An Ambiguous Anniversary in Cambodia

So whatever happened to the most ambitious peacekeeping operation in history?


Twenty years ago this week, Cambodians awoke with pride, purpose and hope. They dressed in their best, combed their hair, and put on makeup. Many walked; then waited, squatting in dirt for hours. But one by one they made history: Four million votes were cast amid flapping blue U.N. flags promising change.

"It was the start of freedom," radio journalist Mam Sonando recently recalled. The country’s first democratic multi-party elections were held May 23 – 28 in 1993, under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The monumental mission — the "most audacious peacekeeping operation the U.N. had ever mounted," in the words of historian William Shawcross — employed 70,000 people from 46 countries and cost roughly $2 billion.

But today, as Cambodia prepares for its fifth democratic election on July 28, the polls are already tainted by reports of voter registration fraud and alleged bias in the National Election Commission. Human rights abuses, political imprisonments, land grabs, and forced evictions plague the nation. Reporters Without Borders demoted the country 26 places in its latest press freedom index, citing rising "authoritarianism and censorship." Sam Rainsy, the primary opposition leader who lives in self-imposed exile in France, wants the July elections postponed.

"Now the government is restricting democracy," journalist Sonando said, just days after his release from 8 months in prison on insurrection charges that were overturned in March. UNTAC ended in September 1993 — too soon, with too much left to do, he said. "All the countries that were here in ‘93 left."

What remains today is "a facade of democracy," says political scientist Kheang Un. The country is propped up by foreign aid of nearly $1 billion annually. Cambodia will continue to stress economic growth, social order, and stability, Kheang writes, "but not liberal democracy."

The country’s human rights abuses are maddening, and outspoken citizens say so. They march through the capital, demanding the release of jailed activists. They block national highways to protest grabbed land. They ask foreign leaders for help.

Ironically, their pleas demonstrate that UNTAC did achieve something. The demand for rights only began with the U.N. mission. "Dusty, grizzled peasants in flip-flops sit on their haunches next to the chickens, in rapt attention as I [taught] an introduction to democracy, struggling to explain concepts like ‘liberty,’ ‘dignity of the individual,’ and ‘the consent of the governed,’" wrote Kenneth Cain, an American law school graduate who worked for UNTAC during the 1993 elections.

In modern times, Cambodia has seen little peace. After gaining independence from France in 1953, the country was inexorably drawn into neighboring Vietnam’s civil war. While neutral in name, Cambodia allowed its eastern jungles to be used as staging areas, shipment routes, and refuges for communist Vietnamese forces. That prompted a U.S. bombing campaign, one of the largest in history, which ravaged large swathes of the country and helped to ignite the homegrown communist Khmer Rouge insurgency. The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, forging a regime that eventually killed 2 million before the Vietnamese invaded in 1979. They stayed 10 years. In the words of Human Rights Watch, the Vietnamese intervention was characterized by "unprecedented brutality" followed by "oppressive one-party rule."

The UNTAC mission aimed to rebuild and restore. The operation grew from the Paris Peace Agreements signed on October 23, 1991. They gave the United Nations full authority to oversee a ceasefire, disarm, and demobilize the military, create a new national army, repatriate refugees, organize and supervise multi-party elections, and protect human rights.

The mission had unequivocal successes. It organized elections, in which 90 percent of Cambodians participated. Some 360,000 refugees living along the Thai border were able to go home. The economy grew. Cambodians emerged from the psychological traumas of genocide and war. People began to hope.

But ask Cambodians today whether they’ve managed to achieve peace and democracy, and the answers are hazy. The reasons have much to do with that same 1993 vote. In that first democratic election, ruling leader Hun Sen — a one-time Khmer Rouge commander who defected to Vietnam and came to power at the head of the 1979 Vietnamese invasion — lost to Prince Norodom Ranariddh. But Hun Sen contested the outcome and threatened to retaliate. In the end, the two formed a coalition that held until Hun Sen ousted Ranariddh in 1997. Through it all, people were left wondering about the value of their vote.

Today there is an overriding sense that Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will win again, no matter what. Those who vote CPP often note practical reasons for doing so. "When it’s nearly election, the government always comes to help," a coffee shop owner named Kim Eang said recently. "The CPP helps me, so I will vote CPP." She lives outside the capital in one of 54 resettlement villages established in the past 20 years, primarily for residents and squatters evicted from sites in central Phnom Penh.

She pointed to the newly graded dirt road that passes her tarp-and-metal shack. CPP officers fixed the road this spring, she said. In the coming weeks she expects each family will receive some rice. Consequently, 80 percent of her village votes for the ruling party. On this level, at least, Hun Sen’s government delivers.

Yet real economic growth primarily reaches the elite few. Most Cambodians remain poor — annual incomes average $820 by World Bank calculations — due in part to "breathtaking" corruption that has "enriched government officials and discouraged honest foreign investors," says Human Rights Watch.

