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close this bookVolunteers against Conflict (UNU, 1996, 252 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentForeword
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
View the document1. Organizing Elections in a Mine Field: The Cambodian Challenge
View the document2. The Politics of Reassurance: International Presence at the Local Level in South Africa
View the document3. Voting for Peace: Preparing for Post-war Democracy in Mozambique
View the document4. End of the War Machinery: Demobilization in Mozambique
View the document5. Caught in the Crossfire: Dilemmas of Human Rights Protection in Former Yugoslavia
View the document6. Back from Rwanda: Confronting the Aftermath of Genocide
View the document7. Behind the Compound Wall: Volunteerism under Challenge in Somalia
View the document8. Part of the System: Varieties of Volunteer Support Roles
View the document9. The Art of Building Peace: Artisan Skills for Development and Peace in South Asia
View the documentConclusion: UN Volunteers and the United Nations System
View the documentPostscript
View the documentAcronyms
View the documentBack cover

1. Organizing Elections in a Mine Field: The Cambodian Challenge

Nandini Srinivasan

Nandini Srinivasan is an Indian national born in 1961. Presently a lecturer in social sciences at the University of Malawi, she served as a UN Volunteer District Electoral Supervisor, who also worked in human rights within the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia from July 1992 to June 1993. She holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Bombay.


THERE WERE NO sounds of exploding mines or gunfire, nor evidence of any physical threat at the time of my arrival in Phnom Penh mid-1992, nearly a year before the elections slated for May 1993. On the contrary, the main streets were alive with the roar of congested traffic, four-wheel drive cars, cycle rickshaws, moto taxis. Large billboards advertised the local Tiger beer; restaurants were doing business all around the city. The old central market, where shoppers could buy anything from bananas to 24 carat gold, was buzzing with activity from morning to evening. On the surface, everything seemed peaceful.

The Cambodians appeared at first to the casual observer as innocent, warm-hearted, and friendly people. A closer look, however, combined with serious conversations with them, quickly revealed unseen tensions and anxieties, as well as their resilient, confident, and courageous nature. Their revelations were terrifying and pathetic. Almost each one had a story about the loss of a dear one; stories surfaced of torture and brutal treatment at the hands of the former Khmer Rouge regime. But it was not easy to get a Cambodian to speak. One could read fear in Cambodian faces, fear of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader who overthrew the government in 1975 and engineered millions of deaths, fear of mines, fear of many unknown things. Therefore, to get a Cambodian to trust and to talk required patience, understanding, and compassion. In spite of what they had gone through, the Cambodian people still had hope, which was now placed in an apparently straightforward project: holding democratic elections. They looked to the international community for the means that they expected would ensure their future peace and prosperity.

Organizing elections in a country where invisible mines, both underground and psychological, could blow up during any step and stage of the process, meant Cambodia was going to be a real challenge. This challenge extended to the Cambodians themselves and to everyone serving with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), especially for the United Nations Volunteers charged with organizing elections at the local level.

I served as a UN Volunteer in Cambodia for one year. Out of that experience I learned about the Cambodian people, their way of life, and their aspirations for the future. I also learned about organizing elections and conducting civic and human rights education within a United Nations mission. In this chapter, I will describe the role the UN Volunteers played in the electoral process in Cambodia within the complex UNTAC operation.


After centuries of foreign interference, and many brushes with near-disintegration, Cambodia by the early 1990s had survived its difficult history and one of the most horrible and systematic genocides of modern times.1 The country was the victim of the East-West Cold War game, and a battleground for outside ideological and political currents, the economic ambitions of Thailand, and the demographic pressures of Vietnam. Cambodia was indeed a traumatized country.2

Since 1979, when the Pol Pot regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese troops, Cambodia had been under constant UN purview, leading to several initiatives by the UN Secretary-General. After decades of conflict, the conditions for the signing of a peace agreement began to materialize in the 1980s. The less active role of the former Soviet Union in world affairs, the converging commercial interests of China and Vietnam, and the charismatic figure of Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk set the framework that would make possible the launching of an active United Nations operation in Cambodia. The process of dialogue and negotiation gathered momentum in the late 1980s and led to the first face-to-face talks between all four Cambodian factions3 at the Jakarta Informal Meeting in Indonesia in July 1988, followed by a second meeting in February 1989. A general understanding emerged from the discussions that an international control mechanism should help supervise any agreement reached by the factions.4

