"The Asian Mystique" at SheridanPrasso.com
Los Angeles Times CalendarLive.com

Cambodia: A $3 Billion Boondoggle

March/April 1995, Volume 51, No. 2


The United Nations propaganda machine likes to tout Cambodia as its great peacekeeping success. Undoubtedly, the families of Kellie Wilkinson, her boyfriend Dominic Chappell, their pal Tina Dominy, and three adventurous young backpackers named Mark Slater, Jean-Michel Braquet, and David Wilson would not agree. These young people were killed in 1994, as were hundreds of others, the nameless Cambodian victims of a conflict that continues unresolved, while the U.N. Security Council pats itself on the back for bringing peace and prosperity to Cambodia.

The problem is, there is no peace-despite the expenditure of some $3 billion. There has been little development. War, poverty, and disease still menace the Cambodian countryside. Farmers still flee fighting between government troops and Khmer Rouge guerrillas, and they must dodge armed bandits who rob them, take them hostage, and often kill them even after ransom has been paid.

In one sense, the peacekeeping mission was a success. The U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), launched in 1992, was the most expensive and effective hand-washing operation ever. The 18-month peacekeeping mission, which peaked with the Cambodian elections of May 1993 and ended the following November, was designed to allow the United States, China, Russia, and to some extent France to extricate themselves from the mess of Cold War superpower conflict in Cambodia. The mission did exactly that. And for the first time since the 1970s, the government in Phnom Penh commands the diplomatic recognition of the world community, making it eligible for development aid.

But if the determining question in U.S. presidential campaigns were put to the people of Cambodia-"Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"-the answer would be a resounding, heart-rending "no."

There is a reason why the U.N. operation in Cambodia looks so good. It's because operations in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia look so bad. But dare we set our standards so low in measuring success?

To be fair, UNTAC had a monumental task. With a $1.8 billion budget and 20,000 personnel, it was supposed to disarm Cambodia's four warring factions. These factions are:

­ Party of Democratic Kampuchea (known as the Khmer Rouge, the party responsible for the "killing fields" of the 1970s). It received arms from China, but also received humanitarian aid from the United States through its allies during the civil war.

­ Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF). This rightist group received humanitarian aid, support and training from the U.S. government, which insists it did not supply weapons. Its army was allied with the Khmer Rouge before the peace accords. In the elections, it fronted the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, which was ostensibly republican but supported the king.

­ FUNCINPEC. This name usually isn't spelled out, since it is in French and even Cambodians don't know what it stands for. It is Front Uni pour un Cambodge Independent, Neutre, Pacific et Cooperatif (United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia). This is the royalist party that won the election, but still has little real power. It was allied with the Khmer Rouge and the KPNLF, and received humanitarian support from France.

­ State of Cambodia. This was the Vietnamese-installed, Moscow-supported government in Phnom Penh. Its army was the Cambodian People's Armed Forces, and its party in the elections was the Cambodian People's Party. They are referred to as "former communists" in the rest of the story.

These four parties agreed in July 1991 to sign a peace agreement. The Paris Peace Accords were signed on October 23, 1991, putting into effect an immediate cease-fire and creating UNTAC, which officially arrived in Cambodia on March 15, 1992.

Specifically, UNTAC was to demobilize 70 percent of the soldiers, take control of the administration of the entire country (including finance, defense, public security, foreign affairs and the media), verify the cease-fire, foster awareness of human rights, supervise the rehabilitation of the country's infrastructure, and create a neutral political environment in which to hold free and fair elections.

Then the U.N mission was to hand over the rebuilt and functioning country to a newly elected Cambodian government. Of these tasks, only the election-in which 90 percent of the registered voters turned out to cast ballots, despite the threat to their lives by the Khmer Rouge-could be termed a success. But a brief look at the state of the country two years later ought to cast doubts on even that accomplishment.

Into the fray

Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the failure to preserve or create a real cease-fire. Even after the peace accord was signed, all sides kept struggling to take as much territory as possible before the U.N. verification system was put in place. By the time verification was up and running, the Khmer Rouge had refused to cooperate and cease-fire violations were regular occurrences. Because the fighting in Cambodia was not and never was on a large scale, the United Nations could and did go ahead with the elections. But there was probably never complete adherence to the cease-fire by all four sides.

The present government in Phnom Penh, having survived a coup attempt last July, is teetering on the brink and remains threatened by the same Khmer Rouge insurgents who signed the cease-fire treaty the United Nations was sent to monitor. The Cambodian government has inept and corrupt administrators, a pathetic and undertrained army (which rarely receives its wages and sometimes sells its ammunition to the enemy), fratricidal divisions between its leaders, and an inability to maintain law and order. It recently fired its primary hope for reform, a swashbuckling French-educated finance minister bent on tax collection.

Government soldiers and the Khmer Rouge both commit horrific human rights abuses, including the ancient practice of decapitating prisoners of war and ingesting their liver and bile. Ethnic minorities are occasionally massacred by the majority ethnic Khmer. Land mines still render large portions of land unusable, as they continue to blow the limbs off hundreds of civilians every month.

