Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UNTAC and beyond, the Widyono way

UNTAC and beyond, the Widyono way

UNTAC and beyond, the Widyono way

Benny Widyono, the UN's most senior official in Cambodia and a local

in diplomatic circles, is leaving after being caught in a dispute between the two

Prime Ministers over whether his term should be extended. Widyono first came to Cambodia

in April 1992 and served as the head of UNTAC in Siem Reap. He returned in April

1994 to take up the job of the UN Secretary-General's Representative to Cambodia.

An economist by training, Widyono, an Indonesian, has worked for the UN since 1963,

serving in Thailand, Chile and New York. The following are edited excerpts from a

May 10 interview.

Coming to Cambodia and Siem Reap during UNTAC

[UNTAC chief] Mr Akashi and I used to work on the same floor in the UN in New York...

I asked him if I could go to Cambodia with him, so he asked me what position I would

like to have. I had done a lot of reading on Cambodia and I said Siem Reap. He was

startled and said: 'Siem Reap, it's the most problematic province, it has Khmer Rouge,

it has all the factions, it has Angkor Wat.' I said 'Yes sir, I don't want to go

to a quiet place like Sihanoukville. I want Siem Reap.'

It turned out to be the most volatile province of all. We were attacked by the KR

several times. At one time, it was a six-hour attack. This was in April 93, just

one month before the elections. Also, in the second half of 92, the outskirts of

Siem Reap was attacked and we suffered the first casualties of UNTAC. Two girls [Khmer

staff of UNTAC] were killed there by the KR... The problem with UNTAC was that we

were not fighting an enemy. The Khmer Rouge was one of four factions that signed

[the Paris Agreements], so we could not treat them as an enemy and wipe them all

out, so to speak. All the time I had to explain [to staff] that we are not an army,

we are here to keep the peace.

I had to make decisions very often over life and death, which I didn't have to do

before in my career as an economist, not directly anyway. At one point, there was

a mine incident involving civilian police from Tunisia and Indonesia, on the road

to Angkor Chum, in which two police were badly wounded. My decision was whether to

have their legs amputated in Siem Reap, where we had an Indian field hospital, or

evacuate them to Phnom Penh. The Indonesian was still conscious and he didn't want

to be amputated, so I went with him to Phnom Penh. The Indian doctors told me 'If

he dies on the helicopter, its your responsibility'. When we arrived in Phnom Penh,

the hospital here said the wounds are so bad he has to be evacuated to Bangkok, and

finally he was amputated there. So there were some close calls. One was the elections

itself. Mr Akashi called me and the Bangladeshi military commander [of UNTAC in Siem

Reap] to assess the security situation. He said if the situation is bad, he is willing

to forgo the elections in Siem Reap, or at least part of Siem Reap. We told him that

we felt, with the intelligence reports, that we could proceed. I was sleepless for

a few nights...

The Khmer Rouge

Before UNTAC, when I was in New York, I was very much in diplomatic circles. The

Ambassador of the [resistance government] CGDK was Khmer Rouge, Thiounn Prasith.

Also, once a year when the Cambodian debate took place in the General Assembly, Prince

Sihanouk, as he was at that time, would give a party. He gave the best parties. I

already danced in those days and I'm still dancing. At these parties, KR leaders

also used to come: Khieu Samphan, Tep Khunnal and so on. They would sit, of course

they didn't dance, but they were there.

During the UNTAC period, as I said, the KR was not the enemy. So they were very much

part of the Supreme National Council, and we in Siem Reap we had KR liaison officers

stationed there, together with liaison officers for Funcinpec and KPNLF. For instance,

when those two girls were finished off, I brought the liaison officers from the three

factions and from CPAF [the State of Cambodia army] to the site, about 10km from

the provincial town. It was an attack by the KR on the local UNTAC facilities. Here,

the KR man tells me that 'they' - meaning the local people - are very angry because

these Cambodian ladies were behaving badly with UNTAC civilian police. It was the

people who wanted to punish them, he says. They never said that it was the KR who

did anything, they said it was 'the people'.

