Was the United Nations intervention in Cambodia, a) the greatest act of supra-national
altruism so far in history? b) a situation in which the best interests of only the
Cambodian people were promoted? c) the training ground for an emerging world government?
d) a very expensive context in which narrow national interests were pursued? e) an
opportunity for the international community to expiate its guilt over its silence
about Khmer Rouge atrocities?
Future historians may decide that c) is the right answer; b) and e) are probably
partially true. But, a controversy now breaking into the press indicates that d)
is not a bad answer. The focus of the controversy is the French decision to sign
a technical military treaty with the Provisional National Government of Cambodia.
Some high UNTAC officials have argued that the Provisional National government is
not in the legal position to sign any treaty whatsoever with a sovereign power. The
Paris Peace Accords - which members of UNTAC will (by rote) tell us is still the
legal framework for relationships with Cambodia today - stipulate that the SNC is
the embodiment of Cambodian sovereignty during the period of the mandate.
But if one accepts the argument that the SNC has been side-lined by events, that
it has been made irrelevant by concrete circumstances unforeseen by the Paris Peace
Accords, there is still the Westminister Argument.
For governments in the Westminister tradition, a caretaker government-which might
emerge after the loss of a vote of confidence -cannot encumber the legitimate national
government that will follow it. Some high level UNTAC sources argue from this point
of view that "no policy initiatives can be taken by the current Cambodian government
which will encumber the next government."
Other members of the United Nations have questioned the motivation of a move like
this. But the treaty that was signed between the French and the Cambodians seems
innocuous enough. It is a technical treaty, not a defense one. As a high level French
source put it, "We don't want to be involved in the operational support of Cambodia
in case of attack."
The treaty does not obligate the French to come to the aid of Cambodia, nor are they
by this treaty allowed to station permanent forces in Cambodia. The treaty initially
envisages a French survey, headed perhaps by a French General, and a small group
of French military experts.
It will probably arrive in late August. A two week investigation will be conducted
and focus on issues like organization, training, and logistics. In this first step
of the treaty, problems will be identified. Then, solutions will be decided in cooperation
with the Cambodians.
As one French source put it, there are many problems in Cambodia, probably more than
one country can fix. "The French welcome others who want to help Cambodia."
If this treaty is so innocuous, why is there any controversy at all? Arguments are
being made that by this treaty, the doctrine, organization and perhaps, equipment
of Cambodia will be French rather than, for example, Afghanistan - are they here?
Though a French officer said: "We have no interest in widening the French presence
in Cambodia. This is a technical treaty," he added, "it is a response to
Cambodian requests to help them shape their army."
It is quite common in controversies like this that the language turns ugly. It has
in this one. "Neo-colonialism," "Imperial ambitions" But these
are easy to refute.
Colonialism was a historical phenomenon which had concrete manifestations impossible
to realize in a world like today's. But if a nation is today able to influence the
"shape" of another countries army, what does that get them? With a 1000
riel, a cup of coffee? The right to exclude others? Problems not worth taking on?
An exclusive market for a nation's defense industries? It is not clear at this point.
What is clear is that it does not get the sort of hegemony that the French had after
1863 in Cambodia.
As odd as it may now sound, and with the fragmentary evidence now available, it does
appears that the roots of this controversy are about exactly this: a competition
to decide the "shape and flavor" of the Cambodian military.
There is one story left to tell.
Another un-named source claimed that the reason the French signed this questionable
treaty was because they had been excluded from deliberations within the United Nations
Mixed Military Working Group, who recently assumed the job of over-seeing the amalgamation
of the factional armies into a Cambodian National Army.
It is un-controversial that a decision was made that the membership of the working
group should include only "Asian" nations, of which Australia was one,
and of which France was not. Excluded from influencing (helping) in making decisions
in Cambodia's (France's) interest, the French found another way. Or so the story
So we may have a story of French and Australian intrigue, of nationalist competition
within the context of an international mission to create the conditions for peace
for Cambodia. It is just not clear who the winners are and who the losers are, and
whose interests were served. Cambodia has profited by the amalgamation of its forces
fathered and fostered by the Mixed Military Working Group. Cambodia did not sign
the technical assistance treaty at gun point. It is also clear the UNTAC is almost
"out of here" and Cambodia is militarily fragile enough to need all the
help it can get. But we might be worried with some cause if foreign combat forces
remained behind or were re-deployed after UNTAC's departure.
Gen. Sanderson was recently asked (by me) for his opinion on this situation. Of course
he declined to say anything directly. His answer: "That is a very interesting
question. It is a question about the fundamental nature of the United Nations. And
its a problem that the United Nations will have to come to terms with if it is going
to be taken seriously as a supra-national authority."