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
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
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