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What lies beneath

Due to its troubled past, Cambodia is a leading exporter of demining expertise.

Since 1992, almost 1 million mines have been cleared from about 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of land in Cambodia like this site in Battambang province. (Nicolas Axelrod/GlobalPost)

PHNOM PENH — Nuon Sao has laid 11,000 mines across Cambodia.

The 44-year-old, who now works for a non-profit radio station in Phnom Penh, fought for 13 years with the now-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) during the civil war that followed the fall of the communist Khmer Rouge in 1979.

But when the United Nations took control of Cambodia in 1992 to enforce a shaky peace accord, Nuon Sao defected to its demining unit and began unstitching what he had made. Thousands of other soldiers eventually joined him.

Today, this same ragtag group of militiamen still removes most of the explosives throughout the country. Since 1992, almost 1 million mines have been cleared from about 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of land. Three non-governmental organizations and Cambodia’s military divide up the work, which is administered by an oversight group funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). They estimate that less than 700 square kilometers of mined land remains in Cambodia.

Despite the makeshift start, the U.N. is impressed with the pace of Cambodian demining. In an April speech on the achievement of Cambodia’s U.N. Millennium Development Goals, Cambodia is “now regarded as a world leader in demining," said Douglas Broderick, the country's U.N. resident coordinator.

“Over the past decade, Cambodia has made a remarkable transition from infamously being one of the most mine-affected countries in the world to becoming one of the most innovative countries in addressing the problem,” UNDP Cambodia mine action project manager Melissa Sabatier told GlobalPost.

This unique expertise is now being exported overseas.

In 2007, Prime Minister Hun Sen allowed the U.N. to send 135 Cambodian troops to clear mines in southern Sudan. For three years, Cambodia has maintained troops there on a rotating schedule, with another company set to deploy in June. Of five participating countries, Cambodia has cleared the most mines — more than 2,000 — and is highest rated by the U.N. in terms of both productivity and safety, said Ker Savoeun, director of the military’s peacekeeping division and a former CPP fighter.

In January, the military trained another 400 troops for emergency peacekeeping and demining missions. With 45 days notice, the U.N. can send them anywhere in the world. Sometime this year, the U.N. will also send 20-soldier platoons to both Chad and the Central African Republic to provide airport security. These missions boost Cambodia’s reputation and soldiers’ wallets. While the average troop earns less than $400 annually, the U.N. pays its peacekeepers and deminers $1,000 per month.