Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Shadow Boxing

Shadow Boxing

Shadow Boxing

The anxious exhilarating UNTAC days: Successes and failures. Reviewed by David Chandler

Benny Widyono, Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge and the United Nations

in Cambodia. xxxii+ 312 pp. Foreword by Ben Kiernan., Lanham and Boulder, Rowman

and Littlefield, 2008.

The sub-title of this absorbing memoir promises more than the book is able to deliver.

Dr Benny Widyono, a career official with the United Nations, has very little to say

about Sihanouk or the Khmer Rouge as long-term political phenomena. He also fails

to summarize the multi-faceted activities of the UN in Cambodia since the early 1990s.

Instead, what we are given and should be grateful for is an insightful record of

a tumultuous period of Cambodian history in which Widyono was an astute participant-observer.

Between 1992 and 1997 Widyono worked with the United Nations Transitional Authority

in Cambodia (UNTAC) and as the UN Secretary General's special representative in Phnom

Penh. These positions allowed him to observe the UNTAC operation and the unfolding

opera of Cambodian politics at close range. Fourteen photographs and seven maps enhance

his appealing text.

Widyono arrived in Phnom Penh in April l992 and soon became aware, as many did, that

the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, which had established UNTAC, had barely papered

over irreconcilable differences among the powers that signed them. They had also

set unachievable agendas and ignored the animosities of the Cambodian political actors.

The Accords, Widyono reminds us, also placed some heavy burdens on the UNTAC operation.

The first of these, pressed by the United States, China and their allies, was that

the Democratic Kampuchean "faction" was to play a legitimate role in Cambodian

politics. To smooth the path, references to "genocide" or the other horrors

of the Khmer Rouge era were whited out of the Accords.

Secondly, the Accords enjoined UNTAC to oversee the day-to-day governance of Cambodia,

an impossible task for people who knew next to nothing about the country, had little

experience with such tasks and had no full time employees who were fluent in Khmer.

In any case, those who held power in the country, namely the Khmer Rouge and the

State of Cambodia (SOC) were unwilling to relinquish it to the UN.

Finally, the four factions in Cambodian politics who had been roped together to form

a Supreme National Council (SNC) despised each other and had no interest in working

constructively together or in allowing UNTAC to succeed. Prince Norodom Sihanouk,

at the apex of the SNC, distrusted the factions and hoped to negotiate some power

for himself.

With understandable trepidation, therefore, the largest UN operation in its history

got underway, damaged at birth by conflicting mandates, exaggerated hopes, UN inexperience

and intransigent, suspicious political actors.

In June 1992, Benny Widyono became the UN's "shadow governor" in Siem Reap.

He had asked for this challenging job in New York, and for the next 13 months he

performed a multitude of tasks in the run up to the elections with inventiveness

and brio. The chapters that deal with this period stylishly convey the ups and downs

of those anxious, exhilarating times.

In judging the UNTAC experience, Widyono agrees with most observers that its successes

lay in the fields of refugee repatriation and organizing the elections.

He locates UNTAC shortcomings in the areas of disarmament, governance and its timidity

vis-a- vis the Khmer Rouge.

Disarmament failed because the Khmer Rouge refused to disarm, triggering the SOC's

refusal to follow suit. These refusals guaranteed the continuation of warfare between

the two, which lasted until the Khmer Rouge movement collapsed in 1997-1998.

Governance never worked because UNTAC was unable to administer the country, and because

the SOC and the Khmer Rouge (the factions controlling Cambodian territory) never

relinquished any administrative control.

UNTAC's timidity sprang from the fact that none of the participating powers (except,

perhaps, the French) were willing to take the casualties they feared might be inflicted

on them by the Khmer Rouge.

In the elections of May 1993, more voters voted for the royalist faction, FUNCINPEC,

than for the Cambodian Peoples' Party (CPP), which had governed Cambodia since 1979.

For the first time in Cambodian history, a majority of the population peacefully

rejected the political status quo. What they expected or hoped for in its place was

unclear. In any case, the SOC refused to accept to results of the election and for

a few days the entire UNTAC operation seemed destined to collapse.

At this point Sihanouk, encouraged by the French, engineered a bizarre political

arrangement whereby FUNCINPEC and the CPP agreed to enter a power sharing relationship

with Hun Sen as the "second" prime minister, alongside the "first"

prime minister Sihanouk's son, Prince Rannaridh, the chairman of FUNCINPEC.

Widyono returned to New York in late 1993, but became impatient with bureaucratic

work, and in April l994 came back to Phnom Penh as the UN Secretary General's personal

representative, tasked with monitoring the aftermath of UNTAC. The "national

interest" of the UN is hard to define, but the position gave Widyono an ideal

vantage point from which to observe the Rannaridh-Hun Sen "alliance" and

the first few years of the newly renamed Kingdom of Cambodia. His assessments of

personalities and events in this period are often shrewd and persuasive, and buttressed

by observations made in the course of later visits to the country. Cambodia watchers

will be aware that most of the problems raised in the book remain unsolved and most

of the political actors in 1993-1997 remain on stage, so Dancing in Shadows has an

up-to-date "feel". Widyono left in April l997, shortly before the "events

" of July, so his reportage on them is necessarily second-hand.

Throughout the memoir, Widyono's writing is brisk, perceptive and accessible, although

it's marred here and there by small historical gaffes and typographical errors. On

balance, his insider's narrative is a valuable addition to literature about Cambodia's

recent past.

In closing, however, it needs to be said that Ben Kiernan's gnomic 9-page foreword

to Dancing in Shadows mentions Widyono only once and says almost nothing about the

period of history dealt with by the book.

David Chandler is the author of Brother Number One: A biography of Pol Pot and other

books about Cambodia. He is currently affiliated with Monash University in Australia.

On sale at Monument Books


  • Angkor Wat named as the top landmark for the second year

    Travel website TripAdvisor has named Cambodia’s ancient wonder Angkor Wat as the top landmark in the world for the second year running in their Travelers’ Choice Award 2018, an achievement Cambodian tourism operators expect will attract more tourists to the Kingdom. The website uses traveller

  • Hun Sen detractors ‘will die’

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday said those who curse or insult him would eventually die without a plot of land to bury their bodies after being killed by lightning, suffering the same fate as those who recently died in Thmar Baing district in Koh

  • New US bill ‘is a violation of Cambodian independence’

    After a US congressmen introduced bipartisan legislation that will enact sanctions on Cambodian officials responsible for “undermining democracy” in the Kingdom, government officials and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on Sunday said they regarded the potential action as the “violation of independence and sovereignty

  • NOCC to contest petanque, tennis axe

    The National Olympic Committee of Cambodia will lobby hard over the next few weeks for the inclusion of the Kingdom’s most productive medal-earning sport, petanque, along with vovinam and tennis after the disciplines were left out of the initial list of 30 preferred sports for