With UNTAC military quickly winding up its operations, Force Commander Lt. Gen
John Sander-son looked back on the achievements of the multi-nation army, the future
of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge threat in an interview with the Phnom Penh Post's
John C. Brown on Sept. 10.
Can you speak about the future of the Cambodian Armed Forces with respect to the
problem of the Khmer Rouge?
Let's not talk about the Khmer Rouge to start with, lets talk about the future of
Cambodia. Cambodia will need a security force for the future, the size of that is
still to be determined but from an UNTAC perspective, and from a Cambodian national
perspective, it is desirable that that force be apolitical, professional, neutral
in character, that is untied by alliances to any other forces in the region, and
capable of contributing to national unity. Either through its presence in support
of the government, or though its ability to conduct civic action in the country-side.
Immediately after the election through the mixed military working group, we initiated
a meeting of the Chiefs of Staffs to form a Cambodian Unified Armed Force and a communique
was issued. By and large those people who contributed to that communique, and endorsed
it, have stuck by their word. One of the reasons for doing it was also to put the
Cambodian government in a stronger position to negotiate with whoever might confront
the newly formed Cambodian state. In other words the Cambodian government had to
have some kind of force in order to show its intention to exercise its sovereignty.
Can you contrast the two offensives, the one in March and the one more recently.
Of course, what you had was four seperate factions, under the Paris Agreements. And
any previous alliances that existed were in fact alliances between three resistance
factions, which were ANKI and KP operating in an alliance with the DK. The NADK would
not participate in the election and did not move to participate the Cambodian Armed
Forces in the post-election environment, even though the opportunity to do so was
offered to them. There were discussions initiated by Khieu Samphan who said that
they wanted to be part of the Cambodian Armed Forces. But he spoke of a quadri-partite
in other words four separate armed forces, each operating in their four areas. They
now say that is not what they really had in mind, but that is what they said, and
the fact of the matter was, the events had already passed them. Strategically they
were always several steps behind the game, it was ridiculous to talk about a quadri-partite
armed force when the other three factions had already joined into a single armed
force. Logically they missed the point entirely.
To what degree would you say that the CNAF is today an integrated armed force?
Or is it still the case that, for the most part, the armies occupy areas that they
themselves had controlled, and the integration...
The integration process on the ground is not completed, but it is well under-way,
indeed they have conducted operations together and some of those armed forces have
conducted operations in areas where they have never operated before.
People to whom I have spoken have noted that there were two important features
to the August offensive. On the one hand the KP and the ANKI fought on the same side,
rather than sitting on the fence as they might have done previously. And on the other
hand, the Cambodian National Armed Forces has been able to keep what they occupied
rather than return it to the DK. But others are puzzled about the modes of combat.
First, an artillery barrage, then occupation of the terrain, a return barrage, withdrawal
and then re-occupation by the former defenders, but that didn't happen this time,
is that significant?
It hasn't happened in areas that are obvious to you, but it has happened in other
areas. These aren't mass armies with long, powerful lines of communication and logistics
support. People get out at the ends... They are able to concentrate forces and take
a village, but to keep them there for a prolonged period of time is a very demanding
logistics activity. A large number of them, after some of them were evacuated, they
have suffered significant malaria. This has always been a characteristic of combat
in Cambodia, if you keep people in some of these dreadful locations it is hugely
demanding, in fact I have had difficulty with UNTAC troops in certain places because
of this, this logistic and medical dimension.
Why are there such low casualties? The fighting seems to be largely artillery
duels but that has been going on...
This has been going on for the last four years, five years.
That prompts the question, how is this offensive different than any of the others?
This one is quite different in certain respects, as you pointed out, these factions
worked together, and in some cases it wasn't just support, but they actually operated
in a very integrated way.
This cohesiveness that you saw in this attack, do you think that it can be sustained?
The people who are worried about the KR as a problem, as a military problem, argue
that the successes that the army has had is against more peripheral units, and when
you approach the more hard-core KR-controlled areas, successes might be more difficult
That is, if there are any KR when you get there.
How significant have the defections been?
How many do you estimate?
I think between 1000, and 1500. That is the ones who have actually come in. It is
quite possible, probable, that others have just gone home.
Do you think that they are free to do that?
You always have DK coming and going. What is increasingly clear is the DK in the
field are aware of the[politial situation].
Is it clear that they have access to radios. I have been told that some of them,
when they come out of the jungle have no idea of the political situation in the rest
Some of them say that they listen to radio on UNTAC all the time.
Why was the offensive not considered a cease-fire issue?
Of course it was a cease-fire issue. You should be aware that during our time here
that the Cambodian factions have the right to self defense, now there are two dimensions
to this. Since the election, the Khmer Rouge have taken Preah Vihear temple, they
have taken CT1, they have blown up bridges along the rail-way line and roads in Cambodia,
they have infiltrated some villages and indeed they pose a rather significant threat
to the Siem Riep province and temples. You should also know that at the time of the
signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, the areas of the north west were KP and ANKI
areas. Phum Chat is a KP area.
I didn't catch the significance of that, Phum Chat?
