The execution of two United Nations electoral workers in Kompong Thom Apr. 15 may
have come as tragic shock to peacekeeping forces in Cambodia but unfortunately, it
did not come as a complete surprise to the fellow workers in the militarily volatile
"The atmosphere right up to the killing, as many DESs (District Electoral Supervisors)
will say, was an atmosphere that something terrible was going to happen," the
former Sala Visay based DES David Costanza said.
Costanza's words were echoed by Dutch colleague, Marcus Jense. He had been based
in Sandan which he said had previously been quiet and "really beautiful."
And then law and order started to slowly disappear.
"It was getting tense, increasingly tense. I didn't feel safe, I knew the DK
were just 1,000 meters away, they could easily shell our house. And there was more
and more shooting near the house, mostly drunken CPAF soldiers. And then there were
threats of mines from people who didn't get jobs [with the U.N. for the elections]."
The cold-blooded execution of Japanese UNV Atsuhito Nakata and his Cambodian interpreter
brought to the surface frustrations about the U.N.'s failure to provide adequate
protection that the UNVs had been harboring for months, especially with the increasingly
deteriorating security situation.
"We have being saying for months that the situation was not okay, that it was
becoming more tense. And still we had to fight to try and get security," Jense
Costanza, who is planning to leave and go back to the States, gave a more concrete
example of the UNVs security problems.
"On Tuesday (April 13) we had our usual meeting. And after the meeting the two
DESs in Baray said they wanted to leave the area and go to Phnom Penh. But they were
told at the provincial level and by the Indonesians not to worry, that Baray was
perfectly safe. Well, they decided to take matters into their own hands and left.
The night they left, the electoral office was shot up by people who came looking
for the two DESs. The interpreter and the local staff hid in the ricefield behind
the office, scared to death," he said.
Like Costanza, Jense and many of the others stationed in Kompong Thom have decided
to go home rather than go back to their districts. None of them could be called cowards
by any stretch of the imagination. Their job entailed more than its fair share of
occupational hazards. But recently the hazards had reached such a stage as to prevent
them from pursuing their occupation.
"We have complained before. But we were never serious about leaving the district.
Maybe we were a little crazy but that's how firmly committed most of us are to free
and fair elections. I don't know if Akashi or Austin (head of the electoral component)
were aware of the conditions we worked under. In Kompong Thom, it's likethere's an
electoral component deep inside a military operation. I suppose it's a microcosm
of what is happening in the rest of Cambodia but at a much more condensed level,"
The UNVs sent a letter to the UNV Deputy Executive Coordinator's office in Geneva
outlining their demands for various security and logistical measures which needed
to be implemented immediately. Some of these measures-like an efficient evacuation
plan-were supposed to have been drawn up months ago but have been bogged down in
beurocracy, UNVs complained. There were a number of other demands calling for such
security measures as the building of bunkers outside their offices and for increased
protection to be provided by the Indonesian battalion and the civilian police.
The military and the police, however, have been targets of intense UNV criticism.
This criticism was accentuated by the failure of either force to respond to Nakata's
distress call on the radio-it was a fellow UNV who arrived to find his Japanese co-worker
lying dead, face down in the dirt, with his interpreter bleeding profusely from a
wound which would prove fatal.
Many of the electoral workers accuse the Indonesians of being so reluctant to jeopardise
their"good working relationship" with the Khmer Rouge that they refuse
to accompany the UNVs to any areas that might meet with the radical faction's disapproval.
Others speculated that the soldiers were firstly agents of Jakarta's foreign policy
and secondly United Nations peacekeepers. "The military component and the electoral
component in the districts are often at loggerheads, sometimes worse, sometimes there
is no working relationship at all," one UNV noted.
Although there were signs of improvement and some noteworthy exceptions, CivPol were
accused of being reluctant to go anywhere if it wasn't to pick up their pay cheques.
"If they go ahead and arm Civ Pol, I'm out of here, I'm going home. Those guys
are bad enough as it is," a UNV from Siem Reap stated, although he too admitted
that they were beginning to shape up a bit.
Some UNVs blamed UNTAC for initiating Civ Pol programs that jeopardized the electoral
effort. They cited Civ Pol training of the local State of Cambodia police as an example.
"Okay so they're (Civ Pol) supposed to work closely with the police of the existing
administrative structures. But when the locals see the police in an UNTAC car, they
don't know or think that UNTAC is training the administrative structure's police.
They think that they cannot trust CivPol. The idea is fine, it's just how it is worked
"This is where I blame UNTAC because they don't listen to us. We said 'don't
do this'. Then they tell us the idea behind the action as if we were schoolchildren,"
Given the ambivalent attitudes towards the U.N. police and military, it's hardly
surprising that many of the UNVs remained sceptical about whether, even if they got
the increased security measures, they would prove effective. And effective or otherwise,
some felt that if they were to return to their villages, the presence of a platoon
of heavily armed soldiers would undermine the validity of their message.
