Cambodia’s Triumph and Tragedy: The UN’s Greatest Experiment 30 years on

Cambodia’s Triumph and Tragedy: The UN’s Greatest Experiment 30 years on

. 9 min read

In 1991 Cambodia was a mess.

Cambodia had spent centuries being stripped by a kleptocratic and Byzantine monarchy and then treated as an appendage to Vietnam by a disinterested French colonial system. But what little there was in 1970 was comprehensively destroyed over the next two decades. Nixon’s bombers, internal coups and power struggles, the genocidal insanity of the Khmer Rouge, and a Vietnamese occupation, all in the midst of continuous civil war, flattened the country.

Two million people, a quarter of the population, had died in Pol Pot’s genocide, and another 600,000 were in refugee camps in Thailand; along the Thai border, one of the world’s largest minefields of 10 million landmines had been constructed. So from 1989 the world’s great powers came together in Paris along with the four-sides of the civil war. By October 1991, the different sides had reached a compromise - disarmament, peace and reconciliation, and a united democratic country.

That makes the transition that Cambodia has seen since incredible, with extraordinary economic growth and development. And though there is a long way to go, both economically and amid democratic backsliding, Cambodia’s recovery is still impressive and a testament to the success of international aid in the hardest of circumstances.

The UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia

To achieve this feat, the UN settled on a unique process: the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). For the first and only time in history, the United Nations became the sovereign government of a country, controlling and governing the nation. The scale of this is difficult to put into words; on March 14, 1992, Cambodia was a sovereign country; on the Ides of March, Cambodia was governed by UNTAC as the sovereign territory of the UN. It is not the only time in history that the UN has collectively governed a territory but it is the only time that a sovereign nation has submitted itself in its entirety to UN sovereignty.

In their 18 months in charge, the UN sought to demilitarize the fractions and establish an administration capable of running the country as a modern nation-state. UNTAC’s mission was extensive. Over the course of 18 months the UN took over the government. At a cost of US$1.6 billion, 46 countries deployed 22,000 people, including nearly 16,000 soldiers, to disarm the warring groups. A Japanese diplomat, Yasushi Akashi, became the de facto head of state.

In this, they were largely successful though the Khmer Rouge pulled out of the agreement in June 1992. Of the other groups, the royalists became the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), as did the republicans who became the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP). The Vietnamese backed government in Phnom Penh under the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) disarmed and pulled a 180-degree ideological turn abandoning marxist-leninism in favor of neo-liberal monarchism. Overall, 50,000 troops were disarmed and the country was reunified.

That shift by the CPP was very important as the ordinary Khmer were still largely monarchists. As a result, the FUNCINPEC and the CPP swept the elections though neither gained an outright majority. The 1993 Election was largely a success with nearly 90 percent voter turnout, and a coalition agreement between Crown Prince Ranariddh (FUNCINPEC) and Hun Sen (CPP) was quickly drawn up. UNTAC ended in September with the restoration of sovereignty to the Kingdom of Cambodia under a restored Sihanouk.

Though Cambodia did not know it, this would be the only free election in its history.

Democracy from the barrel of a gun - CPP troops wander Phnom Penh in the aftermath of the 1997 coup - AFP

Successes of International Development

In the UN’s eyes, it gave Cambodia the golden ticket, a second chance. It unified the country, disarmed the fractions, and put in place a government backed by billions of dollars. But Cambodia’s leaders had ambitions far greater than they realized.

The scale of international aid to Cambodia is stunning. Between the establishment of UNTAC in 1992 and 2017, Cambodia received over US$20 billion. This has continued to rise with Cambodia receiving US$1.37 billion in 2020 though as Cambodia develops a tax system aid has fallen as a percentage of government expenditure from over 100 percent in 2003 to just 29 percent in 2020.

As a result, Cambodia’s advancement in classic development indicators has been spectacular. The World Bank, for instance, talks of “stellar” growth. Poverty fell from 47.8 percent in 2007 to 13.5 percent in 2014 that has been driven by a 19.6 percent annual growth in tourism and the creation of 3.3 million jobs in industry. Cambodia has benefited from extremely stable prices with inflation under four percent from 2015-2019. But it is the rise in Gross National Income from US$300 in 1994 to US$1,380 in 2019 that is both the most impressive figure and emblematic of how far Cambodia still has to go.

These figures do not capture the dramatic improvement in people's lives. 79 percent of people now have access to clean water. In just three years from 2013-6, access to electricity improved from 33 percent of the population to 60 percent. And between 2007 and 2012, cellular subscriptions rose from 19 to 129 per 100 people. These figures show that there is still a long way to go but they also suggest that Khmers are beginning to experience a meaningful improvement in their quality of life.

This can be seen in healthcare. In 1977, life expectancy fell to just 19. Under the UN there has been a marked increase over the past 30 years rising to 70. A similar trend can be seen in child mortality. Under Pol Pot, 300 in every 1,000 live births died by age five. Since the UN takeover it has dramatically dropped to just 26. In some ways, this is unsurprising; only 25 doctors survived Pol Pot’s regime.

In education just 87 academics survived and 90 percent of the schools were destroyed; the Khmer Rouge even murdered anyone wearing glasses. Now literacy has risen from 67 percent in 1998 to 81 percent in 2015 while school enrollment has risen from 17 percent in 1997 to 97 percent in 2014. This represents a seismic shift over the course of a single generation in the values Khmers place in education. It may not be surprising that having teachers and schools is good for literacy rates, but Cambodia’s success in building healthcare and education systems from scratch is miraculous.