What I am saying to you is that: the DK have attempted to take over the KP[NLF] and
ANKI areas since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement. FUNCINPEC and KP[NLF]
were clearly allowing that up until the completion of the election. Where they were
clear with the DK was that they were not going to let the DK stop the elections in
their zones, the election would go on. This was a pre-election confrontation, between
KP, FUNCINPEC and the DK., where they said, 'we are going to run in the elections,
you are not going to stop them.' Post-election, we confronted the problem that this
group who intended to stop the elections in those areas, was still in their zones
and was conducting activities that were against their interests, and against the
Cambodian people. My position on this was that the provisional government not only
had a right to self defense, but had an obligation to the reconstruction of Cambodia
and to the Cambodian people. Indeed if they did not exercise that right and that
obligation, how could they call themselves the provisional government of Cambodia.
Once the constitution is completed, the government of Cambodia has the right to continue
to exercise that right to self-defense
The Far East Economic Review stated that two governments, un-named, supplied the
government of Cambodia with weapons and ammunition, do you know anything about this?
There is a lot of that going on.
Does the Cambodian army have, has it had, problems with ammunition?
Yes, I think that there are shortages of various natures of ammunition. They have
problems with their logistics, they are limited by their logistic capability.
It appears from your list of things that the Cambodian Armed Forces "should
be" for the Cambodian nation, that you have focused on more political than strictly
Over and above the constitution, I see the unification of the Cambodian Armed Forces
as the single most important element of the unification of Cambodia.
What kind of military force are they with respect to the Khmer Rouge?
One of the problems that we are working on is the future force structure. I think
that requires a real process of structural reform. If the threat dissipates in terms
of the nature of the Khmer Rouge, we will have a structure of the force which will
take that into account. We would need a larger force than they would need if it wasn't.
But if the Khmer Rouge cease to be a threat, a smaller force, a force which is designed
to secure the sovereignty of Cambodia, but they have got to go through this process,
a lot depends upon it. The way in which the Khmer Rouge respond to the new emerging
political realities if it is done rationally, then they will come in, if they don't,
and if they continue to be sponsored by outside forces, then those outside forces
are going to have to be dealt with by the United Nations, because it is a guarantor
of the neutrality and sovereignty of the Cambodian nation. And indeed Cambodia is
going to. So from what we have seen once the constitution is agreed upon, and the
government formed, then all the political and moral authority in Cambodia, accrues
to that one government. There can only be one government. No seperate autonomous
zones, and in fact the government of Cambodia cannot tolerate [that].
Do you have any lessons that you have drawn from this operation that might be
appropriate to the next operation?
Each operation is unique. There is no question about that. There is a different set
of dynamics at play. This was a peace-keeping operation. It was designed as such
and we maintained it as such, all right through. And that was absolutely essential
to guarantee that the election would take place. In other words if we had moved to
peace enforcement, then we wouldn't have had an election. So what I am trying to
say essentially, if you want to run a peace-keeping operation you have to have an
agreement before you send the troops. And once you have got that agreement you have
to everything possible to hold the parties to that agreement.
Isn't this the point at which you run up against the problem of the line between
being a broker for a peace-agreement and enforcing it?
Yes, Yes. There were a lot of suggestions that we should have enforced the relationship.
What I am saying to you is if we had done so, we would have lost the whole plot,
we would have lost the peace-keeping ethos, the threat that would have emerged from
that would have been a threat to all elements of UNTAC, not just the military component.
The civic components therefore would not have been able to [do their job]. We would
not have had an election.
But you faced extraordinary challenges and provocations, provocations not only
from within Cambodia, but also from the press. One thing that Akashi said was that
many people who are criticizing the mission, do not understand the principles of
Those words could have come straight out of my mouth.
How do you articulate it?
It is self-defense. I wrote the rules of engagement in New York in Jan. 1992 and
they are basically the same ones that we have applied all the way through. Naturally,
some people in UNTAC applied them in different ways... We had contingents here that
didn't even want to defend themselves. They eventually got the message that they
had to, that the whole integrity of the operation depended on it. So it wasn't turn
the other cheek, but it was a studied determination not to become another faction
in the conflict in Cambodia.
Believe me, to my way of thinking, you will see what I am talking about. As each
day goes by it gets worse. That is what people were suggesting to me. I've had people
who came to me and said: "Couldn't you have gone out and made them come into
the cantonments." I said, "What do you mean by that?" You mean I should
go out and say, all right give us your guns or I will shoot you? How do you think
they would have responded to that?"
How would the population have responded to that?
More to the point, how do you think that the contributing countries have responded
to that? Most of them, all of them had sent their troops on a peace-keeping mission.
The balance between maintaining your neutrality, maintaining your peace-keeping ethos,
maintaining the unity of a 34 nation force is an enormously complex thing. I haven't
placed emphasis on my command function, my primary function was to maintain the unity
of that force. Yet becasue the key to our position here was that we were to be seen
to represent the entire international community and we were seen to be determined
to stay together and fulfill the mandate that had been given to us by the international
community. You may recall, on occasions there were many attempts made to pull us
apart, good UNTAC, bad UNTAC, now we would allow people from this area to-but not
from that area. That sort of thing. We never accepted anything like that. [People
said] Let's go get the DK. But this would have immediately split the force wide open.
Idiocy. Idiocy on a grand scale. It shows that there are people in many areas of
responsibility who don't understand peace-keeping operations and the nature of the
I was in the other camp for many months. It is difficult to think this way about
the use of military force.
You Americans have real problems with this. It is almost impossible for Americans
to be peace-keepers.