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Shaw cross book highlights post-UNTAC blues

Shaw cross book highlights post-UNTAC blues

Steve Heder of London's School of Oriental and Asian Studies reviews

William Shawcross' new book. It is argued UNTAC paid off part of the

international community's debt to Cambodia, but the "political dynamics of

self-destruction" remain.

THIS timely monograph by the veteran journalist

observer of Cambodia analyses the impact of the implementation of the 1991 Paris

Agreements by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and

the course of political events in the country during the year after the UNTAC

organized elections of 1993. The ballot resulted in an electoral victory for the

opposition party of the former insurgents of the National United Front for an

Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC). It led to a

coalition between it and the former ruling communists of the Cambodian People's

Party (CPP) under a restored monarchy headed by the man anointed the country's

king in 1941, Norodom Sihanouk.

It is impossible to read this work

without recalling Shawcross's Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the destruction of

Cambodia (1979). It put forward for Cambodia a version of Chalmers Johnson's

thesis of peasant nationalism: that a brutal foreign intervention made peasants

into revolutionaries and thus brought a communist political organization to

power. It has bequeathed an indelible image of United States' B-52s dropping

indiscriminate death on Cambodian peasants and transforming survivors into

recruits and fanatic cadre for the Khmer Rouge revolution. It thus suggested the

extraordinary power of foreign intervention both to destroy a victim society and

to set in motion a dynamic of self-destruction within that society.


Cambodia's New Deal, United Nations intervention is characterized as giving

Cambodians the opportunity to undo some of the damage done by United States

actions and even to transcend the dynamics of self-destruction these introduced.

It is obvious Shawcross wanted UNTAC to work and to pay off part of the

international community's debt to Cambodian society. He wanted it to show that

foreign promotion of political democracy and human rights in Cambodia could

achieve positive results even in the country's unpropitious


Shawcross rates UNTAC as an "overall success". He

concludes that it helped give a 'serious blow... to the strength and influence

of the Khmer Rouge'. Although this is perhaps somewhat overgenerous, Shawcross

rightly approves UNTAC's avoidance of military confrontation with the Khmer

Rouge. He is correct in asserting that it was bound to lose in any such combat,

and that by consistently holding out the olive branch while the Khmer Rouge spat

in its face, UNTAC managed to isolate it further from its crucial ally China,

although not from the Thai military.

Shawcross also concludes that UNTAC

midwifed a 'brief' but 'profound' and 'very welcome.... social revolution' in

Cambodia that created conditions for a transformation of the political

landscape. Here his political preferences and his optimism seem to have got the

better of his judgment. They color his assessment of the possibilities for an

internationally sponsored transition from what he describes as a 'semi-feudal'

society with 'no independent legal system, no central authority, no tolerance

[and] no concept of human rights or of "loyal opposition"' to a political system

'in which contracts and agreements' are respected. He conveys excessive hope

that UNTAC helped create a new situation which the choice for Cambodians who

wish to be politically active might no longer be either to accept the patronage

of the already powerful or to risk death, in which there would instead be a

chance to choose to engage in political dialogue under conditions of a social

peace that nurtures the growth of civil society. Because of this, he places too

much of the responsibility for post-UNTAC problems on FUNCINPEC and CPP

political leaders.

His disappointment becomes clear when Shawcroos

declares that despite UNTAC's social revolution, 'Cambodian society still needs

to be completely overhauled.' It is equally clear in his criticism of FUNCINPEC

and CPP politicians for failing to establish an 'efficient government'. He

catalogues the phenomena which are antipathetic to this project: growing

'corruption.., crime and violence', 'lawlessness', and 'illicit revenue

extraction... at every level of society'. He decries the existence of a bloated

bureaucracy which functions not to run the administration and development

programs, but as a 'vast, thinly spread system of patronage through which

ordinary Cambodians tap... the state apparatus'. He similarly inveighs against

the creation of an oversized army with an absurdly large officer corps, which

accommodates the desire for status of those with guns but which siphons off much

of the state budget and has been discredited by a series of tactically

disastrous offensives against the Khmer Rouge.

The contradiction between

UNTAC-era hopes and post-UNTAC blues points toward a clearer characterization of

what UNTAC made possible, which Shawcross himself suggests when he writes about

the 'startling resemblance' that Cambodia in 1994 bears to Lon NOL's Khmer

Republic of the early 1970s. What UNTAC allowed was not so much a social

revolution as a social restoration. Finally, after years of suppression and

involution in neo-traditional forms under the CPP, old patterns of patron client

neo-patrimonialism have reemerged in more readily recognizable forms under the

FUNCINPEC-CPP coalition and Sihanouk's kingship. This is not the fault of the

current political leadership, nor of UNTAC, but has deeper historical


In fact, the Paris Agreements did not place a high priority on the

consolidation of liberal democracy in Cambodia. All they insisted on was the

achievement of a new political arrangement via a free and fair electoral

process, and thus as the result of a democratic transition. However, the

Agreements indeed committed Cambodian politicians to constitutional provisions

enshrining liberal democracy and pluralism, and left it to them to integrate

this commitment with the political, military, social, economic, cultural and

diplomatic realities facing the country once UNTAC was gone. The challenges for

Cambodians in doing so are enormous, much greater than those that were bestowed

on UNTAC in effecting a democratic transition. This is because most of the

preconditions normally associated with consolidation of democracy are lacking in


As Harold Crouch and James W. Morley have argued, the recent

drift toward political democracy in Asia has typically been driven by economic

growth. By 'churning up the previously existing social order', economic growth

'stimulates a growing awareness of group identity and interests, and encourages

the organization of the new groups and strata into politically active bodies'.

