A six month old dispute over the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia
(UNTAC) military staff's pay has led to bitter exchanges, hate mail, and even death
threats, not to mention endless amounts of wasted paperwork and man hours which ought
to be devoted to the greater problem of bringing peace to Cambodia.
The dispute stems from the fact that the military staff working at U.N. headquarters
say that they are being discriminated against by not receiving Mission Subsistence
Allowance (MSA). UNTAC civilian staff and certain categories of military personnel
receive MSA, which involves a U.S. $130 dollars a day-having just been reduced from
U.S. $145-paid monthly directly into the recipient's bank account, giving the individual
the liberty to use it as he or she feels fit.
Agreements drawn up between the world body and the various countries contributing
troops specify two categories of military personnel: "formed military units"
and "military observers" (MOs) , with only the latter being eligible for
MSA. Falling into the first category the military staff have their accommodation
up to $79 per day paid by UNTAC administration and they are given $30 dollars a day
for food and expenses.
But the military staff at UNTAC HQ say they have been wrongly classified as part
of the "formed military units." This they claim, applies to their countries'
battalions. But they state they are working independently of the battalions which
are, in some cases, stationed up-country, hundreds of kilometers away, doing an entirely
different job. As further weight to their claim, they point to the fact that some
of their colleagues, such as the Austrians and previously, the Irish, don't even
have formed units serving with UNTAC. If anything, the military staff say, they belong
to same classification as the MOs who operate independently.
In a formal petition to the U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, seeking
redress of their grievance on the MSA issue and signed "UNTAC Military Staff",
one Austrian officer noted that he was recruited as a MO but was subsequently asked
to work at headquarters before rotating with a colleague and going on to do the original
job demanded. He said he had been told he would get MSA and then found out the opposite
was the case. Other staff have complained that they, for some inexplicable reason,
did receive the allowance and were told they would have to pay it back.
The MSA of U.S. $145 per day had been the subject of much criticism, with many observers
saying that it is vastly excessive in a country where the average annual income is
U.S. $170. To them, the military staff's complaint does not seem to merit much sympathy
especially given rather more pressing problems facing both UNTAC and Cambodians.
The staff, however, argue that trying to get MSA per se is not the issue. "The
issue is not to obtain $145 for Military Staff, we question the justification for
the magnitude of such a sum. Equity is the issue," one of the countless confidential
reports seen by the Post, stated. In another report, Australian Lt. Col. Healy stated,
"my own interest in this issue is tied up in one word-equity. We should not
be asking for $145 a day. If that can be justified for subsistence in Cambodia (and
I have some doubts about that) then that is what we should receive. If it is the
lower figure that I suspect it is, then we should be ready to accept that."
Referring to the fact that their accommodation is paid for by UNTAC administration
rather than by the officers themselves, Healy goes on to say, "We should never
accept having an inflexible, administrative, burdensome subsistence categorization
which financially disadvantages us, while others whose efforts are far less and whose
contributions are relatively insignificant, receive a substantial 'Cambodia Subsidy'.
Such discrimination is unjust, insulting and intolerable."
Adding insult to injury, as Healy noted and other staff complain, is that the civilian
staff, often working in the same office as their military counterparts, receive the
MSA. "There are people in charge of an office working sevens days a week but
the typist working five days gets it, it's not equitable," said one officer,
who claimed he never would have dreamed of talking to the press but that the situation
was so bad he felt he had to. Morale is totally undermined and productivity has been
seriously affected at a critical time in the peace process, he said. "If we
were a football team we would be losing every game."
The villain of the piece, the staff claim, is Director of Administration, Hocine
Medili who has been on the receiving end of hate mail and abusive telephone calls.
In an open letter to Medili, the staff outline their problem with the director. "You
must carry a large portion of the blame for the current situation. You took four
months before being convinced that the Military Staff had a complaint..and then grudgingly
sent a fax to New York. Now New York will probably take that time to set up a committee...The
committee will take about six months to look into this problem and will finally decide
that, since the UNTAC mission will be over by that time, present regulations will
remain," the letter stated.
Force Commander General Sanderson acknowledged six months ago that the morale problem
had reached a crisis point. According to documents given to the Post, Sanderson was
sympathetic to the staff demands but it appeared he was constrained by New York's
dictates. However, he too was the recipient of an anonymous threatening letter. It
claimed the general hadn't tried hard enough on the men's behalf and went on to state,
"There may be cases of physical assault on some VIPs including senior civilian
officers. There may be incidents like killings also." The letter also claimed
that "nobody was working seriously except Australians" and threatened strike
action. To try and solve matters in a more disciplined and civilized manner, the
staff decided in November to set up a Military Staff Association. This, however,
did not meet with Sanderson's approval and was aborted, officers said.
Tempers were further raised when the "added discrimination" of new regulations
were introduced requiring military staff to live at least five to a house and requiring
officers below the rank of major to share hotel rooms. The car belonging to the "unfortunate"
lady in charge of overseeing these accommodation regulations was found burnt out,
one of the staff stated. Akashi called an emergency meeting and asked Sanderson to
ensure such incidents never took place again and hoped the problem would end there.
Sanderson left saying the root of the problem (MSA) remained the same as when he
entered the room, the staff officer said. It later transpired that a mechanical fault
had caused the fire, but the officer said the incident was an indication of how serious
the issue had become.
"If morale was a major problem months ago, you can imagine how some people feel
now," one affected staff member stated. Months ago the U.N. Under-Secretary
for Peace-Keeping Operations, Marrack Goulding told a diplomat at the U.N. in New
York that the situation in UNTAC was like "a powder keg ready to go off."
But despite the perceived short fuse, New York put the issue on the back burner.
In a fax to Sanderson dated Jan. 19, Goulding stated that there was going to be a
global review of MSA arrangements. But as the staff's open letter to Medili suspected,
the issue was not going to see a quick solution. "This process will take some
time and it would be wrong for me to give you the impression that solutions will
be quickly or easily found... I realize that this is not the reply which you would
have liked to receive...We look to you to control what you describe as a "volatile"
situation and to ensure that the officers concerned continue, as they have admirably
done so far, to carry out their duties in spite of the dissatisfaction with the financial
arrangements which they consider discriminatory," Goulding told the general.
Sanderson, however, recently acknowledged that not everyone was carrying out their
duties in an admirable fashion. "There are some in the headquarters who are
being carried by the rest. The honorable thing would be for them to go home,"
he said. While he admitted that the military staff should not be seen as part of
their contingents, he stressed that the soldiers should not concern themselves with
the problem and thereby possibly undermine the success of the mission but should
leave the matter for their individual government's attention-as was the case with
the Irish who ended up withdrawing their HQ staff-or raise the matter with the U.N.
in New York. "While I see some injustices in the regulations, changes have to
be made in New York. This is an issue between (military staff's) nations and the
U.N.," he said. Other non-UNTAC observers commented that while the staff may
have a righteous grievance, it paled somewhat compared to what the average Cambodian
had to tolerate.