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‘Mission impossible’: U.N. in Cambodia showed early limit of nation building

Randy Mancini 5 Mar 12
FILE PHOTO: UN peacekeepers patrol the streets of Phnom Penh in an armoured personnel carrier
FILE PHOTO: U.N. peacekeepers patrol the streets of Phnom Penh in an armoured personnel carrier, Cambodia August 27, 1993. REUTERS

March 13, 2022

By Kate Lamb

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Just over 30 years ago, a crackling radio in a refugee camp on the Thai border brought Sam Sophal word that the United Nations was coming to his war-ravaged homeland of Cambodia. 

For Sam Sophal, who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide only because his mother bribed Khmer Rouge executioners with her silver watch, the promise of peace was irresistible.

The U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived on March 15, 1992, with great expectations, the first U.N. nation-building operation after the collapse of the Soviet Union sparked hope that democracy would flourish around the world.

But long before last year’s shambolic fall of Afghanistan and the costly international missions in Iraq, Kosovo and elsewhere, Cambodia would serve as an early warning of the flaws and limitations of nation building. 

At the time, UNTAC was the most ambitious and expensive U.N. mission but despite its $1.6 billion cost and $20 billion in subsequent international aid, hopes of creating a vibrant democracy faded long ago.

“I felt very proud during the UNTAC time because I was the first generation to bring peace to Cambodia,” says Sam Sophal, 60, who got a job as a translator with the mission soon after its launch.

“Now I see we have gone backwards. To one-party rule,” he said under the shade of a Jujube tree in his Phnom Penh backyard.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, the same man in power before the UNTAC mission, remains leader, presiding over what critics call an authoritarian government with most opposition leaders in exile or in jail. 

Government spokesman Phay Siphan rejects accusations that Hun Sen is an autocrat, saying he has worked for peace and democracy since 1979.

The United Nations said in a statement UNTAC’s original mandate of “restoring to the Cambodian people and their democratically elected leaders their primary responsibility for peace, stability, national reconciliation and reconstruction had been fulfilled”. 

BLUE SKY

A prophecy that foretold of a “god with blue eyes” that would one day bless and restore the land had spread through villages during Cambodia’s darkest years.

So when UNTAC arrived with their sky-blue flag and helmets they were seen as an incarnation of that deity, some even painting their homes a U.N. shade of blue, recalled Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. 

“Conflict, genocide, invasions, refugees … and then suddenly there was blue sky,” he said.

A former French colony, by the early 1990s Cambodia had endured decades of devastation after getting sucked into the Vietnam War. During the four-year Khmer Rouge “killing fields” regime an estimated 1.7 million people, about a fifth of the population, perished.

A Vietnamese invasion toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, setting off a war in which the ousted Maoists and two other factions battled the invaders and their Cambodian allies.

UNTAC’s main triumphs were bringing hundreds of thousands of refugees home from border camps in time for the May 1993 election, when almost 90% of voters turned out.

“For the first time we felt very free,” said Youk Chhang, who spent two weeks in an electoral office guarding ballots.

“It was a beautiful feeling.”

But Hun Sen, prime minister before UNTAC, came second and quickly complained of vote-rigging. The polls, he said, were worse than the pain of losing an eye in battle.

Threatening to break up the country, Hun Sen forced a power-sharing deal that saw the man who had won the vote, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and Hun Sen taking the roles of first and second prime ministers. 

“In the world there is no such thing as two prime ministers,” said Sam Sophal, still bemused by the arrangement.

“Think about one car and two drivers, who is going to take over?” 

The coalition eventually disintegrated in bloodshed, with armed forces loyal to Hun Sen ousting Ranariddh in a 1997 coup.

‘OUT OF THEIR MINDS’

In retrospect, UNTAC was criticised for caving in to Hun Sen and then just leaving in September 1993. But even at the time, many say it was evident its mandate was fanciful.

“The people who planned it were out of their minds. It was definitely a mission impossible,” says academic and author Craig Etcheson.

“To expect all these people to parachute into a destroyed country, an alien culture with no language skills and to accomplish anything was pretty crazy.”

UNTAC’s goal of democracy was always complicated by Hun Sen ambition.

“He was so far from being a democrat that you knew it wasn’t likely to end well,” recalled Tim Carney, who ran UNTAC’s information division. He now describes Hun Sen as a “dictator”. 

Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest serving leaders and presides over a single-party parliament.

In 2017, a court dissolved the main opposition party while a feisty media that blossomed under UNTAC was tamed.

Since the great Cambodian experiment, democracy has been in retreat around the world.

According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, for the first time since 2004, there are more autocratic states than democracies.  

Like many U.N. missions, expectations in Cambodia were improbably high, said ex-military observer J Floyd Carter, who was detained by the Khmer Rouge during his UNTAC posting. 

“Having been in Cambodia and then in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Haiti, there were similar disappointments … It achieves 55% of what it sets out to do,” Carter said of the United Nations.

Carney said the United Nations was more realistic these days. Following last year’s coup in South Sudan, it prioritised dialogue rather than democratic masterplans. 

“They are just trying to get a conversation started,” he said. “Which in my mind is about the most that foreigners can do.”

When UNTAC was wound up, it left Cambodia with a fraught political arrangement that was almost bound to go awry.

“UNTAC was the first test,” says Sam Sophal, “But they didn’t complete the mission.”

Now retired after 24 years with the United Nations, Sam Sophal says corruption and nepotism have left Cambodians with no political alternatives. 

“People in this country believe in democracy and human rights but who is going to lead them?” he asked.

(Reporting by Kate Lamb; Editing by Kay Johnson and Robert Birsel)