After the elections in Cambodia

By Emilia Casella

INTERNATIONAL television crews were disappointed. Citizens were elated. The U.N. was relieved. In late May, for the first time in more than 20 years, predictions of disaster in Cambodia didn't come true. The country's week-long election-its first multi-party effort in more than a generation-came off without a hitch. The only problem seemed to be keeping the long lines of voters straight as they stood in pools of rainwater, waiting to vote.

Days before, attacks by Khmer Rouge rebels had killed scores of civilians and close to 20 United Nations Peacekeepers. This prompted the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to close 300 of the planned 1,800 polling places. Many frightened UNTAC electoral staff quit in the weeks leading to the vote.

But a more than 90-percent turnout quashed the naysaying. The royalist FUNCINPPEC party won 58 seats, leading the pack of 20 parties but failing to get a majority in the 120-seat constituent assembly. The Communist Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which had run the country with support from Vietnam since 1979, took 51 seats, while 10 seats went to the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BDLP) and one seat was won by a new group, Moulinaka.

Compromise: Co-Presidents

The results prompted some wrangling in the first weeks after the vote. Eventually, a compromise was reached, in which CPP leader Hun Sen and FUNCINPPEC leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh became co-presidents and co-ministers of defence and the interior.

The assembly was expected to have a new constitution by mid-September-a task mandated by the 1991 Paris Peace accord which sparked the election. The U.N. was scheduled to start pulling out at the end of August, with the last troops to leave by mid-November. (Canada sent 215 peacekeepers and more than 50 electoral workers.)

So, what next? Does this signal a success for the 18-month, $4-billion U.N. peace process-managed by a 22,000-member UNTAC force and watched by diplomats from 18 international countries, including Canada? Not yet. The jury is still out on the mission, and criticisms of the U.N. abound. The future of Cambodia remains fragile.

Overall, the situation doesn't look very good for the future. I think the impending U.N. pullout is creating a lot of insecurity," said Roger Clark, Secretary-General of Amnesty International in Ottawa, who went to Cambodia for a three-week mission in August.

The problems Cambodians face seem insurmountable and the international community's actions in the next few months could make the difference between a rebirth of Cambodia or a return to its chaotic past, observers said in a series of recent interviews.

Cambodians' hopes have been raised and dashed many times over the past two decades. In the early 1970s, secret bombing by the U.S. during its war with North Vietnam added fuel to the Maoist Khmer Rouge cause. Cheers greeted the rebels when they marched into Phnom Penh in 1975, but the new rulers quickly emptied the cities and commenced a genocide of between one million and three million Cambodians-a third of the population: its teachers, doctors, Buddhist monks and anyone else with an education.

From Incompetence To Corruption

After Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, hope was raised again, but an international embargo against the two countries and a civil war with the Khmer Rouge, FUNCINPPEC and the BLDP thwarted efforts to rebuild. The government limped from incompetence to corruption.

Today Cambodia remains a heap of rubble. Anyone over age 15 is the survivor of a holocaust. The majority lack medical care, clean water, education, and shelter. The country, about the size of New Brunswick, is carpeted by about five million landmines. Every day, ten Cambodians are killed or injured by mines. One in 250 is an amputee. Despite the past 18 months of international attention and the vast expense of U.N. money (most in salaries to foreign staff), the effort to turn things around seems to have fallen short.

Cambodia needs about $6.6 million U.S. per month to pay its police, soldiers, and civil servants. But as of mid-July, the country had only about $3.3 million U.S. in its treasury-and only $660,000 U.S. was in bills that could be legally circulated.

One of the disappointments since June is the failure of the U.N. in New York to provide budgetary support to Phnom Penh to pay police, the army, and civil service," said a federal source in Ottawa. One had not been paid in months. In the economic vacuum, crime has flourished. Soldiers routinely extort money or food from equally-impoverished citizens.

Anyone who has a weapon and the power to extract money is doing it," said Mr. Clark, adding that he worries continued violence will make it even tougher to foster respect for human rights among law enforcers. Many Cambodians are calling on the U.N. to change its mindand maintain a reduced force there. But UNTAC's mandate ended with the election, and the Security Council is still mulling over a recommendation to set up a "liaison" office of about 12 people in the capital.

The U.N. should have some kind of presence there until the new government is on its feet," said Sean Chin, a Cambodian-Canadian who has visited his Southeast Asian homeland four times in the past 18 months as a consultant to the country's agriculture ministry. "If you pull out, there's a vacuum. I don't think the government will survive too long in a vacuum."

The UNTAC mission, clearly spelled out in the Paris accord, called for disarmament of Cambodia's four warring factions, the repatriation of 350,000 refugees from Thailand, an election and the rebuilding of infrastructure-roads, irrigation, electricity, schools, hospitals, and temples. The disarmament failed last year when the Khmer Rouge refused to cooperate and everyone else decided to keep their weapons too. The U.N. forces, many from countries with poor democratic and human rights records (including China, Indonesia, and Pakistan), were unable to stop continued fighting in the countryside or attacks against the country's ethnic Vietnamese minority. Donor countries that had promised funds to rebuild, decided to hold off until there was a better indication of peace. (It's a situation that continued after the election, prompting many Cambodians to question whether the peace process will have improved their day-to-day lives, when the mission has ended.)

Still, there were marked improvements. Voter registration was largely successful, the refugees were returned (however, some were resettled in conflict zones). There was a huge re-emergence of Buddhism, a relatively free press, and the growth of popular organizations of students,, women, farmers, and several Cambodian human rights groups.

But many of these improvements are there precisely because of the U.N. presence, which is about to evaporate, leaving many questions.

Human Rights Problems

The problems the U.N. faced will be nothing compared to the problems the Cambodian human rights organizations will face in monitoring and investigating cases of alleged abuse," said Mr. Clark. "There are a lot of misgivings and a lot of questions, particularly what the new constitution will look like and how it will affect any political structure. What powers for law enforcement can be put in place ... and for an independent judiciary. What will the human rights situation look like beyond September? Who will do the monitoring? Who will do investigation?" he said. "There is no doubt these things will be included in the constitution. The problem, of course, is one of implementation and enforcement. ... The problem is, the time needed to do all this is really short."

Khmer Rouge: The Big Question

Behind the biggest question mark sit the Khmer Rouge, still controlling 15 percent of the country-its gem-rich west and northern zones along the Thai border-as an autonomous state. Although it refused to participate in the election, it initiated post-vote talks with FUNCINPPEC leaders to explore a possible role in government. However, the CPP has vowed never to include the Khmer Rouge and a future power struggle between the two main ruling parties could be fuelled by the Khmer Rouge question.

The U.S.-backed FUNCINPPEC joined the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in its 13-year war against the Vietnam-backed CPP from 1979 to 1991. In essence, the conflict was an extension of the now-defunct Cold War, with the U.S. and China backing groups against Vietnam, which was supported by the Soviet Union.)

Of the Khmer Rouge, the constitution and nascent democracy, one diplomatic source said, "It's now up to the Cambodians to decide. The international community set the stage with the election. We can't dictate to them how they resolve this problem."

Emilia Casella is a journalist working for the Hamilton Spectator. She travelled to Cambodia from January to March with the assistance of a grant from the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1993

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1993, page 25. Some rights reserved.

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