Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and the United Nations in Cambodia (Asian Voices, a Subseries of Asian/Pacific Perspectives)

Benny Widyono
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Chapter 1: When the World "Invaded" Cambodia Pages 3 to 21

When I first arrived in Cambodia in April 1992, I was greeted by faces resigned to suffering, almost as if war and genocide had become part and parcel of the Cambodian way of life. Coming from the hallowed halls of the United Nations in New York, where Cambodia was prominent on the agenda during the 1980s, I became ever more convinced that Cambodia had, due to its geopolitical location, seen itself subjugated in the ongoing power struggles for hegemony in Southeast Asia. The result was a tragedy of enormous proportions that for more than twenty years prior to our arrival had plunged Cambodia - a victim of both Cold War and post-Cold War diplomatic maneuverings - into chaos, turmoil, civil war, and deep despair. (1)

I have attempted to place at the center of the story of this book, my experiences in Siem Reap, Angkor, and Phnom Penh as the basis for unfolding a larger story about Cambodia’s changing polity and society in the years of my two missions. Three actors played a dominant role in this story: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and the United Nations. Their interactions run like a common thread interwoven throughout the book. They were like dancing in shadows in shaping the destiny of Cambodia.

Sihanouk has dominated Cambodian modern history since his coronation by the French in 1941. He had ruled Cambodia as king, prince, head of state, prime minister, head of the main political movement, head of the Khmer Rouge government, chairman of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, head of the Supreme National Council, and finally back as king again in 1993 until he retired in 2004. During this long period, he was undoubtedly considered the father of Cambodia by the bulk of Cambodia’s people.

Then there is the Khmer Rouge, under whose vastly destructive rule around 1.7 million Cambodians - nearly one-third of the population - had lost their lives. Most other Cambodians were traumatized in ways not yet fully comprehended. (2) As will be seen in chapter 2, the heavy bombardments of Cambodia by the United States and Chinese support played a role in the meteoric rise of this movement. Because of diplomatic maneuverings in the UN,the Khmer Rouge continued to play its destructive rule during the five years covered by this book.

Finally there is the United Nations, which was both part of the problem and the solution of the Cambodian tragedy. The ouster of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime by Vietnamese forces and a Cambodian rebel force in January 1979 did not end the tragedy. In New York, accusing the Vietnamese of having invaded Cambodia, the United States, China, and ASEAN spearheaded annual UN resolutions to continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge regime as representing Cambodia rather than the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) established by the rebel Cambodians, which soon became the de facto government of the country. The Soviet Union, its allies, and some other countries including India recognized the PRK. This stalemate continued throughout the 1980s during which Cambodia was treated like a pariah state as the West banned all aid to the country - thereby prolonging the suffering of its people for another decade. It was only resolved with the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements on 23 October 1991, (3) which stipulated that the UN itself take control of the governance of Cambodia until elections were held. The UN Transitional Authority on Cambodia (UNTAC) was established to implement the Paris Agreements.

I came as part of UNTAC. UNTAC was at the time also the largest and most integrated one the United Nations had ever undertaken. It brought together 20,600 military, police, and civilian personnel from more than one hundred countries. (4) It had a multidimensional mandate: to organize and carry out free and fair elections for a National Assembly, disarm the previously warring parties, verify the withdrawal of foreign forces, repatriate Cambodian refugees, begin the process of restoring human rights, and supervise and control the Cambodian police forces. (5)

For me it all started in New York. “Huh? You want to go to Siem Reap?” asked an aghast Yasushi Akashi, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs. It was 4 p.m. on the 22nd of January in 1992, and we were in the men’s room, of all places, on the thirty-first floor of the UN headquarters on First Avenue in New York City. Both of our offices were on that floor; Akashi headed the large Department of Disarmament while I directed a small office as the New York representative of the five Regional Economic and Social Commissions of the United Nations, covering all five regions of the world. (6)

Akashi had just been appointed head of UNTAC. After congratulating Akashi on his appointment, I asked whether I could go with him and be stationed in Siem Reap, a province in northwest Cambodia near the Thai border. “Huh, that is the most troublesome province,” he replied, with some agitation. “You can only go there by helicopter. The Khmer Rouge is still there in large numbers, larger than elsewhere. The other resistance forces also have their bases there, and their refugee camps are across the border in Thailand. It also has Angkor Wat with all its complications for financial control and conservation.”

“Yes, I would like to be sent to Siem Reap,” I responded. I did not want to be stationed in the capital, where I would be one of many senior directors, nor in Sihanoukville, for that matter, the idyllic seaside resort where there was very little action. There had been little action there even during the days of the Khmer Rouge.

“Okay, then, you will go to Siem Reap,” Akashi decided. “You will be one of the twenty-one provincial directors of UNTAC.”None of the provincial directors, including myself, had any experience with governance or Cambodia.

