Thursday, January 11, 2007

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Lan Kosal smiles wryly as he breaks down the cost of killing a cow with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

For $555, Mr. Lan, an arms merchant, says he will take a client to a remote field in the Cambodian countryside to obliterate a bovine with the Soviet-era armament designed to destroy tanks and cause mass casualties.

When many Cambodians earn less than a dollar a day, why is this grisly recreation that is popular among backpackers so expensive? “The real cost is the cow. You have to buy it before we let you kill it,” Mr. Lan explains matter-of-factly.

Many tourists, in fact, aren’t interested in firing bazookas at cows or tossing hand grenades at a flock of chickens, another ghoulish attraction offered at the firing range he manages just outside of the Cambodian capital.

Most come for the opportunity to fire a few dozen rounds from Cold War weapons like the Russian AK-47 or the U.S. counterinsurgency M-16 rifle, favorites the world over among the armies of developing countries, rebels and paramilitary groups.

Each is readily available for target practice and reasonably priced for firing ($30 for a 30-round clip) at the Kambol Shooting Range.

So are Uzis, Israeli weapons sold as submachine guns or automatic pistols, and an array of handguns, even a Thompson machine gun made famous as the weapon of choice among American gangsters during the heyday of Al Capone and prohibition. All manner of Kambol’s firearms are listed on the range’s neatly laminated “menu” from which the gun curious or arms enthusiasts can choose.

Mr. Lan’s stockpile is a remnant of decades of conflict dating to World War II, when Japan occupied Cambodia, then a French colony. By the mid-1960s, Cambodia had allowed the North Vietnamese to set up bases within its territories, from which it carried out attacks on U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces.

By the early 1970s, the tables had turned: Cambodia was now fighting communist North Vietnam and also combating communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas. In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge wrested control of the country and began a genocidal campaign and killed nearly 2 million people, the country was awash in weapons.

Now, some 30 years later, the weapons that shaped Cambodia’s violent past have resurfaced at firing ranges such as Kambol and some others near Phnom Penh.

Briton is impressed

British backpacker and gun novice Tom Janson shakes his head in disbelief as he peruses the weaponry available. He settles on the AK-47. “You can’t go anywhere in England and do something like this,” says Mr. Janson, who demonstrates his marksmanship firing from 50 yards at paper targets emblazoned with a man’s head and torso.

By Cambodian government accounts, you can’t do that here either. Government officials have repeatedly denied the existence of the firing ranges operating near the capital, insisting they have been closed for nearly a decade.

The most recent edition of Lonely Planet’s travel guide to Cambodia says that officials here decided “enough was enough” and that shooting ranges were no longer conducive to promoting the peaceful image the country has been cultivating in recent years. The guide’s account coincides with a law enacted in 2005 regulating the use of weapons that says only the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of National Defense are permitted to operate firing ranges.

However, Mr. Lan says the government is aware of his operations and those of soldiers from the nearby army base who use his range for target practice in the morning. Mr. Lan complains that the government takes a percentage of his profits, an accusation officials dismiss.

International animal rights activists vilify the ranges that offer farm animals for slaughter, comparing the practice with controlled hunts of African fauna at private ranges, an increasingly popular pastime in places like Texas.

Animal defender aghast

“Promoting and profiting from this grotesque practice is a sign of Cambodia’s ignorance of animal rights,” says Priscilla Feral, president of the international Friends of Animals.

Whether the government is profiting from tourists who want to pop off a few rounds or kill farm animals is a minor concern for many Cambodians, who are grateful the government has recently made weapon eradication a priority. Since the late 1990s, Cambodia has made a serious effort to collect the hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons littering the countryside.

Some 130,000 weapons have been collected and more than 180,000 destroyed, said the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey in its 2006 country report for Cambodia. The effort has paid off, according to the English-language Phnom Penh Post, which reported that the use of firearms in all acts of violence declined from 80 percent in 1994 to 30 percent in 2004.

Despite that success, arms-eradication groups aren’t keen about gun ranges like Kambol operating outside the law.

“Foreigners firing these weapons is illegal and it undermines the laws in place,” says Prak Tepvichet, director of the Phnom Penh office of the global Working Group for Weapons Reduction. “It’s a problem of law enforcement.”

Illegal, perhaps, but for some tourists, thrilling.

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