These aware and organized bodies of civil society then struggle with the state

to determine or predetermine the structure of the political regime and the

extent to which it is authoritarian. On a more general plane, Samuel P

Huntington has written that the 'most important' factor 'contributing to the

emergence... of democratic regimes in previously authoritarian countries' has

been 'higher levels of economic well-being, which led to more widespread

literacy, education, and urbanization, a larger middle class, and the

development class, and the development of values attitudes supportive of

democracy' . He stresses that chances for liberalization and democratization

will be blocked if competing elites cannot recognize each other 'as... worthy

partner[s]' or 'as legitimate representative of significant segments of society'

Guillerno O'Donnell has made the same point for social relations as a whole. He

has written that 'political conduct which is pluralist... derives from the

recognition of the legitimacy of difference, from the acceptance of the "other"

as a subject having valid interests and rights'. He stressed that, historically,

such recognition has resulted from the struggle of subordinated status groups to

be 'recognized as a collective actor' by the State and dominating status groups.

When such struggles have not taken place, or have been successfully put down by

successive ruling elites, 'social relationships... embody a colossal degree of

negation of the "other", who is seen as socially inferior' and subjected to


The scenarios for consolidation of democracy which these

theorists have laid down bear virtually no resemblance to the realities of

Cambodia. The economic and cultural bases for the emergence of a democracy

movement based on an urban middle class or urban civil society were virtually

nonexistent. Such movements of opposition to be CPP's diluted Leninist

authoritarianism as existed were armed insurgencies based on peasant

nationalism, peasant class feeling and peasant deference, not on a ground swell

of civil society activity bursting from beneath the surface to the overt

political stage. Some among the tiny 'urban middle classes', including those who

had become so as refugees in the West, supported democratization and played

important roles in the leadership of the opposition political parties that grew

out of the peasant insurgencies, of which FUNCINPEC was one. Their role was

crucial in that they formed links between the peasant politics, on the one hand,

and the international pressure for a democratic transition embodied in the Paris

Agreements, on the other. UNTAC created conditions in which embryonic and

fledgling facsimiles of archetypal bodies of civil society could play a

disproportionate and temporally precocious political role alongside other

political forces organized along communist or insurgent military lines. However,

the transition overseen by UNTAC was fraught with violence which reflected the

general refusal of elite culture to recognize the legitimacy of difference and

opposition. The absence of socio-economic pre-conditions favoring liberalization

and democratization in Cambodia was matched by the presence of traits of a

political culture which are antithetical to them. Everything was exacerbated by

the fact that the bearers of this political cultural were formed in decades of

internationally-promoted brutalizing civil war and ultimately remained in

control of large armies of men carrying automatic weapons.

As O'Donnell

explains in relation to democratic transition in other situations, the prospects

for a democratic consolidation in Cambodia are almost certain to be profoundly

threatened by a 'high degree of continuity of... bureaucratic authoritarian

politics'. In particular, further liberalization and democratization are likely

to be obstructed by the ongoing 'influence and institutional presence' of the

security forces, of the 'notables of the authoritarian regime' and of a

patrimonial political style, 'and consequently of clientelism [and]

personalism... not only in the style of doing politics, but also in the style of

governing' . The likely 'cumulative effect' of such continuities 'is to maintain

the predominance of the patrimonialist politicians, who are often in alliance

(born of the conservatism inherent in their respective styles and worldviews)

with blatantly authoritarian politicians.' Under such 'socially authoritarian

and politically elitist' circumstances, any 'demands to modernize social and

political relationships' meet 'enormous' resistance. 'Some are absorbed through

clientelistic mechanisms, while others are splintered and disaggregated without

anchoring in collective subjects strong enough to hold their own'. O'Donnell

concludes that in such situations, 'the principal challenge is that of

overcoming high levels of partimonialism and elitism,' and that the task of

building democracy includes that of attaining some reasonable levels... of

modernization and democratization of many social - and not just political -

relations. This requires 'redefining a role for the state consistent with these


These conclusions explain why Shawcross writes that Cambodian

society still needs a complete overhaul, and that 'the nation needs... to be

reconstituted and reconstructed-almost reinvented' if his hopes for post-UNTAC

Cambodia are to be realized. UNTAC may indeed have paid off part of the

international community's debt to the country, but a social revolution that will

put an end to the political dynamics of self destruction in Cambodian society

has yet to take place.


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