Mehrotra played a part in nearly every key event up to and including the July '98 elections, and says he invariably got what he asked for
THE United Nations Secretary-General's Personal Representative in Cambodia
believes the time is now right to tell his story. It might hereafter be
called "My Role the Peacemaker by Lakhan Mehrotra".
The 64-year-old Indian diplomat makes it quickly plain that he's very
well connected here.
Mehrotra first met then-Prince Sihanouk in 1973: "I will show you
snippets of my intimacy with him," he says, offering pictures of the
two hugging, kissing and sompeah-ing. "The way he meets me, the way
he greets me. You see how it is? He is very kind and gracious to me."
His appointment diary for the last 10 months reads: Sihanouk, 7 meetings;
Queen Monineath, 1; Hun Sen, 11; Chea Sim, 9; Prince Ranariddh, 15; Ung
Huot, 10; diplomatic missions, 24.
He relishes his anecdote about him hosting the first meeting - a dinner
- between Sihanouk and Hun Sen in Pyongyang in 1991: the breakthrough, it's
intimated, to the Paris Peace Accords.
Over a 90-minute interview Mehrotra says once that he shouldn't dwell
on his own role in seemingly every key event in the past year. But it's
difficult for him not to. He appears to have had a part in most everything.
Mehrotra asked Hun Sen for written guarantees for the safety of returning
politicians, and got them. Mehrotra helped talk Ranariddh and others back
from exile. Mehrotra wrote the 19 principles of free and fair elections
one night last November and next morning got Chea Sim to accept them. Mehrotra
helped rework various electoral laws and even suggested the format of the
National Election Committee (NEC).
Mehrotra's inside view of Cam-bodia's tumultuous year from last July
to this is a rosy one.It's Mehrotra's one...
LAKHAN Mehrotra arrived here in his new job June 15, 1997. Within a week
he had met Hun Sen and Ranariddh "and it was evident that the spirit
of reconciliation... that marked their earlier cooperation... was somehow
getting ruptured. They didn't see eye-to-eye on matters of grave national
Mehrotra says it was because both leaders knew him for years that they
shared their thoughts with him. He knew then that the UN had a sensitive
role. "That was probably the reason why the Secretary-General called
upon me to take over this assignment, because of my knowledge and understanding...
and my relationships with the Royal family and the Second Prime Minister."
But Mehrotra says no-one could have expected the situation to explode
as it did. He was in Bangkok when fighting broke out July 5. His was the
first Thai flight refused permission to land at Potchentong and he had to
return a few days later on a special flight from Vietnam.
He still enjoyed a "most gracious" relationship with Sihanouk;
a "brotherly and friendly spirit[ed]" one with Ranariddh; and
a "more than generous" one with Hun Sen where he was "encouraged
to exchange views" and never made to feel as if he was intruding.
"The UN was extremely eager to preserve the legacy of the Paris
Agreements... Suddenly we saw this traumatic experience in July 1997 which
seemed to jolt the Paris process."
The "traumatic experience" - the coup - where hundreds were
killed and an elected government splintered by force is a point of departure
among many people: either Hun Sen was right, or that he was wrong. Mehrotra's
view? "[Kofi Annan] decided that if the UN was to continue to... bring
about national unity and reconciliation and carry the democratic process
forward in Cambodia, then it should refrain from passing a judgment on the
The UN quickly adjusted its mantra to that of "political reconciliation"
and stripped from Cambodia its UN seat.
Mehrotra met Sihanouk Sept 4 to discuss ways of repatriating the exiled
politicians. "The King was very hesitant. He felt though he favored
the return of these leaders they would feel very insecure in the new environment
in Cambodia and that they were not ready to come.
"So I met Hun Sen. He assured me that he would bear full responsibility
of their safety... When I queried him whether he would give these guarantees
in writing, he said 'Yes'." He calls Hun Sen's October 22 guarantees
a "turning point". The UN, for the first time, would monitor the
safety of returning politicians to campaign.
Mehrotra doesn't see an argument that for Hun Sen to guarantee opposition
politicians' safety, it follows he therefore had the power to guarantee
their harm. Or, that Hun Sen was indeed guaranteeing their safety - from
himself, the man from whom they had fled in the first place. "No,"
Mehrotra says. "[Hun Sen] was simply facilitating their return... It
shows he had enough confidence in his own... security mechanisms to establish
a national task force for that function, in close liaison with us [the UN].
The mechanism worked splendidly well."
The second-tier of exiled leaders began returning. The international
community became more involved with the electoral process, ASEAN became
active and the Friends of Cambodia group was born. All based of Hun Sen's
guarantees, he believes.
The UN's next step, he says, was to help suggest laws: the Electoral
Law; laws on political parties; and those establishing the constitutional
bodies. "Hun Sen accepted all of this," Mehrotra says. "'It's
fine with me', [he says Hun Sen told him], just start bringing the leaders
"One fine morning I received from the Second Prime Minister a special
envoy with the draft Electoral Law, asking me what changes I would suggest...
