TWO offices of the United Nations have come under fire from police who say UN monitors
made their job more difficult by protecting street protesters.
Police impounded a UN vehicle on government orders as "a lesson" for perceived
UN workers say they only did their job: staying neutral, monitoring Cambodians' right
to peacefully express their political opinions, trying to prevent violence from any
quarter and stepping in with humanitarian aid when required.
Police say the United Nations has been hindering them as they try to control street
demonstrations, and one diplomat said Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was "furious"
about their work.
The office of Lakhan Mehrotra, the United Nations Secretary-General's personal representative
in Cambodia (UNSGPR), which has an agreement with the government to monitor the safety
and political rights of politicians who returned to the country after July 1997's
coup, had been sheltering opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his wife Tioulong Saumura
until press time. Both are elected MPs.
The Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (COHCHR), which has
a mandate to promote and protect human rights, has had its workers on the streets
monitoring demonstrations; UNSGPR monitors have been working with them.
The constant presence of blue-hatted monitors and flag-flying vehicles at demonstrations
- sometimes in front of marchers - has irked government members. "Both were
seen as intervening in the demonstrations," said a diplomatic source of the
two offices. "For Cambodia, there is no difference."
Gen Chhin Chan Pour, deputy chief of the national military police, said:"We
have interference from the foreign people, especially... the UN. They don't stay
politically neutral; they back up the anarchic mob," he said.
Although the UN has monitored pro- and anti-government marches alike, monitors admit
that many opposition demonstrators and authorities perceive the UN to be on the opposition's
"They cheer when we arrive, they carry UN flags," said one UN source of
the opposition demonstrators. "What can we do?"
Tensions reached breaking point Sept 14, when police halted an anti-government march
- which two foreign tourists, waving UN and US flags, had helped lead - near the
Hotel Inter-Continental. Journalists stopped police who were beating a man, and carried
him to a UNSGPR vehicle.
Police refused to let the car take the victim to a hospital, instead claiming it
had to go to the Ministry of Interior. UN monitors negotiated with police commanders
for over half an hour before the car was permitted to pass.
The victim was safely delivered to Kossamak hospital, but the police then impounded
the vehicle and detained UN staff for several hours.
About an hour later, police shouted at a COHCHR monitor at the march scene and pushed
her into her car. Police had detained and beaten several opposition protesters who
had been stoning a house; the UN monitor tried to approach the detainees' vehicle
but was shoved away, witnesses said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak praised the work of most UN staff in Cambodia,
but claimed that "some" were not being neutral in their work.
He said the impounded car had been "leading the demonstration", and that
it had been held with "no intention to keep it, just to give them a lesson".
A diplomatic source said Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was "furious with the
UN," adding, "It may be reasonable to expect him to expel people."
The government has threatened the COHCHR with expulsion in the past, and put pressure
on certain individuals within it.
Monitors who have tried to avert violence and transported injured people to hospitals
defend their role on humanitarian, not political, grounds.
One decried the government's "incredibly simplistic" thinking, noting that
helping a wounded man because you have the nearest car does not imply an acceptance
of his political beliefs.
Neither, the source continued, does stopping a police officer from beating a protester
- or vice versa.
"We are not neutral in terms of violence... I don't think anyone could suggest
that to stop gratuitous violence is outside our mandate," said the UN human
But Municipal Police Chief Neth Savoeun said the UN and police "have to carry
out the law together, and if we do not carry out the law together, that means police
don't have the standing and the society is not strong". He added that detaining
the car was "a very difficult job for police".
COHCHR director Rosemary McCreery stood behind her staff, noting their job included
the ability to "intervene in certain cases, particularly when individual's rights
are being violated, such as arbitrary arrest, beating, or at worst killing."
She maintained that her office was doing nothing different than they have done at
factory demonstrations or other protests. "But when there's 15,000 people in
the street, things start to look a little different."
Their ICOM radio network has also been "heavily infiltrated" by both sides,
Khieu Sopheak complained that UN radios squawk out anti-government rhetoric. McCreery
acknowleges those messages, but says she hears as many pro-government break-ins as
Indeed, McCreery said she was "very concerned" at death threats directed
towards her Cambodian staff Sept 13 over the UN ICOM radio network. She said she
had taken measures to protect them but declined to elaborate. "Our principal
concern is the safety of our staff."
The COCHCR staff continues to keep four or five mobile teams out every day.
In contrast, UNSGPR sources say monitors in their office have been pulled off the
streets since the Sept 14 incident. That office is also in the spotlight for sheltering
Rainsy and Saumura, who fear for their lives since Hun Sen announced an arrest warrant
for Rainsy Sept 7.
The warrant never materialized, but Rainsy has been at the office ever since. UNSGPR
workers say the couple is sleeping on the floor of the office while their situation
is being assessed, and that they have given assurances they will not undertake political
activity while there.
However, Rainsy has met with Prince Ranariddh twice, given one brief press conference,
and laid a wreath outside the UNSGPR office where one of his supporters was shot
by police. Saumura also has her own mobile telephone inside the office, and Rainsy's
cabinet has continued to release statements.
Political activity is thought to make the pair more liable to arrest; the UN office
is not an embassy and cannot provide full international refuge.
A government spokesman said they are free to leave in safety. "I assure you
that Sam Rainsy has the full right of movement, expression, political activity,"
said Khieu Sopheak. "He will not be arrested ... he has the full right to go
Yet UNSGPR sources say they believe Rainsy may still be in danger.
"The government has created a cloud of uncertainty about Rainsy's status, probably
deliberately," said one source. "You can't say what degree of jeopardy
he is in."
Some in the opposition see it as ironic that Rainsy is paralyzed by fear of violence
inside the very office which is supposed to be monitoring his right to exercise political
"If their goal was to make sure that opposition party leaders could be politically
active throughout the election process, then in the end they didn't succeed - because
Rainsy is completely neutralized by the threat of violence from the regime,"
said one SRP official, noting that a neutralized Rainsy is a boon to his rival, Hun
"However independent, impartial and objective you are, you get caught in the
middle," said one UN source.