On another occasion, the KR massacred 33 Vietnamese in a village, which caused the

exodus of 20,000 Vietnamese. At that time, they said the flames of the anger against

Vietnam had reached an all time high and so on. By the way, the massacre of the Vietnamese,

we knew about beforehand. We had excellent intelligence - British officers, American

officers - who knew that this massacre was going to take place. Two months earlier,

we knew that the KR held meetings in the village and told them they were going to

kill all the Vietnamese. But there was nothing we could do but alert the government

troops. Our troops from Bangladesh were not deployed there, near the Tonle Sap. We

had one battalion and we had already 17 security points to man. They were elections

centers, the 17 points.

The King, Prince Norodom, Ranariddh and Hun Sen

I first met the King in New York. He was very much hopeful that finally peace would

come to his beleaguered country. With regard to Funcinpec, I must say Ranariddh and

Funcinpec expected that we, the UN, by bringing in so-called freedom of expression

and so on, would indirectly help them. Hun Sen on the other hand, as well as CPP

in general, felt that we were actually biased against CPP. The truth of the matter,

as I see it, is that yes, the opening up of Funcinpec offices, for instance, in Siem

Reap, was of course for the local people quite a shock: to see the enemy suddenly

unfurling their flag. So there was a difference in perception and maybe Mr Hun Sen

now appreciates my stay here for the past three years because he realizes that I

have tried to maintain a balance. Whereas Funcinpec, if I may say so, probably still

says that we should help them because they are the liberal democrats and Hun Sen

is the communist dictator. He [Ranariddh] even said that in Siem Reap two days ago.

[But] the UN is not here to wipe out communism - communist countries are in the UN.

The UN is to bring peace and national reconciliation.

Successes and failures of UNTAC

It depends on what criteria we use. There are at least three ways we can look at

it. One is how should UNTAC be evaluated vis-à-vis the mandate given to us.

The second is how should UNTAC be evaluated vis-à-vis other missions in the

world. And the third is how to evaluate UNTAC and its impact on the Cambodian country

and its people.

By number one, if we look at the Paris agreements, the election is specifically mentioned,

so the UNTAC election in itself is considered a success. Of course the results were

not accepted by CPP. But if you compare [UNTAC] to other missions, for example, in

Angola, the elections were rejected by the opposition and they started fighting again.

Then there was Somalia, and Bosnia. Compared to that, even though CPP rejected the

result of the elections, they compromised using the King's formula of 'no winners,

no losers'. The repatriation [of refugees] program was one big success of UNTAC.

The demobilization was not successful because of the failure of the KR to participate.

So when we had the elections, we had four armies armed to their teeth. After the

election, before UNTAC left, General Sanderson was successful in bringing the unification

of three of the four armies. But the biggest failure was that the KR opted out of

the peace process and continued to attack government positions. Now coming to the

third criteria, the impact on the Cambodian people and nation, I think our biggest

achievement was confidence-building. Although there was still KR fighting in the

jungle, for 90 percent of the people in the country, confidence returned. Everybody

talks about foreign aid and investment, but they forget the many, many Cambodian

businesses which have sprung up. There is also the return of confidence in the freedom

of movement, the freedom of expression, which are the basic freedoms in life. Human

rights is also another big component. I'm not saying that UNTAC discovered human

rights. Human rights have been known in Cambodia since the Buddhist religion was

established. But the neglect during the Pol Pot regime...of course required specific

rectification. I think most of all it's the psychological intangible of a return

in confidence. The fact that 89.5 percent voted is of course a big success, a tangible

success, but I talk more about the intangibles...

UNTAC finished September 27, 1993 and we thought it was a big success and it was

presented to the General Assembly as a big success. Actually, it was 'Let's quit

while we are ahead' type of situation. We [didn't] want to get the UN to stay here

forever like Cyprus. The idea was ' It's a big success, let's quit'.

The aims of the Paris Agreements and post-UNTAC Cambodia

Probably what is naive is not that we strive for democracy but that we expect that

it's going to created overnight with one election. UNTAC did not promise [on-going

democracy and human rights]. UNTAC was a transitional authority. It was not UNTAC

that promised those things, it was the Paris agreements. After UNTAC leaves, it's

up to the Cambodian people and their government to establish all these things. We

cannot say 'Now you have paradise'. It's the Cambodian factions themselves who signed

the Paris agreements.... foreigners cannot force them to adopt this and that. Of

course, we can persuade them. Persuasion can mean many things; it can be membership

in ASEAN, it can mean donor coercion, it can mean a [UN] Special Representative on

Human Rights, whose mandate is much more broader than mine.

