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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Former UNTAC general back in NGO role

Former UNTAC general back in NGO role

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Cat Barton

Lieutenant-General John Sanderson still retains his military bearing but is now working for Austcare.

Seven years after he gave up stripes and medals for politics and diplomacy, the immaculate

suit and perfect posture still give Lieutenant-General John Sanderson, 67, an air

of military bearing. His handshake is firm, but the twinkle in his deep-set, hooded

eyes hint at the sense of humor beneath his polished politeness.

Sanderson, the former commander of the 16,000 strong international military component

of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), is back in Cambodia - this

time as ambassador for Austcare, an Australian NGO that runs landmine programs and

community development projects across the county.

He joined Austcare after retiring as governor of Western Australia in 2005. On a

trip to Cambodia Aug. 13, Sanderson spoke to the Post about UNTAC's legacy as well

as his new goals for Cambodia.

"There has been distinct progress in Cambodia over the last 14 years,"

he said. "But at the same time, there are a significant number of people being

displaced by this current development. This is why advocacy is so important for them

and for the future of Cambodia."

Sanderson said he believes that building an "inclusive society," where

the benefits of Cambodia's economic growth are equitably shared among the population,

is the key to the Kingdom's future.

"If you exclude people from society then they become a burden," he said.

"You need to include and embrace all people so you can harness their creativity.

Obviously, everyone understands this, but the question is how to achieve it."

In a visit to Cambodia in 2006 just after he joined Austcare, Sanderson recommended

that Austcare push for land rights and help define markets for agricultural products

in Cambodia.

"I am glad to see that my initial recommendations have been taken up by the

international community," he said.

Sanderson described watching the formation of the new Cambodian government in October

1993 during the UNTAC period as a "profound, euphoric experience."

"I was at the National Assembly when the flag went up and then they were the

government and we were not," he said. "It was the first time the Khmer

people had been enfranchised. There was a real desire to come back together as a

nation and this was what [UNTAC] facilitated."

UNTAC, the administrative body established by the Paris Peace Agreements (PPA) of

1991 to prepare Cambodia for general elections, has a mixed legacy in the Kingdom.

By mid-1992 more than 26,000 UN personnel had arrived in Cambodia. Swift and severe

economic disruption resulted from the influx of such a large and predominantly affluent

group of foreigners. But UNTAC suffered from at least one serious shortcoming - the

failure to disarm the warring factions made it difficult to create an environment

free of intimidation for the May elections.

But in Sanderson's opinion, the 1992 elections were a success because they helped

bring Cambodian back together as a nation.

"Although there were flaws, the momentum that was behind the election has dominated

events ever since," said Sanderson. "For the first time ever, Cambodian

rulers had to be real rulers - had to go to the people and ask them what they wanted."

UNTAC's creation of electoral roles and the provision of the structure necessary

for an election were important, but it was the Cambodian people themselves who made

the election a success, he said.

"About 90 percent of people voted," Sanderson said. "The international

press corps had all rolled into town expecting a blood bath - and then they were

asking us 'where is it?'"

Sanderson defended UNTAC's withdrawal from Cambodia after the elections, saying that

if they had stayed, they would have been forced to take sides in the uneasy post-election

power sharing arrangement between the CPP and FUNCINPEC.

"We were mandated to play a UN peacekeeping role. We were mandated to help Cambodia

form a government."

Yet the complexity of the situation at the time meant that the UN peacekeeping force

had to take innovative approaches.

"At one point we even established our own jails as the Cambodian jails were

inhumane," Sanderson said. "It was hard to explain why UN peacekeeping

soldiers were running jails."

Sanderson has in the past criticized the 1998 elections, which left the CPP firmly

in control. He said that the general consensus now seems to be that the stability

that resulted from those elections has been impotant to the country's ongoing development.

"Human rights and justice have to be the foundation for a successful future,"

he said.

"In terms of human rights there have been huge steps made in the country."

Prime Minister Hun Sen has often lambasted the organizational and individual negligence

that contributed to the creation of an HIV/AIDs pandemic in Cambodia, but UNTAC is

widely regarded as a success. Historians largely agree that UNTAC's shortcomings,

although serious, do not account for the Kingdom's ongoing problems - for example,

human rights abuses and widespread poverty.

Sanderson said that entering the global economy and ensuring equitable distribution

of the benefits of economic growth pose problems for all countries.

"The market has no social conscience," he said. "This is why governments

are elected - to look after the interests of their people, the social policy agenda

is still driven by governments."

He cited his experience as governor of Western Australia from 2000 to 2005 where

he saw the government do battle with private business to share in the benefits of

the region's heavy metal resources.

"In Western Australia there is a huge drive to extract and export these minerals,"

he said. "At the same time, we must make sure that the interests of our own

people are not lost in the process."

Globalization can often help bring about change in domestic society, he said.

"It is a quid pro quo," he said. "If you enter the global market,

governments have to sacrifice some of their strategic independence. This can help

with human rights issues."

It also means that corporations have to pick up some responsibility. "Corporations

must take more responsibility," said Sanderson. "But the government must

provide the social policy framework. It is important, especially in Cambodia, to

have built a sustainable economy through this kind of process."

Fourteen years after he was first in Cambodia, one of the most striking changes has

been the resurgence of Khmer culture, said Sanderson.

The culture has proved it was "strong enough to withstand one of the fiercest

onslaughts in history," he said.

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