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Full of hope with UNTAC

16 US Solider

At the invitation from Professor William Maley, Director, Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy of Australian Nation University, College of Asia and the Pacific, I went to both Melbourne and Canberra last week for the UNTAC 20th anniversary of elections in Cambodia, and in preparation for this meeting, I fell upon some old photographs, one of which I include here.

Looking at this photo, you see that I was a brash young Cambodian-American with half-military, half-civilian personalities.

Based on my posture and the way I wore my flak vest, you would think that I was cool and comfortable in my surroundings. I even cracked a grin for the camera.

But appearances can be deceiving.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Youk Chhang in Kampong Speu province in 1993. Photo by Brigitte

I was assigned to Phnom Srouch district in Kampong Speu province as UNTAC international staff in support of the election (1992-1993). During the UNTAC election, there were 101 polling stations and my area covered a population of approximately 250,000 voters.

Half of Kampong Speu province was still under the control of the Khmer Rouge at that time, and as a Cambodian with native fluency in Khmer, I was a threat to the Khmer Rouge, who were seeking to block the election.

I could communicate to the voters and listen to the Khmer Rouge radio communications on my walkie-talkie.

I was comfortable and adept with navigating the local culture, and the ordinary people knew me as one of them. (my code was Echo15 throat fish).

But Phnom Srouch district was a tough place in 1993 – the district at that time was totally within Khmer Rouge territory, and the area was saturated with land mines. It was truly a scary place to be.

I had many threats against my life.

The Khmer Rouge planted a landmine, just before my arrival, outside the bathroom to the pre-fabricated building that was my work area. To my sadness, one of my team-mates triggered the mine and lost his leg.

My car broke down one day in the jungle and I didn’t know how to fix it. In truth, it was my fault.

I did not understand I had to change the oil in my vehicle back then. I just drove the car endlessly until one day the engine just blew up.

With smoke pouring out of the engine, I radioed the UN for assistance. Assistance came, but not until the next morning.

My car broke down just shortly after a Khmer Rouge patrol had passed. If it had broken down just a bit earlier, I would have been captured and killed.

The UN security forces had pity on many of us and I received the flak vest shown in the photo. It was old issue from the Bulgarian Army.

It was so hot in those days that I couldn’t bear to wear it properly. It’s a wonder as to whether it really would have saved me anyway, but it looked cool and so I wore it for the appearance.  

In my area, under UN control, the Bulgarian Army provided security while the Australian Army managed the military communication networks (call sign: FCU Kampong Speu, SPOE Emergency).

I look back on how crazy, adventurous and dangerous those days were, and how crucial our efforts were to the future of Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge were real menaces back then. They terrorized the population and murdered people in cold blood.

But look at where we are today. Over time, nearly all of them defected and now their leaders are being tried for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

It was a long, difficult struggle, and I was young, brash and crazy back then; but sometimes the world needs a little bit of youthful craziness.

Youk Chhang is the Director of The Documentation Center of Cambodia.

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