"In my idea it is even too late for that. But given that there may be some DESs
who will go back and be put in that position, I think it really destroys the message
of free and fair elections," Costanza said. His fellow worker Jense put it more
succinctly, "I just don't believe you can talk to the villagers about democratic
elections with a bullet proof jacket on."
Nakata's murder was the last straw for many of the UNVs. It dispelled in one fatal
blow the last illusions some of them cherished, that they could actually help stage
a truly meaningful election.
"It seems for many of us the Kompong Thom operation is just finished. To continue
on is suicidal and in no-one's best interests, certainly not the Cambodians,"
Emphasizing the suicidal aspect, one UNV vehemently dismissed speculations that bandits
may have been responsible for the fatal attack. "Atsu had a money belt around
him when they found him with thousands of dollars. They were very efficient how they
killed him. It was very quick and they got out very quick. It was not banditry,"
Costanza gave some credence to this view when he stated there was a possibility that
a UNV was deliberately targeted. To use Akashi's word, he said, the Khmer Rouge were
desperate to stop the elections.
"There are many ways they can do this and one easy way is to install a chaotic
fear in UNTAC. But if this is a strategy, and it could be, to target a DES for example
and to see the reaction from UNTAC. I mean look, they killed one DES, or someone
did, and now UNTAC has stated at the highest levels that they will probably cut off
most of Kompong Thom from the elections, half of Preah Vihear, some of Siem Reap
and some of Battambang. What happens when they kill the next DES in Kompong Cham
or Koh Kong for example. It would be a disaster. And my deep fear is that there will
be a number two." he said.
The killings have also had a disastrous effect on the potential voters in his district.
Recently there had been a radical transformation in the villagers attitude to the
DESs. The villagers have been refusing to allow the UNVs put up electoral information
posters in Costanza's' district and in many other districts too. They have even refused
to take pamphlets on the secrecy of the ballot into their houses for fear of repercussions
from the Khmer Rouge. The guerrillas have been telling people for weeks not to get
involved with the elections.. And they have been telling the villagers that they
will attack the polling sites, Costanza said.
But so far, he said, it has been psychological intimidation the Khmer Rouge haven't
been backing up their threats.
"But I'm sure the killing of the DES and his interpreter just really, really
scares the heck out of those villagers because if they can get at UNTAC, think how
easy it is to get at your regular person and local staff," Costanza said.
A number of the UNVs from the trouble-plagued province of Kompong Thom felt that
the current question should not be whether the elections can be pulled off but whether
the climate is right to hold the polls.
Akashi, at a meeting with the DESs, alluded to elections elsewhere in the world where
voter turn-out is often as low as 40 percent. He seemed to be implying that the elections
would still be legitimate if a sizeable percentage managed to turn out to vote, some
of the listeners thought. But a number of the UNVs pointed out the obvious fact that
voters in the West choose not to vote of their own free will. This would not be the
case here, where, in certain areas, many people will be psychologically intimidated
or physically prevented from voting. Therefore, these UNVs said, they no longer wish
to risk their lives for an election which they claim has no integrity.
Using one of Akashi's metaphors about sowing the seeds of democracy, Marcus Jense
presented their case."When we started the soil was not perfect. But with fertilizer
it was possible to grow something. Then during the process the soil became poisoned
and I don't think the seeds could grow. Maybe some, maybe a few around the edges.
But there will be no harvest. And the whole point of sowing seeds is that you reap
more than you throw out in the first place." Jense, who will leave the country
shortly, said many of those planning to leave did acknowledge that it would mean
giving in to the Khmer Rouge.
A poll taken at a recent meeting of UNVs showed that the vast majority of UNVs were
in favour of postponing the elections. But this does not appear realistic. U.N. Secretary-General
Boutros Boutros-Ghali emphasized, during his visit here, that there are financial
constraints and many other pressing demands being made on the U.N. elsewhere in the
world. So the question remains whether to go ahead with the polls now. And it seems
there is an ideological divide amongst the UNVs.
Despite signs of an imminent increase in military activity, Bert Hoake, a UNV from
Siem Reap said DESs were still progressing with their electoral education campaign
in his area. They were getting angry responses to one of the new themes they had
worked into the mini-plays they stage for the villagers.
The new theme was that there were groups intent on stealing the election from the
people. Hoake said his villagers would understand if he had to come escorted by a
group of U.N. military. "I think the people realize that we are at risk,"
The people in the cities should vote and that should account for about 50 percent
of the population, Hoake said. And then in dangerous areas, he felt that if even
a handful of voters defied the thieves and the intimidators and the bullies, they
deserved an election. "As long as there are people willing to take the risk
and vote, I think that we should go ahead and give them an election," he said.