Such was the reality of United Nations peacekeeping. I found out later that Siem Reap was a much-coveted post. I felt lucky to land this coveted post.

My introduction to the Cambodian tragedy had actually started during my posting with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok in the 1970s. From that vantage point, one could not help but note the tragedy unfolding to the east, especially following the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979. Cambodian refugees in rags, fleeing the country by the tens of thousands, often emaciated and barely able to walk, seemingly unable to speak or smile, reached hastily erected refugee camps in Thailand. I visited one such camp, Khao I Daeng, when it was first constructed and could only surmise the misery these refugees had endured.

The horrible atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, finally exposed to the world, stared coldly at us from our televisions, newspapers, and magazines.

I had known Yasushi Akashi for years. In New York we both commuted by train from the suburbs, he from Scarsdale in Westchester County where many Japanese live, and I from Stamford, Connecticut. Although he is a few years older than me, he often overtook me walking from Grand Central Station to the UN headquarters about six blocks away. He always walked briskly and reprimanded me for my slower pace. The walk to the station was part of his exercise regimen, he said. Later in Cambodia, he was famous for his brisk pace and his short, staccato way of speaking.

Akashi’s appointment as head of UNTAC had surprised everyone. The speculation in the corridors of the UN in New York had been that Rafeeudin Ahmed, the UN point man on Cambodia throughout the 1980s, would get the job. When Ahmed declined for personal reasons, the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, had appointed Akashi instead, apparently with support from Tokyo. (7) As a fellow Asian who understood the Asian mind and culture, he was deemed capable of dealing with the dynamic personalities in Cambodia. It also helped that he was Japanese, as Japan was slated to play a key role in the long-overdue process of reconstruction and rehabilitation in Cambodia.

I took a long flight from New York to Bangkok, the gateway to Cambodia.There I checked in at the Ambassador Hotel on Sukhumvit Road, which had been transformed into a staging area for UNTAC personnel coming from all over the world. The lobby was full of glittery military and police uniforms in a panorama of colors, from all parts of the world, an unusual sight even in cosmopolitan Bangkok. They all had one thing in common: the blue helmet identifying them as UN peacekeepers.

The next day, 20 April 1992, I boarded a military Hercules 130, leased by UNTAC from Indonesia, which took me to Phnom Penh in less than an hour.

All of the signs in the plane were in my native Indonesian. The plane was packed with military types and police, along with some stray civilians like myself, all headed for UNTAC duty. UNTAC controlled the airport, so there was no immigration or customs processing.

After landing at the airport, I was whisked away to the Cambodia Inn, next to Phnom Penh’s only luxury hotel, the four-star Cambodiana where many top brass of UNTAC stayed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Inn, a less than two-star affair, had air-conditioning. But, alas, it barely worked. (8)

Driving into town I was distressed by the contrast between the “Asian miracle” then taking place in Thailand and other Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries and Cambodian reality. (9) Per capita income in the ASEAN region had been growing at 10 percent or more annually for decades. But that had been far from the case in Cambodia though in the early 1960s under Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkom Reastr Niyom (People’s Socialist Community) Government, Cambodia’s per capita income reportedly had been higher than Thailand’s. (10)

Everywhere I went in Phnom Penh, evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror abounded. Obviously, the efforts of the State of Cambodia (SOC) government to start reconstruction and development had been severely handicapped by Cambodia’s continuing political ostracism and economic isolation imposed by the West and the United Nations during the 1980s. That had left the Soviet Union as Cambodia’s single major donor during those years. The economic disintegration of the country had become quite acute after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which stopped aid to Cambodia. There were no telephones, and broken bridges and highways full of potholes highlighted the battered infrastructure.

Whenever I arrive in a new town, I head straight to the market in order to feel the city’s pulse. At five, the morning after arriving in Phnom Penh, as I struggled to recover from jet lag, I took a moto dop, or motorcycle taxi - it was the most common form of transportation - riding tandem, to the Psar Thmei (new market) of Phnom Penh. Psar Thmei, a massive yellow art deco structure, was octagonal in shape; the grid of streets around it was completed in 1937 by the French town planner Ernest Hebrard. (11)

The driver of the moto dop sped along the wide, French colonial-style, paved grand boulevards shaded with rows of coconut palms. Phnom Penh’s layout was a leftover from colonial times, when King Sihanouk had tried to make sure that the city would serve as the capital of an independent nation rather than an appendix to Saigon, the city the French apparently preferred. Many impressive buildings with stone facades and arched windows lined the boulevards. All of them were dark yellow ocher in color, including the royal palace, government offices, hotels, and theaters. And all, except the royal palace, showed signs of decay.

