Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hooray for the middle class

Hooray for the middle class

Hooray for the middle class


… because the ECCC is 'way too late'

Benny Widyono is angry. How angry? Mad enough to

have just spent three years on a book about his experiences in Cambodia while

working for the United Nations. A UN economist for most of his career, the

affable Widyono spent five years with the UN in Cambodia in a political role

from 1992 to 1997 – first with the United Nations Transitional Authority in

Cambodia (UNTAC) as “shadow governor” in Siem Reap, where he and his wife

lived for several months in the only quarters available in the crumbling

Grand Hotel. Then, in the aftermath of the elections which resulted in two

prime ministers, Widyono was in Phnom Penh as the UN Secretary General’s

Representative to Cambodia, a position that no longer exists. Now retired

from the UN and teaching economics at the University of Connecticut in

Stamford, Widyono was in Phnom Penh recently on a lecture tour with his new

book Dancing in Shadows – Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and The United

Nations in Cambodia. He wrote the book while a visiting scholar at Cornell

University’s Kahin Center for Southeast Asian studies, helping finance his

research one year by living with the students as their dormitory advisor. “I

sort of kept an eye on them,” he says. The Post’s Susan

Postlewaite caught up with him following his lecture on March 14 in a

packed hall at University of Cambodia.

Former UNTAC official Benny Widyono poses with students at Cornell University, New York. Widyono was recently in Cambodia promoting his new book Dacing in Shadows-Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and The United Nations in Cambodia.

You say your

book is an angry book, why?

It is an angry

book because UNTAC had 20,000 people based here. I was in New York and I was angry because I saw what

happened in the General Assembly in September-October 1979. Sihanouk (then

Prince Sihanouk) went there on behalf of the Khmer Rouge and he complained

about the Vietnamese invasion. The Soviet Union

would have vetoed any resolution condemning the Vietnamese invasion. So instead

of the Security Council, they (Sihanouk) went to the General Assembly to an obscure

committee called the Credentials Committee, where the US said we must recognize the Khmer Rouge as the

government of Cambodia.

The US, with China, said,

“Let us give the UN seat to the Khmer Rouge.” So there it was, this proposal

from the Credentials Committee goes to the General Assembly saying we want to

seat the Khmer Rouge. It was like seating Hitler because you don’t like Eastern Germany. This was the situation throughout the

‘80s. Because of it the government of Phnom

Penh was not recognized and therefore aid was denied.

The Cambodian people had just suffered two million people killed, and then they

suffered another 11 years without aid. The Khmer Rouge flag continued to fly

over Manhattan.

If I were a Cambodian, how could I not be angry, seeing that flag, full of

blood, the red flag. That’s the second point that makes me angry. The third

point is in order to solve this stalemate, because we had two governments, the

Khmer Rouge and the SOC (State of Cambodia), they created the Paris Agreements.

The Paris Agreements were born with a flaw: recognizing the Khmer Rouge as a

legitimate party within Cambodia.


During the UNTAC

period did you ever think Hun Sen would still, decades later, be Cambodia’s head

of state?

The answer is

two parts. During UNTAC he was already standing out so we were saying this is

the man who is a challenge to [King] Sihanouk. To me there are only two people

that have ruled Cambodia:

Sihanouk and now it is Hun Sen. During UNTAC, 1992-93, we already envisioned

him because Hun Sen had the government already for 11 years. The UN had its

head in the sand like an ostrich, but it doesn’t mean that he did not exist. We

could not ignore them because since 1979 they had been in power; they had

140,000 civil servants. In the second period – when I was head of diplomatic

corps – most of the ambassadors already saw him as the man of vision. There

were these two prime ministers. It was very clear that Hun Sen delivered. Hun

Sen was the Communist and so on but you would find that Hun Sen got things

done. Ranariddh was a joke. He promised the moon.


Does anything

stand out about him from that period when there were two prime ministers?

He listens. As an ambassador I had to

give my credentials first to the king, then to the prime ministers. Hun Sen was

the second prime minister. So they were both there but he was quiet, and sat

slumped in his chair. When I asked if I could get something done, Ranariddh

goes into a monologue, blah blah blah, and

he finally gives Hun Sen a chance to speak, saying “My number two, do you want

to speak?” He listened and he answered. If he doesn’t like you, of course, like

this human rights series of things, he listens and ignores you.


What impresses

you about Cambodia


Gross national

product has gone up tremendously and so the country is going forward. As an

economist, we also have to look at poverty. Poverty is of course still there.

But two weeks ago I gave a talk at Pannasastra

the high school, and I had to go up seven floors and coming down are all these

high school kids, laughing and so on. This is the new middle class. They have

to pay to go there and this did not exist when UNTAC came. This is what

impressed me most, seeing these middle class children coming down.


What do you

think about the ECCC?

It’s a little

too late. Twenty-seven years. In the ‘80s nobody had any inclination to try the

Khmer Rouge because they seated the Khmer Rouge at the UN. Did anyone ask the

Cambodian people which to seat? The only person they asked was the ambassador

of Cambodia,

Thiounn Prasidh, drinking his Black Label. ECCC is way too late.


Why won’t the US fund the


After Cambodia I was advisor to the

Cambodian government in NY and I was in the room when the resolution was

adopted. The US

was very much in favor of the trial. The ones who weren’t were the European

countries after Hans Correll circulated a paper among the Europeans opposing

the trial because he thinks it’s better to have no trial than a trial that was

flawed, so the Europeans were listening to him. The US

was in favor of the trial but the US

wanted the trial paid from extra budgetary resources because the US doesn’t want the regular budget to be

burdened with the Cambodia

trial. That’s why they are not paying.


Do you think a

“special advisor” will change anything?

I personally

feel the trial would be better off. There has to be a boss there. The UN senior

person is Michelle Lee, who is chief of administration. She is not the boss.

The Cambodians insist it be a Cambodian trial. Administration is important but

it is not the political boss. The trial has no boss.


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