The coalition government and the Prime Ministers

In the first two years, the Prime Ministers were always working together, because

the KR were still very much there. They were always together. For instance, when

they wanted to close down the Center for Human Rights, it came from both Prime Ministers...

In fact, after the coup d'état attempt in July 1994, they became even more

close. I remember Hun Sen saying, almost with affection, that 'I will protect Samdech

Krom Preah [Ranariddh]'. It was as though he felt superior militarily, and he wanted

to protect him.

I didn't think at all that there was going to be this split in the government. When

the two Prime Ministers first started, there were a lot of predictions that it will

not last, that these were two former enemies. But low and behold, they worked closely

together. I think they realized that peace and reconciliation and strengthening their

fragile power was most helped by working together. That's why I was always optimistic.

It's in their interests to work closely together. All this talk about communism versus

democracy. First of all, CPP officially has said they are no longer communist. Their

attitude toward foreign investment and privatization is by no means communist. But

of course communism itself has become irrelevant after the Cold War collapse. To

say that we are fighting communism is really a little bit out of date. If we look

at election platforms of the parties in 1993... Funcinpec basically said Sihanoukism

is based on nationalism, etc, and CPP basically said we ousted the KR and we are

the only ones who can keep them away. In other words, which of these platforms is

still valid? The KR is more or less licked. Now, Funcinpec at that time said we want

to give the power back to the King, which probably they cannot do any more. I'm not

making value judgments. I'm just comparing what they said.

I think the Khmer Rouge defections are the biggest success [of the government]. And

number two is the economic recovery. Of course in this they were helped by the three

Fs as I call them: foreign investment, foreign aid and foreign tourists. The big

failure, probably, is this continuous political tension which under normal circumstances

could just be attributed to electioneering. Every day in Thailand they talk about

defections from so and so group to so and so party. But here the connotation that

the major parties have armies, it actually makes it very tense. If it was just part

of electioneering, it would be very much part of democracy. That's why the army must

be neutral. it's very significant if it can be implemented.

The next elections and the prospect of civil war

The constitution specifies that we have to have elections. and the only thing that

could postpone them is if there is war. There is a stipulation that if there is a

lot of tension, it could be postponed for one year at a time. It could be one year,

and then one more year. I personally feel that we should not aim for that, because

any extension or delay will not solve the problem. The only way to solve it is through

free and fair elections, because then the will of people will be known. It's very

difficult to predict but my gut instinct is that there will be no large-scale fighting,

but there will be violence. I'm still optimistic and feel that they want the elections.

The on-going role of the UN, the Paris Agreements' signatories,


Let's take the Paris Agreements first. The opinions vary. Some countries say that

the Paris Agreements is finished... others say they are still there... I talk to

the Indonesians and the French; I don't think they want to revive that. Now with

regard to the UN, I think [Secretary-General] Kofi Annan participated in a BBC radio

conference and he said of course Cambodia is very dear to our heart, we had a big

presence there and we would like to see it succeed. But he said we have to look at

peace and democracy everywhere in the world, without saying that there are more grenade

attacks in Algeria. But he said we can't spend more. The UN is not its own master,

but it's member states are. If the Security Council asks the UN to intervene, then

of course it can. That's the only way we can get involved. [But] unless the situation

really descended into violence and bloodshed, which I personally don't think will


I think ASEAN membership is crucial psychologically. They are very close, they meet

very often. I do think that membership is like Mahathir says: It's not to say that

they should straighten their house in order and then become a member. It's the other

way around, let them become a member and we will help them straighten out as very

close friends. ASEAN has the principle of non-interference, but just being in the

club, with the dialogue, can prevent violence. Just like if someone is a naughty

child, you don't stop him being naughty by excluding him. We help each other.