The SOC government, in anticipation of the return of Prince Sihanouk as head of the Supreme National Council, had renovated the palace. SOC saw the advantage of turning Sihanouk into a king rather than simply the leader of the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), the Royalist resistance faction.

When they had emptied Phnom Penh and forced the people into the countryside in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge had left these yellow ocher buildings intact, except for the Catholic cathedral and Central Bank. The cathedral had been dismantled stone by stone, the bank blown up; they had been deemed symbols of “reactionary religion” and “decadent capitalism.” Throughout the Khmer Rouge’s rule, Phnom Penh and other cities had remained empty and largely abandoned. To the best of my knowledge, never in the history of the world had entire cities been completely emptied of their inhabitants.

1. See chapter 2 for a short summary of the twenty years prior to UNTAC’s arrival.

2. Estimates of the number of lives lost continue to be debated today. The noted Cambodian scholar Ben Kiernan consistently estimates the number of deaths to bearound 1.7 million. For a summary of recent debate on this issue, see Kiernan, “TheDemography of Genocide in Southeast Asia,” Bulletin of Critical Asian Studies, vol.35, no. 4, 2003, 585-97. See also Patrick Heuveline, “Between One and ThreeMillion: Towards the Demographic Reconstruction of a Decade of CambodianHistory, 1970-1979,” Population Studies, London, vol. 52, no. 1, March 1998, 49-65.In another estimate, Stephen Heder calculated deaths at 2.2 million, of whichbetween five hundred thousand and one million Cambodians were executedoutright while others died of starvation and disease as a result of inhuman and cruelpolicies. See Heder with Brian D. Titlemore, Seven Candidates for Prosecution,Washington:War Crimes Research Office, American University, 2001, 7.

3. UN Paris Agreements. The Federal Republic of Germany also joined and signed the Paris Peace Agreements on 28 April 1994 as the eighteenth signatory nation.

4. See appendix 1. Deployment of UNTAC.

5. As these are my memoirs, they do not provide a comprehensive evaluation of UNTAC. For such an evaluation, a great number of books on both UNTAC and thepost-UNTAC period can be consulted. The earlier books on UNTAC praised it as asuccess story and a model for future peacekeeping operations. See Jamie FredericMetzl, “The Many Faces of UNTAC: A Review Article,” in Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 17, no. 1, June 1995, which reviewed four books on UNTAC: Trevor Findlay, Cambodia, The Legacy and Lessons of UNTAC, Oxford; Jarat Chopra, United Nations Authority in Cambodia, Institute for International Studies; United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Between Hope and Insecurity; and the United Nations Bluebook Series, The United Nations and Cambodia. See also Michael W. Doyle, “UN Peacekeeping in Cambodia: UNTAC’s Civil Mandate,” Occasional Papers Series, International Peace Academy (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995); and Stephen Ratner, The New United Nations Peacekeeping: Building Peace in Lands of Conflict after the Cold War (New York: St.Martin’s Press, 1995). Books and articles published after the unraveling of the peace process that culminated in violent clashes in 1997 are more tentative in praising UNTAC. See, for example, McAlister Brown and Joseph J. Zasloff, Cambodia Confounds the Peacekeepers, 1979-1998, Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1998; Marrack Goulding, “Cambodia,” in Peace Monger, London: John Murray, 2002; and Richard H. Solomon, Exiting Indochina, Washington, DC: U.S. Institute for Peace, 2000.

6. The Regional Commissions are the regional arms of the United Nations’s work in economic and social areas. Their headquarters are in Santiago, Chile (for Latin America and the Caribbean), Bangkok (for Asia and the Pacific), Beirut (for the Middle East), Addis Ababa (for Africa), and Geneva (for Europe).

7. Barbara Warner, “Japan Views Leadership Opportunities through the United Nations.” Japan Economic Institute Report, no. 10A, 13 March 1992.

8. In the post-UNTAC period, the Cambodia Inn was razed and a luxurious Singapore-owned Mi Casa apartment building erected in its place.With the boom in tourism in post-UNTAC Cambodia, the luxurious Cambodiana now has many competitors in the four-star category, including the refurbished colonial-era Hotel le Royal, which played an important role in the life of journalists during the Lon Nol period, as depicted in the movie The Killing Fields.

9. ASEAN at the time consisted of six countries: Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.

10. Unpublished communication from Andy Flatt, director of Statistics, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, “Table on Per Capita GDP in Cambodia and Thailand,” extracted and processed from UN, ECAFE, Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Far East.Mr. Flatt cautioned about the difficulties of making such comparisons, including the use of the exchange rates employed by ECAFE: the Cambodian riel was fixed at thirty-five to the U.S. dollar, whereas the Thai Baht was floating.

11. Michel Igout, Phnom Penh Then and Now, Bangkok:White Lotus, 1993, 147.

Copyright © 2008 Benny Widyono

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