The four Cambodian factions, along with 19 countries, participated in the month-long Paris Peace Conference held in July 1989 at the initiative of the French government. Following additional meetings in 1990,5 a second session of the Paris Peace Conference took place in October 1991. These efforts finally culminated in a 1991 peace plan, known generally as the Paris Peace Agreements.6

The peace plan also recognized an enhanced UN role in Cambodia and anticipated the establishment of UNTAC, which UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called "[m]assive in size, comprehensive in scope and precise in its mandate.... "7 UNTAC was the result of a very special confluence of events in international relations, and it was specifically designed for the complexity of the Cambodian situation.8 UNTAC was composed of both civilian and military components. These components were designed to further the national security of Cambodia during the transitional period, which spanned the time between the Paris Peace Agreement and the completion of free and fair elections.9

The UNTAC mandate was comprehensive, and it provided for seven components, covering civil administration, military matters, civil police (CIVPOL), human rights, elections, rehabilitation, and repatriation.10 The electoral component, in which UN Volunteers served, was charged with organizing the electoral process, developing a framework of laws and regulations to govern the elections, and undertaking large-scale civic education and training for the local Cambodian electoral staff. Among other duties, the military component was responsible for disarming the factions, which was necessary for the peaceful conduct of the elections. This meant finding and confiscating caches of weapons and military supplies throughout Cambodia, assisting with mine clearance, and teaching the Cambodian people about the millions of mines that remained in the ground.11


The largest number of UNTAC civilian staff was concentrated in the electoral component, which included the 465 UN Volunteers District Electoral Supervisors deployed in 172 districts of the 18 provinces of the country.12

Stationed around the country, including some of the most remote are as, UN Volunteer specialists constituted the forward line of the UN electoral presence throughout Cambodia. "They were the spearhead of consciousness-raising for democracy," wrote Yasushi Akashi, Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Cambodia.13 Coming from 65 countries,14 with diverse academic and professional backgrounds, the volunteers had the distinction of being the only arm of UNTAC to live and work continuously in local communities. UNV District Electoral Supervisors were the heart of the electoral component.

Our role in Cambodia demanded intense community involvement, since we conducted the electoral organizational process at the village level. We also carried out a massive education campaign to inform Cambodians about the elections, slated for May 1993, and democratic principles. In this work we were assisted by the 50,000 Cambodians whom we recruited, trained, and deployed throughout the districts.

On arrival in Cambodia, we underwent a six-week intensive training in the Khmer language and culture, organized by the UNV Support Unit,15 before we were deployed to our respective districts. The training acquainted us with local traditions, the Khmer language, and the basics of Khmer culture, and helped us greatly in the field. Over and above the instruction on language and culture, the most valuable aspect of our training was in the informal interaction between the UN Volunteers and our Cambodian teachers, young men and women who, while not formally trained as teachers, shared with us their experiences and opened our eyes to the untold miseries they or their families had suffered.

UN Volunteers was the only arm of UNTAC that benefited from an extensive training programme. This training period also provided a time for our own orientation and our transition into living for a year among the people in remote districts of the country. By receiving training and time to adjust, we avoided many of the potential pitfalls of being sent into the field too early. Volunteers also learned informally about the ways of the people through sidewalk conversations and everyday contact during these weeks of training in the capital city.


We proceeded to our respective districts with mixed feelings of excitement and enthusiasm, and anxiety and fear since no district was free from the threat of violence. Once in the districts, UN Volunteers in teams of two found appropriate locations, and established district electoral offices and living quarters, usually near our offices. This work was done in consultation with CIVPOL at the district level, the provincial military component, and commune chiefs.