"Pok ro-loeui," says Sna, a Phnom Penh guesthouse manager. Pok means a little bit. Ro-loeui means broken. Everything is broken, little by little. It’s a Cambodian phrase for corruption. Sna said he hates it, hates the way his government cheats people.

Corruption coincides with a "culture of impunity" that dates back to the UNTAC period, according to Human Rights Watch. Before the 1993 elections, the CPP organized forces to obstruct the opposition "through violence and other means." Many of the perpetrators later landed in high-ranking government jobs. Today, former UNTAC-era obstructionists reportedly operate in the Ministry of Interior, the municipal police, and other entities under the prime minister’s control. "All senior civilian and military officials report to Hun Sen," notes Human Rights Watch.

Many Cambodians understand more about their government and the meaning of human rights today than they did 20 years ago. People know the law, and they take note when it’s ignored. "I always tell the government: My teacher is you," activist Tep Vanny said in March. She never intended to become a government watchdog, until her neighbors lost their homes to a business deal. In 2007, the government signed a $79 million, 99-year lease with Shukaku Inc., a company run by a CPP senator, to develop a Phnom Penh lake known as Boeung Kak. Today the lake is filled with sand. Thousands were forced to move. Restaurants, shops and family homes — all razed. But a few people stayed, including Vanny.

The Boeung Kak demonstrations gained global attention in May 2012 when a peaceful protest led to the arrests of several women. Supporters gathered outside a Phnom Penh courthouse, screaming for justice. "If they want to take the land from us, they should die like these chickens," a protester named Chum Ngan told me at the time, standing near a splayed chicken with guts spilling over a bamboo stick — a Cambodian-style curse.

Eventually the activists were released, their initial 2-year sentence reduced to one month and three days. But the protests have simmered on.

Land is chief among human rights issues in Cambodia. The civic organization Licadho reports that subsistence farmers have lost roughly 2.1 million hectares since 1993 in land concessions granted by the government to private firms. Since 2003, land disputes have been displaced and disrupted the lives of more than 400,000 Cambodians. (Disputes often lead to unemployment, as bosses fire employees who attend demonstrations.) "Protected rainforests, endangered wildlife, rivers abundant in fish, villages, farmlands, and urban neighborhoods — none are safe these days from the rapid growth of investment projects in Cambodia," according to The Cambodia Daily.

Land is a barometer for Cambodian human rights, according to Long Kimheang, senior communications officer for the Housing Rights Task Force. She led me through a cramped market that opens to a pile of rubble known as Borei Keila. Dozens of homeless residents camp in a fetid mess. They live in it. Their chickens feed in it. Flies emerge from it. The air smells of burning rubbish.

"We sleep here every day," a 56-year-old woman said, then took me to her home: two mats spread beneath a tarp held by wooden poles. She dug inside the bag that holds her belongings and pulled out a photograph of herself with a bloody neck and hands — injuries she attributed to run-ins with police.

On January 3, 2012, about 300 Borei Keila families watched bulldozers pulverize their homes, paving the way for commercial development. The company, Phanimex, agreed to build ten apartments for those displaced, but it built only eight. Many Borei Keila residents refuse to move, their doggedness a form of protest — and, they say, their only hope.

But many Cambodians are not vocal. Since 1993, Kheang Un writes, eight journalists have been killed, the majority by government officials. That count didn’t include Hang Serei Oudom, a reporter investigating illegal logging, who was found beaten to death in the trunk of his car last year.

Human Rights Watch calls on foreign donors to confront the ruling party and monitor abuses. It spotlights the United States, a leading critic of Cambodia’s human rights record, whose actions "often undermine its words." Since 2006, the group reports that the United States has provided military equipment and training worth more than $4.5 million to groups including those involved in "arbitrary detentions, targeted killings and other unlawful attacks, torture, and summary executions."

USAID requested $79.3 million in assistance to Cambodia in fiscal year 2011, a 32.4 percent increase over 2009. But it is unclear how much the U.S. has given, in all, to Cambodia over the past 20 years. (When asked for those numbers, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said that its information does not go back that far.)

In November, when then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Cambodia, he emphasized U.S. support for "for the protection of human rights, of civilian oversight of the military, of respect for the rule of law and for the right of full and fair participation in the political process." It sounds a lot like the UNTAC mission.

So did UNTAC succeed? "There is improvement, a lot of improvement, but still a lot of work to be done," says Tith Lim, a United Nations project coordinator in Phnom Penh. (He stresses that his views are his own and do not represent the United Nation’s.) Overall, he says, "UNTAC is a big failure." Like Sonando, he thinks it ended too soon. "They should have built a strong foundation," he said, citing lessons for future peace-building missions.

Cambodians haven’t given up. They still hope for "a noble place…a country of rights and liberties," Sonando said. "I do what I do because I have hope. I have to have hope because it’s for my country."

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