Benny Widyono had a front-row seat during the 1990s for some of the defining events of the Kingdom’s recent history: the 1993 national elections, the break-up of the Funcinpec-Cambodian People’s Party coalition and the struggle to finally defeat the Khmer Rouge. He served first as provincial director – or “shadow governor” – for Siem Reap during the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia from 1992-1993, and later as the United Nations secretary general’s political representative from 1994 to 1997.
An economist and a native of Indonesia, Widyono published a historical memoir relating to his time in Cambodia in 2008 titled Dancing in Shadows. Tonight at 6:00pm, the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Centre at the Royal University of Phnom Penh will host a launch of the book’s Khmer translation. Widyono will join the event for a discussion about the book and his time in Cambodia. He spoke with The Post yesterday about Cambodian politics past and present.
What do you see as UNTAC’s legacy?
It started a process of development, because during the 11 years of these unjust decisions [by Western countries and the UN following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge], Cambodia was isolated. When we established a new government, aid was pouring in like there was no tomorrow, because the Western powers – I think it’s like a white man’s burden. So that, of course, combined with the fact that there was the Asian miracle – it’s foreign aid and also foreign investment.
About political institutions, actually UNTAC did not help much, I must say. The fact that there were two prime ministers was a recipe for disaster. I haven’t seen any other country where there were two prime ministers. First there was a short honeymoon period, and then they started fighting each other.
With the United Nations having shunned the government of what is now the Cambodian People’s Party for so many years after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, how were you and other members of the UNTAC mission received when you arrived in 1992?
For 11 years, Hun Sen doesn’t exist for the UN, so it’s an ostrich policy – putting their heads in the sand. I was in Siem Reap, supposed to be the governor of Siem Reap. When I arrived there, I presented my credentials, I said ‘I’m the governor,’ and the real governor said, ‘I’m the governor.’ This mandate for us to control the government with a handful of people who don’t even speak Khmer was a ridiculous mandate. We had trouble from the beginning.
It is often said that Hun Sen bullied his way into the coalition with Norodom Ranariddh and Funcinpec. Do you think this is a fair assessment, and if so, is there anything UNTAC could have done to prevent it?
The UN had nothing to do with this coalition government. Our task was to do the elections and leave it, like Pontius Pilate, and say ‘You take care of that.’ So it was left for [King Father Norodom] Sihanouk to decide on this, and he said ‘Children, children, don’t quarrel, you can both be prime minister’ – Ranariddh and Hun Sen.
The [King] father is a very realistic man. Because of all this - Hun Sen has stayed there [in government] for 11 years - [Ranariddh] agreed to share the prime ministership, but from the beginning, he was the loser.
Could it have been avoided? UNTAC had no power to disturb, but suppose UNTAC said, according to the [UN] Security Council, we have to declare that the winner should be the head of the government. Then we could have had problems because of that.
If we had insisted that Norodom Ranariddh would have been the only prime minister, probably that would have happened, but it was not in our mandate. Wrongly, people say that UNTAC had the stupid decision of having two prime ministers, but that’s not true – it’s Sihanouk.
What is your view of the factional fighting in 1997 that resulted in Ranariddh’s ousting, and which many have called a coup d’etat?
The problem is [Ranariddh] came in from outside. He won the election, because that’s what the people voted for, but the government was 11 years established here, so he had a hard time. He had no one. He had a handful of people from outside, so he called himself a puppet governor. It’s like a losing proposition for Ranariddh, so that ended up in a violent clash in 1997. I don’t call it a coup d’etat for very simple reason – because Hun Sen had already all the power in his hands – why should he coup d’etat against himself?
Do you feel that the current government has been allowed for too long to use Cambodia’s status as a post-conflict country as an excuse for limited political reforms?
My perspective on that is, where in Asia do you have democracy? India is a democracy, and I must say proudly, Indonesia. Singapore is not yet a democracy; of course Burma, forget it. Thailand is in turmoil now. Full democracy, it’s very difficult to achieve. It’s through the maturity of the society, it has to mature. Indonesia is more mature now after 32 years of totalitarian power. I certainly recognise it’s not the best here, [but] maybe my opinion is shared by these donors who continue to pour in all this money.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED AND EDITED BY JAMES O’TOOLE