I treated it as a great honor and did a little work and handed over a set
of recommendations and to my great amazement these recommendations ... were
all woven into the law.
"I remember with satisfaction that the composition of the NEC was
approved by the National Assembly as it was recommended by me personally...
by us, I would say by us, I don't want to emphasize too much my personal
"They were thinking of having an NEC of 36 to 40 members. We discouraged
that idea. I was asked what would be a reasonable number so I said 10, 11,
12. They put that into the law." Mehrotra's idea was that without party
influence, the NEC could better operate impartially.
The NEC was however criticized as being partisan toward the CPP anyway,
and it was tainted by a bribery scandal. Mehrotra says the realities of
Cambodia have to be taken into account. "Given these realities, the
requirements [of the NEC] were met".
He says the Constitutional Council has been set up to examine complaints
and that judgement should not be made of it before it has a chance to perform.
Mehrotra says that he and Japanese had to broker a cease-fire between
Ranariddh's forces and Phnom Penh's before the Prince could return.
"One day I suggested that Ranariddh declare a unilateral cease-fire.
I already had Hun Sen's commitment not to shoot if that [agreement] could
be arranged, therefore the cease-fire could become effective... Under the
Japanese formula the bricks for peace were laid.
" It was with a sense of anticipation and some trepidity that we
welcomed [Ranariddh] back... I had to personally exercise a great deal of
persuasion in my meetings in Bangkok with His Royal Highness Prince Ranariddh
and other leaders including Mr. Sam Rainsy and Mr. Son Soubert [to get them
For Mehrotra, the July 26 election was a "magnificent achievement
for Cambodia... it opened up fresh vistas on Cambodia's horizons for peace
and prosperity, something this nation has been aspiring from the dephs of
its being... [It was] was Cambodia's encounter with destiny.
But what of the criticisms: the elections being put together too hastily,
leading to inequalities in campaigning and media access, through to today's
problems in the appeal processes? Mehrotra argues that in May 1997 both
Ranariddh and Hun Sen said that the election should be held in May 1998.
"In fact, the election was held in July 1998... so it was longer [in
the making], rather than faster."
But, he's reminded, wasn't that because there was a coup in between?
"There are always ups and downs. If the process suffered a setback
till January  after the July events, it moved pretty fast [afterwards]...
The speed was necessary," he says. "The floods would have been
worse and the Assembly's mandate ran out in September.
"I could compare it to 1993. Did the parties have more time [to
campaign] then? Did the parties have more problems with security then? Did
the parties have more freedom to campaign then? The elections... were held
[this year] under relatively better conditions."
Cambodia must be given credit where it's due. "In a short span of
time the NEC did what UNTAC did [in 1993]."
What about intimidation of opposition activists? "The fundamental
question is whether voters were able to exercise their choice. We had more
than 500 observers to view and assess that... We can't do better than to
note" that the international observers judged the elections "free
and fair enough to reflect the will of the people".
"I'm not saying there are no problems... The leaders have yet to
get together [but] the King has expressed his readiness for all three leaders
to be with him in Siem Reap. This is another step forward.
"[The UN] is ready to assist... in raising this new edifice of peace
Asked whether the UN Center for Human Rights, a body much criticized
by the CPP, will remain to 2000, he says: "Why not ask them?... Ultimately,
the defense of rights and privileges rests entirely with the [Cambodian]
people. They are the masters of their destiny. The Center has a very important
program of educating the masses in human rights, that is the most important
component of their program."
Mehrotra was charged with reporting on the UN's "five-point memo"
on Cambodia to Kofi Annan. The points called for observers to have unrestricted
movement; for politicians to be allowed full participation; that there should
be no intimidation; equal media access; and that the Constitutional Council
Critics claim that Mehrotra and other diplomats have glossed over such
problems in the belief that a CPP loss would have prompted renewed instability.
"Actually, the UN set up that [assessment] exercise," Mehrotra
says. "I used to convene meetings regularly to report [to Annan] about
the consensus on all these points... It was my privilege to have had that
responsibility... I think that part is over now, well over."
Will Hun Sen get his UN seat? "I think the elections this year will
facilitate that." Will the US allow it? "The situation is constantly
developing. We'd like it to reach a successful conclusion. That is all I
can say about that."
And just how can that be done, now that Ranariddh, Hun Sen and Rainsy
are verbally at each others' throats? "The UN looks to the prospect
of a meeting under the aegis of His Majesty with great anticipation... Our
objective is for Cambodia to have good governance, civil society and a respect
of human rights...
"I have confidence in the statesmanship and wisdom in [Cam-bodia's]
leadership to endorse and cement the role His Majesty has played... and
must play now.
"If the constitution demands a coalition, and people voted in such
a way that demands a coalition be formed, they must come together as best
they can," believes Lakhan Mehrotra.\