Things are winding down at the UN office humbly situated on the ground floor of the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana.
Boxes are being filled up and plane tickets arranged in anticipation of the office’s closing next month—nearly six years to date since then-UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali created it.
Officially deemed the secretary-general’s special representative office, it was opened just after the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia in late 1993 ended its unprecedented peacekeeping mission and withdrew roughly 16,000 troops.
Despite general elation that Cambodia finally had conducted free and fair elections after decades of turmoil and foreign occupation, Boutros-Ghali expressed concern the country was not yet stable.
So along with several military advisers, he established the office to monitor security and human rights and serve as a liaison with the Cambodian government throughout its difficult transition.
But now that security, at least in part, has been achieved, according to a memo Prime Minister Hun Sen sent the UN in September. The office’s mandate, he argued, has run its course.
“The Cambodian permanent representative to the UN can take all responsibility for relations with the UN, without the UN special representative in Cambodia.”
A few months later, current Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent word that the office would close on Jan 31.
“When I heard the rumor that the office was going to close, I was surprised,” said Jan Wanderstein, currently the office’s political adviser and formerly its military adviser since 1994. “I thought the office could be useful…to carry out our mandate to keep a dialogue with the government.
“I agree that the situation has become more stable…but there are still some issues left, like the upcoming [commune] elections, demobilization of armed forces, the reduction of small arms,” he added.
But Om Yentieng, a top adviser to Hun Sen and a member of the government’s human rights committee, argued that the best assistance to Cambodia in the future will be allowing it to act on its own. “Assistance does not mean they must assist us for life. Some year, some time, they must allow us to work for ourselves. This is assistance.”
The office first opened with an enigmatic Indonesian diplomat, Benny Widyono, at its helm.
As the seeming political stability began to unravel and factional violence erupted in Phnom Penh in July 1997, his successor, Indian diplomat Lakhan Mehrotra, was attempting to get into Cambodia.
“I see such a world of difference between then and now,” recalls Lakhan Mehrotra, who had to wait several days after the July 5-6 fighting before flying into the embattled capital city.
What he found was a government torn by tensions between Funcinpec and the CPP that eventually forced then-First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh into exile for months.
After months of negotiating between the two sides, Lakhan Mehrotra achieved what he considers to be his greatest diplomatic accomplishments.
“I am most proud of the return of the prince and his colleagues, and members of Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party,” he said. “We received guarantees from the government that they could come back and that we could monitor the national elections [in July 1998].
“In what seemed like irreconcilable elements at one time, I can look back with some pride at the monitoring operations undertaken by the UN.”
That pride, however, soon diminished as the city after the elections erupted in protests over what Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party officials claimed were fixed results—causing the government to violently respond and resulting in at least a dozen deaths.
By September of that year, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy sought refuge in the UN office for fear of retaliation—a move deemed questionable by some diplomats but defended by Lakhan Mehrotra.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would jump into the same role,” he said. “But I pray that it would never have to happen again.”
Using a style he describes as “quiet yet persistent,” Lakhan Mehrotra was characterized by one human rights veteran as a “diplomat through and through.”
“He’s not like a human rights worker. He wants to have a very good relationship with the government. And he does,” said Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho.
This eagerness to please, however, raised more than a few eyebrows earlier this year, when he called Hun Sen a “champion of democracy,” suggesting he had been a pillar of human rights.
In a country that lost its UN seat for more than a year due to the 1997 violence and renewed post-election troubles, diplomats and human rights workers agreed the praise was overzealous or “irresponsible.”
“That was one of [Lakhan Mehrotra’s] lowest moments,” an Asian diplomat said this week.
But the UN representative defended his move, saying he was referring to Hun Sen’s eagerness in the early 1990s to forge peace in Cambodia.
While Kek Galabru said Cambodia has benefited from regular contact with Lakhan Mehrotra’s office, she argued that the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been much more effectual at fostering change in Cambodia.
Another human rights worker suggested closing the representative’s office could be the first step by a historically anti-UN government to close the more controversial human rights office here.
“That would be much more of a loss for Cambodia,” she said.
Regardless, analysts agree that the closing is crucial in weaning Cambodia off of what critics say is a too-heavy aid presence.
Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Cambodia is ready to move away from “peace-building” to “nation-building.”
“We’re into the second year of the second government,” he said. “It’s entirely a Cambodian process now, and we don’t need the outside involvement. It’s time we took responsibility for our own future, our own destiny.”