‘Mission Impossible’: The UN in Cambodia showed the first limit of nation-building | world news
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Just over 30 years ago, a crackling radio in a refugee camp on the Thai border told Sam Sophal that the United Nations was arriving in his war-ravaged native Cambodia. .
For Sam Sophal, who only survived the Khmer Rouge genocide because his mother bribed Khmer Rouge executioners with her silver watch, the promise of peace was irresistible.
The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived on March 15, 1992, with great expectations, the first nation-building operation of the United Nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union raised hopes that democracy would flourish in the world.
But long before the chaotic fall of Afghanistan last year and costly international missions in Iraq, Kosovo and elsewhere, Cambodia would serve as an early warning of the flaws and limits of nation-building.
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At the time, UNTAC was the most ambitious and expensive UN mission, but despite its $1.6 billion cost and $20 billion in subsequent international assistance, hopes of creating a vibrant democracy have long since vanished.
“I was very proud during the UNTAC era 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 that we have moved backwards. Towards a one-party regime,” he said in the shade of a jujube tree in his garden in Phnom Penh.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, the same man in power before the UNTAC mission, remains the leader, presiding over what critics call an authoritarian government with most opposition leaders in exile or in prison.
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 that UNTAC’s original mandate to “return to the Cambodian people and their democratically elected leaders their primary responsibility for peace, stability, national reconciliation and reconstruction has been fulfilled”.
A prophecy that a “blue-eyed god” would one day bless and restore the land had spread through the villages during Cambodia’s darkest years.
So when UNTAC arrived with their sky-blue flag and helmets, they were seen as an embodiment of this deity, with some even painting their homes a shade of UN blue, recalled Youk Chhang, executive director of the UNTAC. Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“Conflict, genocide, invasions, refugees…and then suddenly there was blue skies,” he said.
A former French colony in the early 1990s, Cambodia had suffered decades of devastation after being sucked into the Vietnam War. During the four years of the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields” regime, an estimated 1.7 million people, or about one-fifth of the population, perished.
A Vietnamese invasion toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, sparking a war in which the ousted Maoists and two other factions fought the invaders and their Cambodian allies.
UNTAC’s main triumphs were bringing home hundreds of thousands of refugees from the border camps in time for the May 1993 elections, when almost 90% of the voters turned out.
“For the first time, we felt very free,” said Youk Chhang, who spent two weeks at an election office monitoring ballots.
“It was a nice feeling.”
But Hun Sen, prime minister before UNTAC, came second and quickly complained of electoral fraud. 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 won the vote, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and Hun Sen take the roles of first and second prime ministers.
“In the world, there is no such thing as two prime ministers,” said Sam Sophal, still puzzled by the arrangement.
“Think of a car and two drivers, who will take over?”
The coalition eventually disintegrated in a bloodbath, with armed forces loyal to Hun Sen overthrowing Ranariddh in a 1997 coup.
In retrospect, UNTAC was criticized for caving in to Hun Sen and leaving in September 1993. But even then, many say it was obvious his tenure was fanciful.
“The people who planned it were crazy. It was definitely 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 accomplish anything was pretty crazy.”
UNTAC’s goal of democracy has always been complicated by Hun Sen’s ambition.
“He was so far from being a Democrat that you knew it wasn’t going to end well,” recalls Tim Carney, who headed UNTAC’s information division. He now describes Hun Sen as a “dictator”.
Hun Sen is one of the world’s oldest leaders and presides over a one-party parliament.
In 2017, a court dissolved the main opposition party while a fiery media outlet that had flourished under UNTAC was tamed.
Since the great Cambodian experience, democracy has been on the decline in the world.
According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, for the first time since 2004, there are more autocratic states than democracies.
Like many UN missions, expectations in Cambodia were incredibly high, said former military observer J Floyd Carter, who was detained by the Khmer Rouge while on assignment with UNTAC.
“Having been to Cambodia and then Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Haiti, there have been similar disappointments…He’s achieving 55% of what he sets out to do,” Carter said of Nations United.
Carney said the United Nations is more realistic these days. After last year’s coup in South Sudan, he prioritized dialogue over democratic blueprints.
“They’re just trying to strike up a conversation,” he said. “Which, in my mind, is about the most the outsiders can do.”
When UNTAC was disbanded, it left Cambodia with a strained political arrangement that was almost doomed.
“UNTAC was the first test,” says Sam Sophal, “But they didn’t complete the mission.”
Now retired after 24 years at the United Nations, Sam Sophal says corruption and nepotism have left Cambodians with no political alternative.
“The people of 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)
Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.