“Getting to Know” is an occasional series that introduces Arms Control Today readers to interesting people active in the world of arms control.
In 1982, Tun Channareth was a young soldier serving as a sentry for the Vietnamese army, which was fighting Khmer Rouge forces in his native Cambodia, when he stepped on a Russian-made landmine. It blew off both his legs. Fifteen years later, in December 1997, Channareth accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Today, he runs a workshop that builds wheelchairs and works as a traveling ambassador for the organization. Fifteen years after the Mine Ban Treaty’s entry into force, Reth, as he is known to all, is one of the world’s best-known campaigners against landmines.
Arms Control Today caught up with him by phone April 3 at his home in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The interview, conducted by Jefferson Morley, has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved in the landmine campaign?
In 1982, I lost both my legs when I stepped on a landmine along the border of Cambodia and Thailand. Afterwards, I just wanted to die. One day, a doctor came close to me to give advice. He told me I had to build a new life…. I didn’t want to listen at all. In 1985, I had my second child. One night she said, “Daddy, please give me money to buy something to eat. All the people in the neighborhood village, they have family. Their parents give them money everyday.” Her speech made me cry. So I started to look for a way to make money. I went to [the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees], and I trained there. I started cleaning and repairing typewriters. I learned welding. In 1993, I started making wheelchairs. I began working with Sister Denise Coghlan at the Jesuit Service Cambodia, and she encouraged me to travel abroad, to speak to people about the damage that landmines had done to me. So I told them about all the other people in Cambodia who are like me, whose lives are affected by landmines.
When did you know that this kind of work was what you wanted to do with your life?
It was around 1996, I think. I had two jobs. One, I was still working with the people with disabilities in Cambodia. I thought all the time about their lives, how to help them to get better. I also worked at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. When they received the Nobel Prize, I started to understand that this job is very important.
When you were a young man, did you ever think you would travel around the world?
Never. Never. Never.
What is the best part of this work for you?
Working with the people with disabilities. I’d like to ask every donor to please help. They are still hungry. They still suffer. I want to help them get better…. They need help. They need clean water. They need toilets. They need education. They need health care centers because their health care center is so far from them.
Do you think your work is having an impact?
I do. In 1993, there were 10 million anti-personnel landmines in the ground [in Cambodia]. Today, things are much better because of the treaty. We still have 4 million in the ground along the Cambodia-Thailand border, the Vietnam border, and so on. They can remove them soon if they have funds. I think they could finish in four years, in five years; [it] depends on the funds.
What do you tell a young person who wants to do this kind of work?
One, I need them to ban the landmines from Iraq. Two, push their government if they don’t sign the treaty. Push them to join the treaties to ban landmines and cluster munitions.
Are you happy now?
I’m really happy. The Cambodian people are always giving. I am smiling at everyone. My life really changed.