20 Years After Untac

On November 15, 1992 the head of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac) announced in his report to the U.N. Security Council that Untac was giving up on trying to disarm the country’s political factions.

Four days later, the Untac chief, Yasushi Akashi, would add that the “neutral political environment” indispensable to holding free and fair elections could not be established in Cambodia prior to the upcoming national elections.

His decision, 20 years ago this week, against U.N. military action to disarm the warring factions would have dramatic consequences for Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge, who had refused to disarm or even to let U.N. peacekeeping representatives into their stronghold of Pailin, would continue their guerrilla war for six more years in some parts of the country.

And refusal by the Khmer Rouge to disarm gave the Cambodian People’s Party leadership, headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a strong argument to also not lay down arms.

Twenty years on, the jury is still out on whether Untac made the right decision on disarmament.

“For us, the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement was a relief,” said Son Soubert, whose father Son Sann headed the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, one of largest Cambodian factions on the Thai border fighting against the government in Phnom Penh in the 1980s.

“But we knew that the Khmer Rouge and the Hun Sen government had ulterior motives and would not disarm their armies,” he said.

According to the Paris Agreement signed on October 23, 1991, by Cambodian factions and the Phnom Penh government, the U.N. would administer the country, disarm all factions and hold a national election. Once a Cambodian government had been democratically elected, the U.N. would turn over the country’s administration to this legitimate government.

When the Khmer Rouge broke the agreement they had signed and resumed fighting, Mr. Soubert said his father had suggested to Mr. Akashi that Untac create a Cambodian army with the soldiers of the various factions and those of the Phnom Penh government in order to fight the Khmer Rouge.

The U.N. rejected the suggestion, he said.

Untac itself had an army at its disposal and could have taken action if given the mandate.

The mission had nearly 16,000 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant-General John Sanderson of Australia, plus 3,359 police officers from 45 developed and developing countries that ranged from Austria and Bulgaria to Morocco, Kenya, Argentina, Malaysia and Canada.

As the Khmer Rouge stepped up their attacks in order to derail the 1993 elections, Untac forces remained on the defensive.

The Khmer Rouge progressively surrounded Kompong Thom City, recalls Cristiano Calcagno, a philologist and modern language researcher sent by an Italian organization to build schools in Kompong Thom province at that time.

The Khmer Rouge, he said, “were in control of parts of the province, the larger part of the province actually.”

One needed an armed escort to venture outside of the city and, as election time approached, the only way in and out of Kompong Thom was by Untac helicopter, he said.

“It was definitely a war zone.”

Most of the U.N. soldiers assigned to the province were from Indonesia, he recalls. “The military used to stay confined to their place because there was nothing for them to do…. In the case of an attack, I wonder what they would have done,” Mr. Calcagno said.

“They would defend themselves if attacked but they were not supposed to defend the civilian population…. Or at least this is what they claimed.”

In January 1992, 21 people were killed in a Khmer Rouge offensive, sending 10,000 villagers to take refuge in Kompong Thom City. The Khmer Rouge also killed Vietnamese villagers in several parts of the country, which caused more than 17,000 Vietnamese to try to flee the country in 1993.

“Once [U.N. personnel were told] that they could not disarm the factions, then the only thing left for the military part of Untac was to observe” and protect U.N. staff, Mr. Calcagno said.

France’s Brigadier-General Michel Loridon, who had arrived with Untac’s advance team in November 1991 and urged military action against the Khmer Rouge, was soon reassigned.

“It was a peacekeeping mission, not a peacemaking mission,” said Maurits van Pelt, an attorney by profession who ran the medical organization Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) in Cambodia from 1989 to 2000, and had worked for MSF in Mozambique during its civil war in the 1980s.

“The mandate of Untac was not to forcibly disarm: It was to organize disarmament. Voluntary disarmament as had been agreed. But then, if one faction did not disarm, then the other did not disarm either and the process was stuck,” he said.

Untac failed to disarm the factions. It also failed to take control of the country’s budget and administration as had been agreed it would do until an elected government took over. With the CPP armed and still firmly in control of government administration, Untac would be at a loss to make the party give up power when they eventually lost the elections in May 1993.

For some people, therein lies Untac’s lasting failure.

In spite of intimidation on the part of the different political factions, particularly the Khmer Rouge and the CPP, a record 89.56 percent of registered voters went to the polls in 1993.

Funcinpec, whose election material carried then Prince Sihanouk’s portrait, won 45.47 percent of the vote, and the CPP 38.22 percent.

