RCAF deminers are blessed by a monk at the military airport in Phnom Penh on April 15 before leaving for Sudan.
Fourteen years ago, as part of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia
(UNTAC), 50 military observers from each of the five permanent members of the UN
Security Council came to Cambodia - just one small component of the 26,000-strong
UN peacekeeping operation, which at the time was the UN's largest and most expensive
The American, British, Chinese, French, and Russian officers - most of them with
intelligence backgrounds - had a straightforward assignment: poke around, move all
over the country, try and figure out what was going on and report back to UNTAC headquarters
and their respective governments.
One of the jokes at the time was that the primary job of an UNMO (what they were
called in UN-speak) was to watch what other UNMOs were up to. After all, Cambodia
had been a frontline state in an on-going superpower confrontation for almost 20
years and suspicions remained high. Nobody knew if the peace process would unfold
UNTAC and the UNMOs packed up and left in late 1993 without peace having been achieved.
Since then the Khmer Rouge were finally vanquished in 1998 and times have changed.
As an indication of that Cambodia just sent its first military observers overseas
to, of all places, Sudan, in what Prime Minister Hun Sen said on April 12 at a ceremony
marking the officers' departure is part of Cambodia's on-going reintegration into
the international community.
"The government is implementing its foreign policy by integrating Cambodia into
the international community, at the request of the UN, and as evidence that there
is peace inside Cambodia," Hun Sen said.
The RCAF military observers headed to Sudan are joined by a 135-man demining unit
as well that will be based in Malakal, southern Sudan.
The UN regularly asks member states to be an Emergency Troop Contributing Country
(ETCC) and make military personnel available for UN missions abroad, of which there
are 17 at present.
On a 2005 visit to Australia, RCAF Chief of Staff Ke Kim Yan asked the Australian
Defence Force (ADF) for assistance to prepare RCAF officers for postings as UN military
observers. The Aussies responded promptly and sent a team from the ADF Peacekeeping
Center to organize a 17-day course for 29 RCAF officers at the Military Institute
of Cambodia in Russey Keo. Two officers from Laos and Vietnam also attended.
The program, which ran from Feb 21 to Mar 10, was based on UN approved curricula
and included a variety of modules: code of conduct, UN structures, stress management,
negotiations, navigation skills using GPS, radio procedures, how to deal with the
media, and driver training.
There were also simulation exercises: one where RCAF officers are "taken hostage"
and have to negotiate their way to freedom; another where the observers witness belligerents
rough up some farmers and they are required to file a report by radio.
By all accounts, the officers were good students and are expected to perform well
"It's all new. They're like sponges and they are really keen," said Lt
Col Rafael Barbieri, a Uruguayan Training Officer (and an UNTAC veteran) from the
UN's Department of Peacekeeping, who helped direct the program.
The ADF says it will continue to provide support to the RCAF in the future.
"We need to give the Cambodians a road map on how to continue to participate
in UN missions," said Wing Commander Wendy Horder, director of the ADF Peacekeeping
Center. "The road ahead for them is not going to be easy. It's not easy for
anyone. Australia will support the Cambodians whenever we can."