Under UNTAC, no major development projects were successfully carried out. Road repairs, for example, by Japanese and Polish battalions were made by resurfacing with clay, some of which washed away with the next rains and then hardened, leaving two of Cambodia's major highways, Routes 3 and 5, actually more potholed and gullied than before. Several U.N. units, particularly Indian and Uruguayan battalions accustomed to civic action projects at home, took it upon themselves to build schools and dig wells-sometimes with their own money-while rehabilitation funds languished because of political squabbling in the capital.

With another billion dollars, the United Nations was to repatriate 370,000 refugees from camps in Thailand, just over the border. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), separate from UNTAC, efficiently and effectively ran a logistical success story in Thailand. The border refugees who left Cambodia with horror stories of the Pol Pot regime in 1979 have gone home and are no longer a burden on the Thai government. Repatriation was completed in 1992, but internal U.N. evaluations of the returnees' progress made a year later reported a high rate of poverty, infant mortality, and disease. "UNHCR has been unable to fulfill its commitment to repatriate people in conditions of safety and to provide them with land," one evaluation said.

UNHCR was tasked under the Paris Peace Accords to repatriate the refugees under the terms of a cease-fire, which, as noted, was ineffective. The agency faced the job of returning the refugees to areas where there was still fighting. There was no question of calling off the repatriation, because it wasn't under UNHCR's or UNTAC's timetable; it was the one set out by the peace accord negotiators and approved by the U.N. Security Council. As long as UNTAC was adhering to it and planning to go ahead with elections, UNHCR had to do its part as well. UNHCR has since resolved to avoid involvement in operations where the logistics of moving people take priority over its fundamental principle of protecting those people from harm.

Cambodia's "big cat"

There are many who question why the Khmer Rouge, still led by Pol Pot and responsible for the deaths of a million Cambodians in the "killing fields" of the 1970s, were included in a peace plan in the first place. Surely they have violated every international covenant they have agreed to uphold. But without the Khmer Rouge, there would have been no support for peace from its backer, China, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Their inclusion was a political sine qua non.

That the Khmer Rouge boycotted the 1993 elections, threatened to blow up polling booths, and plunged the country back into civil war is not the fault of the United Nations. But U.N. officials themselves conceded that more flexibility on their part could have gone a long way toward preventing the breakdown of the peace plan as it was unfolding. Sticking to "the mandate" became a convenient, defensive excuse for not doing more. For the money, things could have turned out a lot better than they did.

When discussing their country's problems, Cambodians speak of the Khmer Rouge as if it were a big ferocious cat. The question is: Should they invite it into the living room and give it milk-or shut it out and hope it won't get in? Where the United Nations needed lion tamers, it sent bureaucrats-slow ones, at that. The delay cost a fortune in terms of Cambodian goodwill and cooperation.

Khmer Rouge documents from defectors in Phnom Penh show that the guerrillas initially intended to go along with the peace accords, albeit with reservations. They changed their minds when UNTAC deployed first into the capital-enemy territory-and then tried to cross what were still active front lines.

The deputy chief of UNTAC, Behrooz Sadry, said before leaving the country that if he had to do it all over again, he would have put troops into all four factions' zones at the same time. "The [Khmer Rouge] assumed they were not being treated equally with the other factions. Instead of deploying on a geographic basis, we should have deployed on a more political basis . . . I have no doubt that all factions went into this operation in good faith," he said. The Khmer Rouge resumed their battle positions and succeeded in capturing more territory than they had held before the peace accords were signed.

The wrong foot

UNTAC officially became operational on March 15, 1992, but most of its offices were not staffed and running full-time until December, just six months before the elections in May 1993. By then there wasn't enough time to fulfill the mandate. In western Pursat province, for instance, a U.N. electoral supervisor arrived in her rural district in July 1992 to find that Cambodian soldiers had heard they were going to be disarmed under the peace accords, and they tried to give her their guns. She refused, saying that her job was elections and that U.N. military personnel would arrive later to organize the disarmament of troops. By the time UNTAC was ready for arms collection months later, the Phnom Penh government had ordered its troops to keep their weapons in order to continue fighting the Khmer Rouge.

It was a similar story in northwest Siem Reap province. When a U.N. deputy provincial official arrived early into the mission, excited Cambodian civil servants handed him their financial records and asked him to take control of their office according to the peace plan, giving UNTAC day-to-day control over civil administration. He explained that he was just an administrator and that a financial controller would eventually arrive. Three months later, the financial controller was never allowed the same access again.

The delays gave the Cambodians plenty of time to build up animosity toward UNTAC. As 22,000 members of the U.N. mission poured into the country, fly-by night operators flourished. A frontier-like, anything-goes mentality developed, the price of food and housing skyrocketed, swaggering drunkards broke furniture in bars, and brothels were packed. Many of the U.N. people received a daily living allowance of $145, on top of their salaries. The per diem was roughly equal to the yearly per capita income of Cambodians.