Untac had run a huge public information campaign complete with visual materials—videos, banners, flyers, posters—to explain the voting process and encourage people to vote. In addition, Untac radio transmitted to the whole country as of April 1993, and provided airtime to the various political parties to explain their platforms.

“What had happened was very strange, and very moving: For the first time in Cambodian history, millions of Khmer had voted freely and fairly, and a majority had opposed an armed, incumbent regime,” wrote historian David Chandler in his 1996 book “Facing the Cambodian Past.”

“In a sense, the vote was a massive statement rejecting politics as usual—the tragedy of Cambodian history—and proposing something different: peace and quiet, for example,” Mr. Chandler wrote.

“Hun Sen did not win the election”, said journalist Elizabeth Becker who had covered the Paris Peace Agreement process and made several trips to Cambodia during Untac.

“Hun Sen never transferred power. His people more or less stayed in place, especially at the low level and the military where they kept control. So despite this wonderful election…all these wonderful things people point to, when push came to shove, there was no transfer of power despite the election,” Ms. Becker said.

“The problem is that the West did not keep its promise,” said photographer Roland Neveu who has covered Cambodia from the 1975 fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge all the way up to today.

If Untac had no intention of implementing the people’s will—as expressed in their vote—it would have been better to negotiate a settlement between the Cambodian factions rather than holding an election, Mr. Neveu said.

When the CPP refused to relinquish power, it was then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk who stepped in to avert further conflict by suggesting a compromise: The CPP and Funcinpec would share power with his son Prince Ranariddh serving as the country’s first prime minister and Mr. Hun Sen as second prime minister.

Both parties agreed.

“The prince [Sihanouk] seems to base his present strategy on a few simple facts: Untac will not be in Cambodia forever, elections results will not satisfy all factions and some might reject them,” journalist Jacques Bekaert wrote in his “Cambodian Diary” Bangkok Post column shortly before the elections.

Writing about Norodom Sihanouk’s solution in June 1993, he would say, “Funcinpec had no choice but to accept a compromise. It was an unfair compromise, but many Cambodians later agreed that Sihanouk had saved Cambodia from a new civil war.”

Untac, which had shown its unwillingness to take any forceful action in the country, consented to this arranged, political marriage that would last—not without its ups and downs—until July 1997 when the CPP and Funcinpec battled in the streets of Phnom Penh.

On the positive side, one of the biggest accomplishments of Untac was the repatriation of 372,000 men, women and children who had been living in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodia border.

This success was especially due “to the intelligence and humanity” of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the field representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, writes political scientist Raoul Jennar in his book on Cambodia’s recent history “Trente Ans depuis Pol Pot,” or 30 years since Pol Pot.

“The refugees were living in eight camps spread over 829 kilometers on the Thai side of the border,” he writes. The huge repatriation plan involved distributing 85,543 tons of food to help refugees resettle in Cambodia.

What did not succeed was Untac’s efforts to integrate the returnees into the country’s community, said Mr. Jennar, who was in Cambodia at the time.

“Two and a half years after the return to the country of the first refugees, the reintegration of the people repatriated was still barely starting.” More than 120,000 of the refugees were reduced to begging, and in 1994, 25 percent of Phnom Penh’s squatters were former refugees, Mr. Jennar said.

Among other issues, Untac had a particularly difficult time getting land from the Cambodian authorities for the refugees—which had been agreed to in the Paris accord.

Untac would end up costing $1.6 billion from the start of the advance mission in November 1991 until September 1993 when Cambodia’s Constitution was approved by the newly-elected National Assembly and Norodom Sihanouk was crowned the country’s constitutional monarch.

KPNLF leader Son Sann, who had headed the National Bank of Cambodia and the Ministry of Finance in the 1960s, had suggested that the U.N. keep the money in an international institution in order to maintain the value of the riel and pay some of its staff in riel rather than U.S. dollars. But all payments were made in dollars, causing a drastic devaluation of the riel, which went from less than 10 riel per U.S. dollar prior to 1970 to 4,000 riel per dollar in the mid-1990s.

The influx of cash into the country was tremendous during Untac. As Mr. Jennar mentions, “in a country in which the average income per person was estimated at $200 per year, Untac offered $120 daily for rent and food to officers and military observers and $150 to the 6,000 civilians.”

The Untac daily stipend represented for some soldiers coming from developing countries more money than they had ever seen and, with relatively little to do, they triggered a boom in the nascent sex trade that already existed in Cambodia.

