For many foreigners life in Cambodia without the United Nations Transition Authority
in Cambodia (UNTAC) is hard to imagine if only because they haven't known it any
other way here. Such an all-encompassing presence, so much equipment, money, and
personnel-clearly UNTAC's departure will create at least a temporary vacuum and disruption
in Cambodia. But many members of the non-governmental organization (NGO) community,
when asked about the impact of UNTAC on their work in Cambodia, had little direct
comment except to say, "It's time to for it to go."
"UNTAC hardly affected the NGOs directly, in terms of the work they do,"
said Eva Mysliwiec of the Cambodian Development Resource Institute. Mysliwiec, who
has been working in Cambodia since 1980, knows all too well what life was like here
long before UNTAC was even a concept.
"UNTAC certainly did a lot of good work with the election, and things like security
and human rights education, and their presence helped stabilize the economic situation,"
she said. "But now there are technical questions to deal with, and it's time
for the bi- and multi-lateral institutions to come in. What Cambodians need now is
to coordinate foreign aid and this is not something that UNTAC can do."
In conversations with the heads of several NGOs, opinions varied widely and it's
clear that there is no unanimous NGO outlook. But when asked their views about UNTAC
and what they foresaw after its departure, there were some common themes.
Asked if UNTAC helped or hindered her program's work in training-agricultural extension
workers, Australian Catholic Relief representative Onesta Carpene could only say,
"It didn't really affect us directly. But UNTAC did allow for the hope for peace
and a solution for this country, stopping the vicious circle - and that's important."
Carpene also said that UNTAC provided much-needed security in the provinces, a comment
echoed by the other NGOs with field staff-who were grateful for UNTAC support.
While acknowledging that UNTAC accomplished some of its major objectives, citing
the electoral and human rights components in particular, Jim Noonan of Maryknoll
expressed some disappointment in the overall UNTAC effort. "There were many
missed opportunities," said Noonan. "This could have been a real learning
experience for the United Nations in terms of future peace keeping operations - much
could have been learned here but I'm not sure that it has been.
"The biggest mistake is a lack of planning - the Cambodians weren't involved
in planning for what Cambodia needed. Other than at the highest levels of the four
factions Cambodian input was almost non-existent," said Noonan. He ticked off
a list of groups UNTAC should have consulted with: the other, smaller political parties,
the women's organizations, the human rights groups, the indigenous NGOs that sprang
up after UNTAC's arrival - an entire network of politically and socially active Cambodians
that was excluded from participation in the entire operation.
Even after the election, Noonan said, there was an apparent lack of planning for
how UNTAC would relate to elected officials. But he acknowledged that UNTAC "was
the only show in town to get Cambodia moving on with its business." He said
UNTAC should be commended for holding a successful election, but "UNTAC should
also credit the Cambodian people, since it asked them to register and to vote and
they did so despite the risks."
When asked about his view of Cambodia's future, Noonan described himself as "cautiously
optimistic....It will take time, but Cambodia could be a case study of how to turn
a country around in a few years, if - and it's a big if - there is cooperation among
the NGOs, the bi- and multi-lateral agencies, and the government."
Eva Mysliwiec of CDRI criticized what she saw as a total lack of responsiveness on
the part of UNTAC. "There were lots of missed opportunities, chances to work
with Cambodians, to see that things were handed off to them as UNTAC prepares to
leave. The recent Donors' Review meeting was a perfect opportunity," Mysliwiec
said. "UNTAC said they 'involved Cambodians in all the preparations,' but they
just took data from the Cambodians and then UNTAC prepared all the materials. The
Cambodians didn't even know the meeting was going to take place until three days
Sarah Newhall of PACT (Private Agencies Collaborating Together) described herself
as "genuinely optimistic." Reflecting on the changed political landscape,
she said, "UNTAC was really a catalyst that shook up the status quo. It released
all this pent-up energy and hope of the Cambodian people. I see it in our Khmer staff,
in talking to people on the street, in the Khmer groups we work with. They are more
thoughtful, more articulate, more outspoken. UNTAC gave the people hope, and hope
is the key."
In addition to providing hope, she too praised UNTAC's human rights education efforts.
"The four indigenous human rights groups that were doing training all over the
country, they had strong back-up from UNTAC, and resources, but most of all the security
of having UNTAC behind them. That should not be underestimated."
Newhall listed some important trends beyond successful elections that she thought
bode well for Cambodia's future: for one, the resurgence of the Buddhist community,
which has become socially active again. "They are the conscience of the nation,
and the ones speaking to the common interest," Newhall said. She also pointed
to the burgeoning women's movement and peace movements. "Don't underestimate
the power of the Dhamma Yietra [the pre-election peace march led by Maha Gosonanda]
- the more the CPP [Cambodian People's Party] told people to stay away from it the
more they came out in support," she said. The final factor is the youth, who
she described as having "a burning desire for freedom, for education, training,
Tim Williams of CARE was less sanguine. "This country is so deconstructed I
don't think we realize it. There's a psychological element to reconstruction here:
people can't work together in groups, they can't pull together. Dispute resolution
for the last 20 years in Cambodia has been conducted by force; now they're supposed
to sit down and talk things out?"
He also chided UNTAC as being "non-participatory," but said it did yield
a major benefit, aside from the elections, by providing a "security shield"
so that people felt safe enough to come out.
Like others Williams saw the lack of trained Cambodians as a major hindrance to reconstruction.
"Cambodians need to define their own future, but there's a lack of trained people.
I have more degrees in my office than there are in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,"
Williams said. But he saw a positive side to the situation. "The demise of the
Cold War shifted the map - Cambodia isn't important to anyone anymore. So the political
will of Cambodians from all sides to succeed is greater now because everyone realizes
that this is the last chance, or Cambodia may not exist in five years."