (VNAH)
VNAH is a “non-profit, non-political, tax-exempt charitable organization founded in 1991 to assist the war amputees and other disabled in Vietnam.”11 This organization was created when Ca Van Tran, the founder and president of VNAH, returned to his home country, which he had fled in April 1975. Feeling haunted and affected by the vast number of landmine victims from the Vietnam War he had witnessed during this trip back home, Tran decided to act. He began VNAH despite the fact that he had little knowledge of medicine or fundraising. This did not deter Tran, however, and he was determined to assist his native countrymen where the government had failed. Meeting with Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations and calling upon the support of individuals such as U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, VNAH has been able to flourish and broaden its range of assistance to include other nations as well.

The VNAH charter pledged to provide assistance to the handicapped “on an equal-access basis without regard to social or political status.”12 Through these VNAH assistance programs, disadvantaged and vulnerable people have received an opportunity once again to lead a productive life and to escape the poverty they may have faced. Such programs have provided technical assistance to government agencies, prosthetic clinics, wheelchair factories and vocational centers in order to enact and promote legislation and quality services aimed at the disabled population of Vietnam. Assistive devices, national policy and wheelchair assistance and distribution have been three areas of focus that VNAH met with success.

Assistive Devices
According to VNAH statistics, the country of Vietnam contains over five million people with a disability and is a nation with one of the world’s lowest incomes.13 In order to counter and address this fact, VNAH has been manufacturing and delivering limbs and braces to those in need. To date, over 33,000 devices have been delivered, although there are still many war victims that have not been assisted.13 VNAH handles this by conducting outreach missions in rural communities too far from hospitals and prosthetic centers in order to meet the needs of those too poor to travel. Ca Van Tran has set up two centers in Vietnam that have the capacity to produce about 200 prostheses a month for less than $50 apiece.12

National Policy and Programs for the Disabled
Physical aid and therapy are not the only aspects of assistance provided by VNAH—promoting national policy and legislation to acknowledge the disabled by the government is a large area of focus as well. VNAH has started a program that will work alongside the Vietnamese government to improve and update policies and programs for the disabled. VNAH work in this area has paid off and now Vietnam has its first comprehensive Ordinance on Disabled Persons. The main priorities of this policy are to ensure barrier-free access, create employment opportunities and create groups of and for the disabled.

Wheelchairs
With regards to the distribution and quality of wheelchairs in Vietnam, VNAH has made a great deal of progress. Over 3,000 wheelchairs have been distributed, and the organization sees to it that high-priority cases, such as double amputees and students with polio, can own and operate these devices. Through grants and other monetary assistance, the organization has been able to provide technical assistance to manufacturers to improve design and the overall production of wheelchairs. VNAH has donated wheelchairs to the disabled in the central and southern regions of Vietnam and hopes that their aid can expand to other areas in Southeast Asia.

UNICEF
Working alongside national governments and other humanitarian agencies, UNICEF strives to accomplish many goals related to the protection of children worldwide. This organization takes on issues such as poverty, human rights, health and education to ensure children around the world have the opportunity to reach their utmost potential. As the severity of the landmine problem in Vietnam has come to light, UNICEF has observed that the children of Vietnam are considered at great risk from the threat of landmines and UXO. UNICEF has begun to take action to launch programs directed at this vulnerable demographic group.

Much of this focus is aimed at the population of Quang Tri, which is found along the old dividing line between the former North and South Vietnam. UNICEF has taken great lengths to address the issue of childhood disability by advocating government policy aimed at supporting the needs of the disabled by offering community-based rehabilitation programs. These community programs operate in 45 out of 61 provinces. The National Institute for Educational Sciences (NIES) project has worked with UNICEF to help facilitate reintegration by pushing for inclusive education for disabled children. UNICEF also has been involved in the following projects:

  • Launching a new program this year to reduce the prevalence of casualties from bombs, landmines and other ordnance across the country.

  • “Supporting the production and airing of television and radio spots in numerous affected provinces throughout the country.

  • “Supporting the dissemination of UXO/mine warning signs in affected areas, (as well as) information dissemination activities through existing health care networks, peer education activities for children and youth, and expanding inclusive education activities to provide additional opportunities for disabled children to attend school and in-school awareness activities.”10

Conclusion

A young boy awaits to having his prosthesis fitted.

At epidemic rates, landmines have claimed the health and livelihood of millions throughout southeast Asia. As the victim toll has increased to alarming proportions, many organizations have taken it upon themselves to assist these nations in any means possible. Although landmines have taken hope away from these victims, these organizations have given these disadvantaged people a chance to start again and lead a more productive life. “That’s what it’s all about,” Ca Van Tran states. “We not only need to heal the physical wounds, but deal with the emotional scars as well, and restore hope where there was none.”12

Endnotes

  1. Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. “VVAF’s Humanitarian Program—Brief Country History.” http://www.vvaf.org/humanitarian/cambodia.shtml 
  2. Clear Path International. “Cambodia—The Killing Fields Continue.” http://www.clearpathinternational.org/regions/cambodia.php 
  3. Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. “VVAF’s Humanitarian Program—Project History.” http://www.vvaf.org/humanitarian/cambodia.shtml 
  4. Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation “VVAF’s Humanitarian Program—Kratie Physical Rehabilitation Center.” http://www.vvaf.org/humanitarian/cambodia_kratie.shtml 
  5. Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. “VVAF’s Humanitarian Program—Sports for Life Promotes Health, Confidence and Cooperation.” http://www.vvaf.org/humanitarian/sportsforlife.shtml 
  6. Personal E-mail correspondence with Hay Kim Tha. August 12, 2002.
  7. Clear Path International. “Who We Are.” http://clearpathinternational.org/info.php 
  8. Clear Path International. “Thailand—Mae Sot Clinic.” http://www.clearpathinternational.org/regions/thailand.php 
  9. Handicap International. “Landmine Victim Assistance, World Report 2001 (Asia-Pacific).” http://www.handicap-international.org/report/2000 
  10. UNICEF. “The Lingering Scourge of Bombs and Landmines in Viet Nam.” http://www.unicef.org/vietnam/uxo.htm 
  11. Viet-Nam Assistance for the Handicapped. “VNAH Gives Help and Hope to the Disabled.” 2002. http://www.vnah-hev.org/ 
  12. Reaves, Joseph. “Ca Van Tran’s Last Battle.” Reader’s Digest. February, 1997. Viet-Nam Assistance for the Handicapped. http://www.vnah-hev.org/ 
  13. Viet-Nam Assistance for the Handicapped. “Assistive Devices.” http://www.vnah-hev.org/ 

*All photos courtesy of Clear Path International

Contact Information

Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF)
1725 Eye Street NW
Fourth Floor
Washington, DC 20006-2412
Phone: 202-483-9222

Cambodian Handicraft Association (CHA)
House #40, 160 St.
Sangkat Teak Laok 2
Khan Tuol Kok
P.O. Box 1396
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phone: 855-23-881-720

Clear Path International
P.O. Box 945
Dorset, VT 05251
Phone: 802-867-0208

Handicap International
Susan Walker
Phone: 207-935-2633
E-mail: sbwhandicap@igc.org

Viet-Nam Assistance for the Handicapped
P.O. Box 6554
McLean, VA 22106
Phone: 703-847-9582

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
http://www.unicef.org/about/contact.htm

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