Monmouth Girls student heads to rural Cambodia to teach English with funding from The Haberdashers' Company


Haberdashers' Monmouth student, Natasha, was awarded £500 from Thomas Arno last year to travel to rural Cambodia to teach English. Here she shares her life-changing experiences in her own words as she overcame language barriers and cultural differences to connect with local people in the country. Natasha was deeply moved by her interactions with Sokim Phang, a Programme Officer at Mines Advisory Group, who taught her about the ongoing dangers of unexploded landmines in Cambodia and the legacy of the county's occupation from 1975-1979.

"With the money I received from the Thomas Arno Fund, I was able to travel to South East Asia and volunteer for the community in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I taught English to children between the ages of 6-15 at a school on the outskirts of the town. The children were full of enthusiasm and loved immersing me in their local culture. I learnt so much from the entire experience - I had to overcome language barriers not only with the children I taught, but also with my fellow volunteers. I was the sole English first language speaker, as two of the volunteers are Cambodian, and the other two are South Korean. We had to learn to work as a team at school and at the accommodation, where we cooked and organised ourselves. Since I was living with Cambodians, I was lucky enough to be able to ask them many questions about the impact of UXOs and landmines on their lives and families; a subject I was keen to learn more about.

As part of my research in Cambodia, I interviewed the Programme Officer at Mines Advisory Group (MAG), Sokim Phang. He spoke of his role as the director of ground management - writing progress reports, liaising between MAG and the national authorities to formulate MOUs and agreement licences, communicating with stakeholders and ensuring donors get publicity for their efforts. Mr Phang’s information was extremely valuable, his professional experience informed my understanding of landmines; the current issues and interventions required to overcome them.

An accumulation of conflicts has led to Cambodia’s devastating problem with UXOs (Unexploded Ordnance) and landmines. One of these was the Khmer Rouge, an extreme communist movement, who planted landmines in Cambodia heavily during their occupation between 1975 to 1979. Additionally, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia during the Vietnamese war (against the USA between 1979 and 1989) is another major cause of the placement of UXOs and cluster bombs in Cambodia. Landmines are concentrated in the west in places such as Battambang and Pailin from the Khmer Rouge’s occupation of the northwest. UXOs and cluster munitions are concentrated in the east of Cambodia, nearer to the border with Vietnam, dropped by the USA during the war.

Cambodia’s recent conflicts and trauma means that the interventions of international and national governments and charitable organisations are incredibly important for its development. Mr Phang informed me that there are now no remaining landmines in specific known areas, as referenced in the national database, because of these organisations and operations. The known areas that have been surveyed are places with high densities of people, to ensure the least number of deaths and injuries. This includes town centres, markets, and homes. However there continues to be casualties in lesser-known rural areas - which cover a much larger area of land. The next stage of the landmine clearance mission is to survey and understand where the landmines are in the rural areas and dispose of them. The Mines Advisory Group states at least 33 km squared of land is unsurveyed for landmines. The nature of UXOs and cluster munition means they are spread over a much larger area, and so MAG states 1960 km squared needs surveying in order to have up to date data to tackle this problem.


Mr Phang also outlined to me how the support available to victims of landmine accidents is limited, given how demand greatly outweighs the resources available. When found, mines are reported to organisations such as MAG, SIMA and Halo Trust who help clear the bombs safely. These organisations also focus on the prevention of unsafe handling. Educating the population in how UXOs operate is especially important, as many accidents occur when an individual does not understand how the bombs work. For example, once activated, by being picked up or agitating the surrounding soil, UXOs can explode with a delayed reaction. The person who picked up the bomb may think it has deactivated and bring it into their home, where it may later explode.

The economic impact of the bombs is immense and multifaceted. From a macroeconomic perspective, the bombs have diverted government spending from investing in cutting taxes to improve GDP, reducing unemployment and from enabling supply side investment. Infrastructure development such as schools, roads and hospitals were disrupted, impeding the flow of goods and people, restricting trading and labour, and hindering access to schools and medical care - overall negatively impacting productivity.  From a microeconomic perspective, the bombs have prevented development in tourism, which I saw firsthand. Compared to the neighbouring countries, I felt that Cambodia did not have an advanced tourist infrastructure. Fewer businesses and activities were advertised and set up compared to other countries I visited. Many temples further west in the jungle, I could not visit, due to the current danger of landmines. Agriculture and activity are the most significantly impacted sector in recent years, and has the most accidents, for example from tractors uncovering landmines. Farmers cannot achieve their economic potential due to good soil being unusable and unsafe. The large area of lost land limits productivity for the country and impacts the farmers profits individually. 80% of the Cambodian population are farmers, therefore most of the country is directly impacted. Costs of the clearance schemes are hard to specify, due to so much overseas investment support. However, Mr Phang, from MAG stated the cost to remove the remaining field landmines would be 138 million dollars.

The psychological impact is also notable. Nearly every local I spoke to has experienced tragedy. Either as a member of an affected community or having a family member who has suffered an injury or died. There is a mental effect for that loss as well as the financial burden of losing a main provider, leading to debts and poverty. As a result, children are sent to school years later than they are supposed to, as I saw when I was teaching in Siem Reap. I taught classes of varying ages for the one academic ability, and sometimes younger siblings would attend the class together. I learnt from my friends how intertwined people's lives are with the impacts of the bombs. Their grandparents lived through the conflicts and still live with the trauma to this day. Many people still live in contaminated areas, whether that is due to poverty preventing people from moving, family ties to the area (often the elderly are too sick to move), or work (often farming and agriculture).

My volunteering with CYA Cambodia proved to be invaluable to understanding people's connections to their recent history and to be able to witness the impact of landmines and UXOs on their lives, firsthand. Despite over half the landmines having been cleared, the effects are long lasting and are far from complete. It was inspiring to speak to Mr Sokim Phang about the goal of having no landmines in Cambodia but to achieve this, Cambodia will need extra funding."