Largest U.N. Peacekeeping Mission Ends After Transforming Cambodia
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ The United Nations’ largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation ends Thursday with its mission nearly accomplished: bringing peace and democracy to Cambodia.
Full stability has not been restored to this nation torn by two decades of war and revolution. But personnel from more than 100 nations are leaving Cambodia after 18 months with a sense of achievement, unlike other U.N. peacekeeping missions mired in Bosnia and Somalia.
Early on, skeptics had predicted the operation would be unable to protect U.N.-sponsored elections. But voting went off with hardly a hitch last May.
In September, a new, democratically elected government was seated and longtime national leader Norodom Sihanouk was restored to the throne.
The head of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi, acknowledged this month before departing that he could not call the 22,000-man, $2 billion mission an unqualified success.
He was referring to the Khmer Rouge’s refusal to honor the 1991 peace agreement authorizing the U.N. operation and the provision for it to surrender weapons, troops and the territory it held.
Although the Khmer Rouge refuses to cooperate with the Phnom Penh administration and carries out occasional attacks from the 20 percent of the country it controls, hopes are high that Sihanouk can bring the group back into the national fold.
The Khmer Rouge’s influence began to wane after it boycotted the May election in which about 90 percent of the electorate voted. The election installed a coalition government of the previous Vietnamese-backed administration and the two parties that fought it for 13 years alongside the Khmer Rouge.
″It was indeed one of the closest to free and fair elections that you have ever seen, especially in this part of the world,″ Akashi said.
Despite much provocation, Akashi avoided a military confrontation with the Khmer Rouge. The group was blamed for killing at least 10 U.N. personnel, as well as more than 100 ethnic Vietnamese settlers in racially motivated attacks.
Akashi said he had ″neither the mandate, nor the equipment, nor the kinds of troops″ to stage a military confrontation.
″We may not have had a knockout punch,″ Akashi said, adding, however, that ″our reliance on economic (sanctions) and diplomatic means has, in the end, worked.″
Much of the U.N.’s success can be measured in confidence-building.
The Cambodian people, afraid only a few years ago to even talk to foreigners, have been emboldened by their contacts with U.N. personnel.
They have formed pro-democracy organizations and human rights groups. The number of independent, Cambodian-language newspapers has grown from about five before the operation began to about 20.
For the first time in about two decades, a handful of foreign-owned English- and French-language newspapers also have been allowed to open and voice real opposition to the government, an act considered criminal under every previous government.
″Now the atmosphere has changed, the doors are open. Once again, Cambodia is part of the international community,″ said Michael Williams of Britain, the mission’s human rights director.
Foreign investors have flooded in to capitalize on this new market. But it’s unclear whether Phnom Penh can remain a boom town after the departure of the well-paid U.N. personnel.
Western-style restaurants, a cinema, night clubs, grocery stores and video rental shops are among the businesses that opened when the U.N. mission moved in.
″I think the best thing the U.N. did for Cambodia was to expose Cambodia to the outside world,″ said Cambodian-American Sam Oum, who owns a fast-food restaurant and a burger joint in Phnom Penh.
He said this exposure, through U.N. radio, television, and interaction with the Cambodian people, has taught them more, and in a much shorter time, than reading books about the outside world ever would.
But Oum and other Cambodians fear that all of this progress could be overcome by war if the Khmer Rouge cannot be brought to heel.
Sihanouk, who became king last Friday, is supposed to hold peace talks in November with the renegade group. The group professes respect for Sihanouk as a Cambodian nationalist.