What Aid Got Wrong

But the NGOs are far more reticent to note the democratic failure of the country. After four years of tensions between FUNCINPEC and the CPP, FUNCINPEC launched a coup attempt in July 1997. Two days of open fighting in Phnom Penh later, they were defeated by CPP militias who then seized sole power in the state and dozens of FUNCINPEC officials and hundreds of civilians were killed.

The CPP has become a one-party state and all officials are CPP members. It has become more sophisticated in its tactics over time. In the 1990s, its preferred tactic was to throw grenades at opposition members; but after an attack in 1997 likely perpetrated by the CPP at a Sam Rainsy rally killed 16 and injured an American diplomat, they softened their approach. Now they prefer to take over the press, dissolve all serious political parties and imprison their leaders.

This has been facilitated by the rampant corruption; the CPP was able to gain power in part because Hun Sen was the most flagrant in his patronage. In 2015, Cambodia ranked 150 in the world in the Corruption Perceptions indexes, behind just Afghanistan and North Korea in Asia. After 15 years, Hun Sen finally passed an Anti-Corruption Law in 2010 that offered no protection for whistleblowers.

Corruption is pervasive. Any interaction with the government, from traffic stops to company licences, involves a bribe; murderers, human traffickers and paedophiles routinely bribe their way out of justice; even ordinary citizens trying to access free education and healthcare must bribe the teachers and doctors to be taught and graded or to be seen and treated.

I want to be one of them - children in Cambodia continue to be excluded for not bribing their teachers - TrIC

The suffering of 30 years of war continues to affect the Khmer people. About 60 percent of the population still suffered from PTSD in 2006. Even 45 years after Pol Pot, Cambodians suffer from intergenerational transmission of trauma, a rare condition where children inherit the PTSD from their parents despite not experiencing it.  Unfortunately, PTSD correlates well with societal problems like domestic violence - in 2014, 29 percent of women in Cambodia experienced domestic abuse.

Cambodia used to be a center of teak forestry. In 1995 teak accounted for 80 percent of Khmer exports. Now Cambodia’s teak forests have been illegally plundered by oligarchs and there is none left. In general, forests have been destroyed falling from 59.6 percent of total land area in 2006 to 46.9 percent in 2014. A related problem is the issue of land rights. 70 percent of the population still lacks deeds for their homes while Chinese tycoons and Hun Sen’s cronies bribe their way into about 30 percent of the country’s land, evicting 10,000s in the process.

Cambodia and International Aid Now

Cambodia presents a remarkable paradox for international aid. Over the 30 years, the international community has taken one of history’s greatest victims and given it another lease of life. But the twin theories that wealth and education bring democracy, and that the carrot of Western aid can make autocrats more pliable have been proven manifestly untrue.

The international community has chosen to continue to treat Cambodia as a humanitarian issue avoiding discussing democratic backsliding. This has led to a curious situation; measured by classic development indicators the last 30 years have been wildly successful bankrolled on the international dime. But measured by human rights, democracy, ecology, or corruption, the past 30 years have been a disastrous missed opportunity.

This can be seen in the figure of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister and a crafty political survivor. A general of the Khmer Rouge, he later fled to Vietnam during a purge. After the Vietnamese invasion in 1978, he became Prime Minister in 1985. Under UNTAC, Hun Sen orchestrated the realignment of the CPP and has sought to center power around himself becoming sole Prime Minister since a coup of 1997, preparing his son Hun Manet to succeed him.

Hun Sen is outspoken in his critique of liberal democracy calling a free press ‘anarchy’ in 2017 and civil society US-backed foreign agents. His flagrant disregard for human rights can partly be understood by a desire to play China and the US off against one another. By 2014, Cambodia’s foreign direct investment from China had increased to 48.2 percent. In turn, Cambodia has become a key apologist for China in a South-East Asia increasingly hostile to its expansionism.

In a world where the West is increasingly unwilling to be associated with autocrats, why does the West engage with and fund Hun Sen? He gets to balance the West against China, gain the legitimacy of visiting heads of state, and use the vast amounts of international investment as a patronage fund for his cronies.

First, the international community can avoid discussion that UNTAC’s democratic mission was a failure. The narrative is not that the UN tried to make Cambodia a democracy and failed, but rather that it tried to make Cambodia a democracy and is still trying. The UN summarizes UNTAC as “in one of its most complex operations, the United Nations in Cambodia oversaw a transition that led to the restoration of civil rule.” That is a spectacular political spin—entirely true and yet missing the point.

A second reason is that the West is able to cleanse itself of responsibility for the Khmer Rouge. When the United States started bombing Cambodia in 1969, the Khmer Rouge were a minor insurgency on the Vietnamese border. It was the US-backed bombing as well as a US-backed coup in 1970 that turned them into a national threat. Throughout the Khmer Rouge’s reign, the United States denied the genocide was taking place. The international community even backed the Khmer Rouge holding its UN seat until 1993 long after their crimes had been proven.

This paradox is not necessarily a bad thing. Cambodia is a development miracle and its people, horrifically treated throughout their history, have been able to enjoy a remarkably peaceful and prosperous period over the past 30 years. By the standards of Khmer history, their current government is democratic, tolerant, and no more corrupt than its predecessors and it has also heralded an economic golden age. So if the West is prepared to hold its nose on democratic issues, perhaps Cambodia is a model of how international aid can achieve success in dictatorships.

In September 2022, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal concluded its work, upholding a conviction for crimes against humanity against the former Khmer Rouge PM, Khieu Samphan. The tribunal, which was founded 2006, has been notoriously slow in its work and was only able to serve justice to five of the Khmer Rouge’s leaders. The past 30 years have been about Cambodia coming to terms with its history and beginning to recover. Let us hope that the next 30 will be about charting a new path as a young nation.

Cover Image: A New Cambodia - Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0