Indonesian soldiers in UN trucks move across a muddy Kampong Thom river, preparing for a Khmer Rouge offensive. Locals wait in the slivers of UN helicopter blade shade as its Russian crew undergoes military inspection at the Thai border.
The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia didn’t achieve all of its goals, but covering the brief era that saw the country’s most free elections yet and set its political course for the next two decades with the election of Prime Minister Hun Sen, was a special assignment for a news photographer.
“Like stirring the perfect paint pot,” says veteran British photographer Tim Page on the 20th anniversary of Cambodia’s historic constitutional election in 1993. “It was easy to make meaningful pictures. It was easy to come up with an image to satisfy any publication, whether it was The Guardian or Der Spiegel.”
Alongside images by Australians Heide Smith and George Gittoes, Page’s photographs of the time feature in UNTAC 20 Years On: The Australian Perspective, at Meta House this week to mark the anniversary of the election on May 23. Around 1,215 Australian Defence Force personnel served in UNTAC and the head of the military component of the authority was Australian General John Sanderson, who led almost 16,000 soldiers from origins as far afield as Morocco, Kenya, Austria and Russia.
The UNTAC period began with a mission to democratise a chaotic and traumatized nation, facilitate an election and leave a stable government in its wake, its crowning achievement – the election – saw nearly 90 per cent of registered voters turn up to vote.
Heide Smith, who had never been to Cambodia before, was accompanying journalist Marje Prior to take photographs for the photo-documentary book Shooting at the Moon: Cambodian peace workers tell their stories.
“We were there on two trips, in January 1993 and again after the election, each time for a couple of weeks,” she says. “The elections seem to be a huge step and at the same time very dangerous. Everybody was on alert and tense. The monks were very proud of the fact that they had an identity and that they could vote. I believe that the Khmers wanted the election to work contrary to the Khmer Rouge or NDK.
“Compared to Australia, there seemed to be much poverty, yet the people were friendly most of the time. We were sometimes afraid of mines on the roads and of snipers. Just once when I aimed my long lens at a soldier, who was stealing a cow, he saw me and aimed his gun at us. We managed to get away in time.”
For Page, who had most recently visited the year before, for the return of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, the atmosphere created by UNTAC’s international presence was unique and defined by constant travel by the forces – by helicopter, rail and jeep – in what was in some areas still a war zone.
“They were always bopping around the country in planes and trains . . . There were people from strange outposts: Tunisian policeman, Venezuelan soldiers, Russian majors. It was the most cosmopolitan [mix] I’d been near.
“I think UNTAC was a success because it made the Khmer Rouge ‘wither on the vine’. The people started going out, people went to market . . . I think the most important thing is women were emancipated. Women could go to market [freely] and it happened quite quickly.”
UNTAC 20 Years On: The Australian Perspective will be displayed upstairs at Meta House from May 23 to June 14.