'UNTAC's high profile - warts and all - probably ended forever the mystique with
which expatriates were previously held'.
Until recently, the expatriate community took UNTAC's security umbrella for granted.
Now, with the UN operation virtually at an end, a new potentially alarming situation
needs to be faced.
What is behind the violence, why has it spread from the general population to those
meant to help them and what is being, or can be, done?
The first underlying cause can be described as psycho-social. For most outsiders,
the principal spill-over of the Khmer Rouge period was the swathe cut through the
intellectual life of the country. While true, this ignores a deeper, sadder reality.
All Khmers over the age of 20 years have experienced a bewildering series of psychically-damaging
events. Periods of years in which the very fabric of traditional society has been
For example, they have lived through an attempt -- which very nearly succeeded --
to overturn marital bonds and family structures with their close knit ties; to expunge
the central role of regular Buddhist practices; and to eradicate all traditional
art forms and music of an individual character.
Apart from 13 years of intermittent and internecine civil war, this large heterogeneous
age group has moved, within less than a generation, from paternal feudalism to communism,
with the "experiment" of the Pol Pot era as an interlude, and then unbridled
capitalism. The net result has been the development of a special type of day-to-day
survival mechanism within an attitudinal climate of suspicion.
At the purely psychological level, one may well surmise that all those who lived
through the Khmer Rouge period and its aftermath, and especially the large number
of orphans that were a product thereof, have been traumatized to some degree or another.
This goes a long way to explain examples of paranoid and anti-social behavior, primitive
reactions to problem-solving, the violence with which personal grievances are settled,
the callous indifference towards the disabled and handicapped, sudden bouts of depression,
and the onset of an unusual degree of alcoholism among young males.
For a significant period, economic activity and the state became synonymous. Big
Brother not only watched and controlled, but "provided", after a fashion.
Then came the state's unilateral decision to shift towards an economy driven by market
Liberalization of the state apparatus that began in 1986 became a flood after May
1989 and the period thereafter. Cambodians, having lived through the abolition of
local markets to largely controlled-price markets, unexpectedly found they were free
to buy and sell at will.
Given their background, those suddenly allowed a taste of economic freedom naturally
soon wanted a banquet. With the economy rapidly becoming unshackled and unregulated,
every day living not only meant widened opportunities but, also, the scramble of
Rapid economic changes, without preparation and adequate checks and balances, brought
new pressures to bear on the social fabric. Pressures affecting the cost of living
included the end of required employment, the unpopular ending of subsidies and an
Bare figures convey little human feeling, but their degree of escalation can suggest
its severity. From relative stability with an average inflation rate of 10 percent
per annum up to 1988, approximate annual price increase shot up to three digits -
143 percent in 1990, 200 percent in 1991, 73 percent in 1992 and then up again to
279 percent in May 1993, compared to the year before.
Inflation does not only mean a sustained increase in the price level, it also results
in severe loss of purchasing power. Thus, 1,000 riels in 1989 had a buying potential
of only 79 in 1992.
Cambodians were beset on all sides by a get-rich-quick mentality. Corruption for
those in positions of responsibility became endemic while smuggling and profiteering
The false economy created by UNTAC's arrival affected people's behavior. All the
previous negative features were multiplied while new ones mushroomed, like widespread
watching of violent videos.
The climate of economic uncertainty fed back on the pre-existing psycho-social malaise
with predictable effects. Effects that remained hidden from the vast majority of
expatriates while the going was good.
Overall, UNTAC's high profile - warts and all - probably ended forever the mystique
with which expatriates were previously held.
The recent stagnation of the economy, and the growing realization that UNTAC's withdrawal
will leave nothing to fall back on economically, has also had a negative effect.
All these anti-social tendencies have come to the fore, directed not only towards
Khmers themselves but also the foreign community's property.
This is the picture facing the expatriate community post-UNTAC. It poses a major
question: what can be done, if anything? The first avenue calls for a number of things
at the institutional and practical level.
To reduce security risks, particularly at night , financial assistance for the purchase
of home generators needs to be provided. All personnel need to be provided with a
two-way radio or telephone and a central number that can be called at any time. They
also need to know the location of their nearest police station. Bus pools should
be organized for all thus limiting personal unaccompanied car use to and from the
office to the essential minimum. To preserve freedom after hours, organizations should
supplement this facility by providing a couple of their Khmer-chauffeured office
cars, painted not in "give-away white", to serve as a type of taxi service
For those working in the provinces, an additional requirement would be to minimize
health risks and subsequent dependence on a dilapidated and insufficient medical
Such risks devolve from the ever-present risk of mine accidents and Cambodia's range
of tropical diseases. In both cases, there are two essentials: provision of adequate
medical supplies including trauma kits, and proven arrangements for medical evacuation.
Unless these aspects are given due priority, and high-lighted by the media, the UN
will continue to find it hard to find experts willing to work in risk-reputed areas
outside Phnom Penh.
All newcomers - and old, for that matter - should be comprehensively briefed on Cambodia,
its people, and its cultural mores. A recognized human failing on the part of many
UNTAC personnel was their general ignorance of the country and the sensitivities
of its population.
Other suggestions include: practical assistance to the local police and emerging
legal structures; the deliberate employment, by foreign agencies, of local and expat-Khmers
in senior positions; active assistance to all indigenous Khmer NGO's dealing with
human rights; and, finally, funding of Buddhist renovation projects to increase civic
Aid agencies could threaten to hold the authorities responsible for further unresolved
acts of robbery and violence. Where there is tangible proof of organized theft, aid
could either be suspended or selected projects put "on hold". Inventories
of stolen property could be presented to the government and then subtracted from
proposed assistance until remedied.
By taking action, it will at least show the limits of the foreign community's tolerance
of the unacceptable.
In retrospect, one of UNTAC's main failings was in the area of pre-planning and recognition
of prevailing conditions and in not ensuring that there was general understanding
among Cambodians of the ramifications of its mandate. Post-UNTAC, the UN and the
foreign community need to make sure there is no repeat of such history.