His departure, at the request of Prince Ranariddh

Well, two days ago Ranariddh hosted a dinner for me and before that he invited me

and my wife to his house. He assured me that there is nothing against me personally

and he thanked me, and the King also sent me a very nice letter. Hun Sen's position

on me is quite clear, of course. He appreciates me and sees that I am unbiased. Ranariddh

says he has nothing against me personally and he thanked me, in fact, for protecting

Sirivudh and Sam Rainsy during the UNTAC campaign in Siem Reap. Ranariddh made a

reference to that, and thanked me for bringing democracy to Siem Reap, and well,

also afterwards, but he emphasized my earlier work. I am 60 now and I am due to retire.

Hun Sen asked for me to be continued because in peace-keeping there are instances

where people beyond retirement age have stayed on. Ranariddh has said that [retirement

age] is the only reason why he agreed for me to leave. Well, I don't know maybe it

was a Freudian slip to put the word 'new' in bold [in a letter from Ranariddh to

the UN seeking a new representative to Cambodia], but I would like to leave in peace.

His neutrality and his 'Chey-yo Samdech Hun Sen' speech at a CPP

rally last December.

The Chey-yo thing was like this: in my speech, I said [Hun Sen] works for peace day

and night, because I heard from his staff that he works until 2am. So I [wanted to

say] let's give him a big hand. Now there was no interpreter and there were 20,000

people there staring. So I don't know how to translate that into Khmer, so I said

'Chey-yo [bravo, or hurrah] Samdech Hun Sen'. Now, if we look back to May 23 of 1996,

I was in a celebration of the 1993 elections...in which Ranariddh was invited and

I sat behind him. At that time, I also said ... 'Let's give Samdech Krom Preah a

big hand' and it was translated and they clapped. Sometimes it's a question of practicalities.

I have tried to remain neutral. I try to attend functions from both sides, if I'm

invited. For instance, I attended the CPP congress. I was also invited to the Funcinpec

one but at the last minute they said foreign diplomats are not invited, so I cannot

gatecrash something. In my reporting to New York, I am very balanced, otherwise the

former Secretary-General would not have kept me for three years... As I have said,

Ranariddh and the King have said I have done a lot for Cambodia. Of course, [Ranariddh

cabinet chief] Ly Thuch did say when you have been here for three years, you cannot

be neutral...

- Widyono says he and his wife will initially go to their home in US but intend

at some point to return to live in Indonesia. He is mulling the prospect of writing

a book, and has not ruled out the prospect of returning to Cambodia as an economic

expert for the government, an international organization or a think-tank. His UN

replacement has yet to be named.


  • ‘Education’ a priority traffic-law penalty

    A top National Police official on June 21 neither rejected nor confirmed the authenticity of a leaked audio message, which has gone viral on social media, on a waiver of fines for a number of road traffic-related offences. General Him Yan, deputy National Police chief in

  • Siem Reap’s $18M zoo said to educate public, help wildlife

    Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium Co Ltd has invested $18 million in a zoo in Siem Reap province, which will be opened in October to educate and promote animal conservation as well as attract national and international tourists. Currently, the Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium is building the

  • Volunteer scheme to foster ‘virtuous’ humanitarian spirit

    A senior education official said volunteer work contributes to solidarity and promotes a virtuous humanitarian spirit among the youth and communities. Serei Chumneas, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, made the comment during the opening of a training programme called “

  • Chinese firms unveil preliminary results on metro, monorail for capital

    Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol and representatives from China Road and Bridge Corp (CRBC) and its parent company, the state-owned China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC), met on June 24 for talks on results of the firms’ preliminary study on a potential metro

  • Nestle’s debut may spur dairy market

    Leading confectionery manufacturer Nestle plans to invest in Cambodia by setting up an operation in the near future, a move majorly hailed by local dairy farmers as a means of boosting the fresh milk market in the Kingdom. During a visit by a delegation led

  • ACLEDA, WU to enable global money transfers

    Cambodia's largest commercial bank by total assets ACLEDA Bank Plc and global money transfer firm Western Union (WU) have partnered to offer customers cross-border money transfers to 200 countries via “ACLEDA mobile” app. In Channy, president and group managing director of ACLEDA, said the June 22 agreement