An internal U.N. report cited the "tendency on the part of some personnel to treat all women as though they were prostitutes. This includes grabbing at women on the street, making inappropriate gestures and remarks, and physically following or chasing women traveling in public." Many Cambodian women-professional, peasant, or otherwise- complained about this kind of behavior. The U.N. report concluded that arrogance, misbehavior, and the many traffic injuries caused by U.N. personnel-as many as 10 to 20 per day-were causing ill will.

"The behavior and abuses of certain personnel and the relative lack of corrective action by the UNTAC authorities have undermined the credibility of UNTAC and made the task of the United Nations in Cambodia all the more difficult," another U.N. report said. Bulgarian troops were among the worst offenders. When UNTAC once released figures on peacekeepers being sent home for crimes or misconduct, 14 of the 17 were Bulgarian. Previously, prostitution in Cambodia had been limited to the cities, but Bulgarian civilian police brought it to rural areas for the first time, buying Vietnamese "wives" in the capital, taking them to rural districts and causing a scandal in the local community.

One legacy of this behavior is likely to be AIDS. While AIDS was not introduced to Cambodia by U.N. troops (the first two HIV infections were detected shortly before UNTAC's arrival), the number of commercial sex workers in the capital increased from 6,000 to 20,000 in 1992. There was a tenfold increase in the number of blood donors testing HIV-positive in the same period.

UNTAC doctors treated thousands of cases of sexually transmitted diseases, but they did not keep accurate figures. UNTAC's chief medical officer told a Phnom Penh newspaper in late 1993 that the number of peacekeepers infected with HIV was possibly 150, although official figures put the number at 47. That means more than twice as many U.N. personnel will probably die of AIDS as died from hostile action, accident, or illness during the peacekeeping mission.

Although UNTAC was aware of the problem, it was more concerned about image protection than condom distribution. When it was brought to his attention, UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi, now head of U.N forces in the former Yugoslavia, wrote a memo ordering U.N. personnel not to park their cars outside brothels.

Akashi himself admitted frustration with his staff, calling them "not uniformly outstanding," and said that future missions would need stricter standards of recruitment. This was surely diplomatic understatement, for in UNTAC incompetence was the rule, not the exception. Auditors sent from New York reportedly said they had never seen such a fiasco such as UNTAC and that hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment had disappeared or had been misappropriated. French military officials accused the Ghanaian battalion assigned to guard shipment warehouses and fuel supplies at the airport with complicity in theft, if not outright involvement. In one incident, more than 8,000 liters of gasoline disappeared over two nights.

In an example of poor recruitment, a French gendarme was so fed up with his Bulgarian assistant looking over his shoulder all the time that he asked him, "Why are you always watching me?" The hapless Bulgarian, of high police rank and earning the $145 per diem on top of his regular salary, admitted that he had answered a newspaper advertisement to be a U.N. policeman in Cambodia, but he had never done law enforcement before and had no idea what to do. In another case, the U.N. provincial director assigned to one of the most unwieldy provinces-containing Cambodia's largest smuggling port, active Khmer Rouge guerrillas, bandits, offshore pirates, and government thugs who treated dissent with assassination-had earned her management experience heading the presumably less unwieldy French-English translation department at U.N. headquarters. She went home after just six months on the job.

Assassination is the most common way Cambodians deal with their opposition, and UNTAC recorded more than 100 politically linked murders in the pre-election period. On the eve of the election, two candidates from the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (which had fought the government as Khmer Rouge allies during the civil war) were blasted off the back of a motorbike by AK-47 fire on their way home from the party office. This was hardly the neutral political environment the United Nations sought to create. Having no other choice but to call off the elections Cambodians so earnestly desired, UNTAC went ahead with what was still the freest election Cambodia had had since the 1950s. The royalist FUNCINPEC party won a majority, but it was forced into a power-sharing arrangement with the former communists who have maintained their stranglehold on governing the country. Today the royalists have little real power, despite the vote of the people.

While Cambodia's governing problems are its own, the rapid influx of dollar-wielding peacekeepers created social problems that may well have hindered the country's long-term development prospects. The pervasive "Manila-ization" of the capital widened the disparity between the rich and poor, and it prompted a free-for-all crime wave that made humanitarian aid organizations reconsider their desire to remain in the country. Rampant corruption became re-entrenched and may never be rooted out. A U.N. report examining the aftereffects of UNTAC and its accompanying economic boom said: "What is particularly disturbing is that this pattern of intervention may have served to transform the Cambodian economy and society in such a way as to distort or undermine the development process for many years to come."

Perhaps in the future, Cambodians will finally begin to solve their own problems and bring about their own lasting solutions. But they have a long way to go, and the road may now be even longer than it would have been if the United Nations had not intervened. For Kellie, Dom, Tina, Mark, Jean-Michel, and David; for the U.N. peacekeepers who died in hostile action, from land mines, or malaria; and for the thousands of Cambodians who will die this year, and the next, and the one after that, it is too late. Three billion dollars was not enough. They have died for so little.

Sheri Prasso was Cambodia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse from September 1991 to January 1994. She is now on leave to complete a master's degree at Cambridge University.