Canadian technical advisors at the Cambodian Mine Action Centre have been forbidden
from routine inspection of demined land after they found that site managers had abitrarily
designated mined land as having been demined.
The "serious breaches" of safety procedures by demining platoons of the
Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) in Battambang prompted the commander of CMAC's
Canadian contingent to institute the ban until further notice.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's Advisor on CMAC Affairs, Sam Sotha, alerted the Post on
Feb 15 that Lieutenant-Colonel Michel Verreault, CMAC's Chief Advisor Operations
and Commander of CMAC's seven-member Canadian contingent had issued the orders on
Verreault referred all comment regarding his decision to Canadian Ambassador Normand
Mailhot, who confirmed Sotha's allegations.
"There has been a very serious management failure on the part of both the demining
platoon commander and the Site Manager involved," Mailhot told the Post. "My
understanding is that Commander Verreault has acted in accordance with his orders
and Canadian military operational procedures ... when a commanding officer finds
men under his command in a situation in which their safety is in doubt, he's authorized
to do whatever is necessary to protect them, which Verreault did."
Verreault's orders came as a direct response to a trio of incidents in the past month
involving CMAC Demining Units One and Two in the Samlot area of Battambang province.
In at least two of the incidents, Canadian technical advisors and Cambodian deminers
were intentionally misled and put in unnecessary danger by CMAC Site Managers who
had designated mined areas as "demined."
In one of the incidents, an area that a Site Manager had specifically marked-off
as "mine-free" was upon closer investigation by a suspicious Canadian technical
advisor found to contain numerous landmines, grenades and large quantities of fragments.
Mailhot described the Canadian detection of the problems in Battambang as proof positive
of the "value-added factor" of deploying Canadian military personnel in
"It was one of our guys who found this because we're very good at what we do,"
Mailhot said. "We've taken the action we've taken because the tolerance for
leadership failure in the Canadian military is zero."
Mailhot's enthusiasm for Verreault's decision has apparently not been shared by CMAC
Director General Khem Sophoan, who has compounded the potential for diplomatic fallout
from the incident by forwarding letters outlining his criticisms of Verreault's order
to both Sok An and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
"I'm very dissapointed [in Verreault]," Sophoan told the Post. "Lieutenant
Colonel Verreault is supposed to advise me...he should have consulted me first and
only if I'd not acted on his suggestions should he have acted in the way he has."
Sophoan added that Verreault's actions deal a critical blow to the already tattered
credibility of the scandal-plagued demining agency at a time when donor funding for
CMAC is already at dangerously low levels.
"The result of this is that donors will think that we're not following standard
operating procedures with regards to safe demining," he said. "We're running
out of money and if there is no additional donor funds [in the coming weeks], CMAC
will have to temporarily close in March."
Ieng Mouly, Chairman of CMAC's Governing Council, confirmed the negative reactions
at CMAC HQ to the Canadian decision, but described the incident as an opportunity
to heighten awareness of deminer safety.
"I understand the feelings of members of CMAC's Cambodian leadership toward
the way [Verreault] has done things, but I think we should use this issue as an occasion
to raise issues of safety, security and health of CMAC deminers," Mouly said.
"I will invite Commander Verreault to address a special meeting of the Governing
Council on this matter next week."
In spite of the conciliatory nature of Mouly's response to the Canadian shutdown,
Mailhot is clearly concerned at the more hostile tone sounded by other CMAC management
"Commander Verreault did two very important things - he saw to the safety of
the Canadian technical advisors and their Cambodian colleagues and at the same time
he informed [CMAC's} Cambodian authorities of the gravity of the situation. It will
be very, very unfortunate if the Canadian decision [to temporarily halt minefield
inspections] is not taken in the spirit it's intended and they take a negative view
of this ... that would potentially put an end to future Canadian technical assistance
[to CMAC] very quickly'" said Mailhot.
Canadian military technical advisors have lent their expertise to deminer training
and quality assurance since CMAC's founding in 1992.
Verreault's orders are to remain in effect pending the results of a full investigation
by Canadian military personnel into areas in Battambang officially classified as
"demined" but strongly suspected to still be contaminated with landmines
and unexploded ordnance.
Ambassador Mailhot and Lieutenant-Colonel Verreault are expected to be briefed on
the report's findings tomorrow.
A separate investigation ordered by Sophoan is also currently underway.
Although Mouly expressed confidence that the Battambang events were "isolated
incidents", he indicated that any evidence of negligence unearthed by the Canadian
investigation would result in punishment of those found responsible.
"This is a very serious matter. If there really are no [mitigating] circumstances,
we should take very serious action."
However, Sotha insisted the finger of blame for the Battambang incidents should be
equally shared by both Cambodian CMAC staff and the foreign technical advisors who
both train them and monitor their work.
"CMAC relies 100 per cent on international advisors, but when problems come
up you never hear any word that international staff should share the responsibility,"
he complained. "CMAC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for seven years
on international advisors, but never have they had to take any blame for problems
that have arisen."
Mouly dismissed Sotha's objections as "unreasonable".
"You can't blame the trainers when you miss a lesson, you should be responsible,"
he said in reaction to Sotha's complaint. "We have to accept that advisors come
to advise, not to do the job of demining for us."