In fact, the Cambodian “war” had ended in 1979, more than a decade before the UN occupation began. An old leader had regained his strength while new ones had emerged. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the consummate self-interested monarch who was extremely popular with most of the Cambodian people, had ruled Cambodia since 1941, until a military coup deposed him in 1970. The Khmer Rouge brought him back as their titular head of state—though he was imprisoned in his palace during their reign. Then, as the UN troops began arriving in 1992, they made him honorary king again. But he wanted nothing less than his old job back—the all-powerful monarch, just like the kings who had ruled Cambodia since the beginning of time. Now, however, he had competitors.
During the Vietnamese occupation, from 1979 to 1989, a young Khmer Rouge officer named Hun Sen was named prime minister. He was barely educated, but clever and utterly ruthless—as one might expect of a young man trained by the Khmer Rouge and then the Vietnamese military. The prime minister’s job was handed to him in 1985; he was not about to give it up.
A third competitor arose, Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons. He had led a hapless guerrilla organization, funded by the United States. Its goal was to drive the Vietnamese and their appointed government, including Hun Sen, out of the country. After Vietnam pulled out, Ranariddh coveted power too. He seemed to know or care little about governance. But as prime minister, he knew he would be able to enrich himself. Ranariddh was not as clever as Hun Sen, but he was of royal lineage, which gave him a strong advantage.
So, past examples like Germany and Japan—even South Korea—simply were not useful models for this grand experiment. In fact, the Cambodian venture was unprecedented. Even before the UN troops left, the three aspiring leaders were grappling for power, as if the UN election had never taken place. Their contest lasted many years.
The troops may have left, but the United Nations was still there, running a phalanx of charitable organizations—UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Program (WFP), and the rest. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other major relief agencies from around the world worked alongside the UN. In fact, in time, 2,000 different donors and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) set up shop in Cambodia. As the power struggles grew heated, even violent, the government grew ever more corrupt, and the donors began pushing the leaders to live up to their promises, to serve their people.
Hun Sen, Ranariddh, and the king offered little more than lip service to those demands, but that seemed to be enough. The donors kept giving money, hundreds of millions of dollars, year after year—even as the nation headed for a military showdown to settle the power struggle once and for all.
If anyone had doubted Hun Sen’s true intentions, he made them clear during the first Paris Peace Conference, in 1989, when he declared, “You can talk about sharing power in Paris, but not in Cambodia.” Vietnam had handed him the nation in 1985. He had ruled it uncontested for seven years. He would not step down or share his throne without a fight. And now, with wide reportage of the bamboo-pole incident [in which UN representatives were turned back at a bamboo-pole roadblock], Hun Sen and everyone else realized that the UN was not to be feared. It was nothing more than a paper force. A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, reporting from Cambodia at the time, put it this way: “The Cambodian people believed that the UN blue berets were like Jupiter threatening to unleash lightning against the Khmer Rouge. What do people see? UNTAC pulls back.”
The fact remained that the Khmer Rouge had not been defeated. The UN’s deputy military commander, Michael Loridon, a French brigadier general, urged his commander to attack and “deal with the Khmer Rouge problem once and for all.” That never happened, though the debate continued for years, until the last UN officer boarded a plane home. From the first days of the UN occupation, everyone knew that over ten years the Vietnamese army, with hundreds of thousands of troops, had never been able to defeat the Khmer Rouge. So what could the UN possibly do now?
By December 1992, more than a year after the Paris Peace Accords, the United Nations finally had its full force of soldiers and administrators in country. They were too late. Every Cambodian already knew that Jupiter had never climbed up the mountain. Pol Pot and Hun Sen were ignoring the UN and facing no penalty. But the truth was, the UN force offered a great deal more than the prospect of military reconciliation. Most Cambodians loved having them in town.
The visitors spent money, more money, and then more money still—$3 billion in all. Every staffer was given a daily living allowance of $145 on top of his salary—a year’s income for most Cambodians. Contractors had quickly put up apartment buildings and now were taking in $2,000, $3,000 a month—ridiculously high rents for Phnom Penh. Hotels were full, and new ones were under construction. Anyone who’d ever had a fleeting thought of running a restaurant scrambled to open one. Everyone with a car hired himself out as a driver. Brothels worked overtime; UN doctors treated thousands of their men and women for sexually transmitted diseases. Liquor vendors couldn’t keep up with demand; restaurant and bar owners had to replace fixtures and furniture broken in drunken brawls almost every evening. UN vehicles and equipment routinely disappeared in the night, but no one was sure whether the thieves were Cambodian or renegade UN employees.
19 February 2015
UN Occupies Cambodia, 1992
From Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 144-165, 1178-1197: