Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Stain of Peacekeeping

Law and Order on the Cambodian Border

It was bad enough that we were sent into Cambodia without so much as a sidearm. Considering that we were undertaking what the UN believed to be the most complex "chapter 6" peacekeeping mission ever attempted, one would have thought the Canadian government would have ensured our safety.

No such luck.

It didn't help that the Khmer Rouge had not complied with orders to disarm and anyway, they had business deals such as illegal land use, theft of resources and a hefty drug trade to keep alive.

There was trouble from the start. The armed service members found there was a wild variance in pay rates between countries with some troops receiving UN rates of pay while others received home rates. The police contingent was also multi-national and while rates of pay were an issue, wildly varying concepts of law enforcement created even more difficulties. In the end, the police contingent would prove a liability, particularly when confronted by members of the Khmer Rouge. All too often we would find a police checkpoint abandoned and some thug with an AK47 assault rifle instead.

Cambodia itself was a mess. Surrounded by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, the country had just endured 13 years of civil war, preceded by the bloody regime of Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge had killed around 1.7 million people through starvation, over-work and execution. When we arrived there were over 200,000 people under arms. It was our job to bring them in, disarm at least 70 percent of them, train the remainder to become the army and police force, provide protection for future elections and prevent the various factions from robbing the country blind. All with a Swiss Army knife.

Except the Khmer Rouge didn't like the game and they kept killing people, including UN troops.

The decision not to arm us was not a UN edict. It came from the Canadian cabinet room. And before anyone starts to mutter, "Damned Liberals," under their breath, keep in mind that the Prime Minister of Canada was the Right Honourable Martin Brian Mulroney. We had a tendency to believe all politicians were the same - stupid.

Good peacekeeping story:

An early morning coastal patrol saw a Canadian navy petty officer, a New Zealand navy petty officer and their Khmer speaking interpreter beach their boat and start a survey of the beach to the east. There had been reports of trees being cut and stolen by one of the armed factions and the three were to confirm and report back.

They had moved some distance down the beach when they noticed a sign. It was a skull and cross-bones with some Khmer writing on it; the traditional sign of a minefield. (Some minefields were marked with beer cans hanging from trees.)

They looked around and realized that they were surrounded by copies of the same sign. Things did not look good at all. They began to plan their route out.

The decision was taken to do everything possible to find their footsteps and extricate themselves, gently, by making foot fall on their inbound footprints. The interpreter shrugged and agreed to follow the lead of the two petty officers.

It took over an hour to get back to the boat. By the time the three had arrived the two petty officers were soaked with sweat and just controlling their fear. They noticed that their interpreter had not only maintained his composure, but he appeared quite cool.

The two petty officers asked their interpreter how it was, after having transited a minefield, he could not have broken out in the same nervous sweat.

"What minefield?" asked the interpreter.

"The minefield! You know. The one identified by those signs," said one of the petty officers.

"Oh! Signs," said the interpreter. "I wonder why you walk out so funny. That not a minefield."

The POs were a little stunned. "What? What was it then?"

"Oh yeah. Signs say, 'Man kill anyone who steal coconuts. Stay out.'"

* * *

Anyway, the Cambodians held their elections and the UN declared the mission a success. 62 UN military and police were killed along with 5 UN civilian staff. The Khmer Rouge never were disarmed. They rejected the election results and continued fighting for six more years. In the latest Cambodian election the results were so fragmented that it took a year to form a coalition government.

Wow. That worked.

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