“Prostitution was not introduced by Untac to Cambodia,” noted Mr. van Pelt. In the 1980s, a neighborhood of brothels had been set up for Cambodians and Soviet Bloc advisors, he said. “What Untac [staff] did is that they brought it out to the open because they did it openly….They had a big per diem of $100 or $150 per day, they could buy a virgin per day and they did that.”

Local and foreign NGO workers were outraged by the U.N.’s behavior.

When the Untac staff’s conduct was brought to the attention of Mr. Akashi, he refused to take it seriously, basically saying that boys would be boys, Mr. van Pelt said.

“He lost some political feathers with this because it was not seen as a very smart diplomatic response.”

Later there would be guidelines set up for U.N. missions regarding staff conduct and prostitution, but this did not exist at the time, Mr. van Pelt added.

While the staff’s conduct may be condemned on several grounds, the accusation that Untac brought HIV/Aids to Cambodia is unfounded, Mr. van Pelt said. Had it been the case, the disease in the country would have the characteristics of HIV/Aids in Africa or parts of the world from which Untac soldiers came, he said. But HIV/Aids in Cambodia is a Southeast Asia variety also found in Thailand and Vietnam, Mr. van Pelt said. MSF, which he headed, ran an HIV/Aids treatment program for several years in the country.

All the dollars flowing into the country through Untac staff also had positive effects. “Looking back, I realize that the large number of staff and the size of the mission changed the way the country was operating: It instantaneously galvanized the economy because of the enormous influx of money,” Mr. Neveu said.

Here was a country that, due to Cold War politics, had been under U.N. embargo for more than 10 years and was now being visited by people who had more money to spend than its gross national product.

“Economic acceleration was extremely marked,” Mr. Neveu said. “Of course Untac and its staff created a large number of jobs [more than 50,000 Cambodians would be hired as electoral staff alone]. But it also instilled in people’s mind a business, commercial side that had not really been there in the past.”

When Mr. Neveu had first come back to the country in 1989, he had seen people handling business with the more-or-less laid back attitude he had seen in the early 1970s. With the arrival of Untac, this changed immediately, Mr. Neveu said. For instance, the rent on the few homes available often quadrupled.

“I believe that the arrival of Untac catapulted Cambodia into today’s world with its mercantile approach,” he said.

Cambodians were quick to seize opportunities.

“A multitude of English language schools appeared overnight everywhere. Because in order to have access to the financial boon, Cambodians had to speak some English,” Mr. Neveu said. English was Untac’s communication language and, whether a Cambodian hoped to work in an Untac office, private residence or sell to Untac workers, speaking a few words of English was a must. After the U.N. mission’s departure, English would continue to be the second language of choice in the country.

During the political campaign, historian David Chandler documented human rights abuse cases for Amnesty International. Of this period, he wrote in 1994, “Alongside this depressing landscape were several touching features that seemed to me particularly Khmer, such as the widespread belief that Untac would linger in Cambodia indefinitely, to protect the people against themselves, or that Prince Sihanouk, physically coming home, could stop history and politics in their tracks and reinstate the vaguely remembered, or misremembered, paradise that had existed when he was overthrown twenty-two years before.

“No one spoke of what might happen to Cambodia as it re-entered a wider, voracious world. The stubborn conservatism of the Cambodian people now prevented its leaders from realizing that Cambodia faced a greater, more dangerous challenge from a rapacious Southeast Asia, led by Thailand and more recently by Singapore and Malaysia as well. Politicians who had sidestepped the revolution looked askance at social change. For them, the re-established status quo meant staying in office, making money, and controlling people: déjà vu again. The possibility of pluralism unnerved them. Pluralism, after all, opened the possibility of social contract, and of a peaceful transfer of power.”

If there is one thing to blame Untac for, it might be to have let develop too high expectations among Cambodians, Mr. van Pelt said. “They created expectations that could not be met. You have to be a bit ambitious to get somewhere but they should have been a bit more careful in that.”

Cambodia had been devastated by civil war in the early 1970s, its population had been decimated by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s and had withstood an international embargo in the 1980s.

“And then suddenly, in one year, they have to become a liberal democratic society and respect the elections,” he said.

It was to be expected that the old patterns of power and patronage would reappear.

As journalist Jacques Bekaert wrote in December 1992, “Democracy cannot be transposed, in perfect working condition, to a land that is barely emerging from two decades of war, cruel and radical Marxist-Leninist movements, and rigid old-fashioned socialism. A land with very few democratic traditions.”

“‘Power is not something we are used to sharing,’ one government official said. This view is probably about the only thing all factions share,” Mr. Bekaert wrote.

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