Reaching some districts was very tough due to prevailing bad road conditions and the ever-present possibility of land mines. In some areas the only way to move was by helicopter or boat. Visiting districts was also difficult due to the varying road conditions from province to province, and among districts within provinces. For instance, one UN Volunteer recounted that a trip that should have taken 13 hours took 64, and included such rigors as "killing two cars, crossing three rivers and cutting a giant tree."

The first and the most effective message conveyed to the local people was that we UN Volunteers, as part of the UNTAC staff, were going to live with them in their villages for the ensuing months and work towards holding free and fair elections. Communicating this plan alone made for the beginnings of a healthy, warm, personal relationship with the people. In this manner, UN Volunteers slowly and steadily built up local support and established communications at the grassroots, complementing the work of the various UNTAC components.

An important step at the early stages of district election organization was the recruitment and training of Cambodian staff to work with UN Volunteers in registration and civic education teams. UN Volunteers also recruited local interpreters who worked hand-in-hand with us. Recruitment of Cambodians was a useful exercise in itself. It gave us the opportunity to get to know the young people in the country, and to discover their own assessments and expectations from UNTAC. They were proud to be part of UNTAC and were eager to perform their tasks. This became obvious in their level of commitment to UNTAC's objectives and their corresponding high level of performance. They were instrumental in establishing effective communications between UN Volunteers and the local people. In a short time, our Cambodian colleagues functioned as our eyes and ears.

Phnom Penh and the nearby provinces of Kandal and Takaeo became scenes of immediate success during the early phase of voter registration, which began in October 1992. More than 27,000 Cambodians registered in 22 sites in the capital city alone during the first week of registration. In Mundulkiri ("Middle of the Mountains" in Khmer), however, geographical conditions required an extra effort from UN Volunteers, if all the population was to be registered. UN Volunteers traveled the mountainous terrain by traversing narrow jungle roads and crossing almost impassable rivers, in search of some 21,000 people, mostly non-Khmer, who lived in 87 villages scattered throughout the province.

In other provinces such as in Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham, Kampong Speu, and Siem Reap, the situation was even more difficult. These provinces prepared for registration under the most tense conditions. The Khmer Rouge faction, which had participated in the Paris Peace Conference and signed the Peace Agreements, did not abide by them and soon started to boycott the electoral process.16 The lack of cooperation by this major faction in the elections resulted in high levels of violence and increased security problems for the UN, including its volunteers.

A helicopter carrying UN Volunteers to Varin in the Khmer Rouge-controlled Siem Reap district was fired on, wounding a volunteer in the leg. Registration in the district was abandoned. Meanwhile, in the Svay Leau district, the electoral office and UN Volunteers' house was shelled, preventing further registration activity at that site. As a result, other means were devised to reach the voters, including wholesale transporting of people from this district to an adjoining one where they could register.

In Kampong Thom province, in the centre of the country, the UN Volunteers were operating in areas partly controlled by the Khmer Rouge. To register the voters, UN Volunteers had to devise complicated strategies in coordination with the CIVPOL, the military component, and the civil administration, while they were under direct threat of attack and shelling.17

Yet, on the whole, the first phase of the electoral process got underway remarkably well throughout the country. The corresponding repatriation of 350,000 Cambodians living in the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border was being carried out successfully, although the process was painfully slow and difficult. This was the first large repatriation operation of its kind in the history of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the lead agency in charge of coordinating repatriation. To accommodate the late arrivals, the voter registration period was extended to register the returning refugees.


Any assessment of UNTAC's performance must include the element of mutual trust and confidence that was built between the population and UNTAC, despite the serious ups and downs in the process of holding elections. A significant factor responsible for the overwhelming response of Cambodians to the electoral operation was, in fact, the manner and extent to which civic education was carried out.

From the day of our arrival in the districts, we established our presence in the community and opened a direct channel for communication. Every informal meeting with villagers, monks, local chiefs, and others was an opportunity to pass on valuable information, to guide them in a particular direction, and to get a feeling for their expectations and own responses. Conducting civic education sessions in coordination with the commune chiefs, generally at the Buddhist temples, was a major activity for us, both before registration and until the general elections.

A wide range of educational material was produced by UNTAC. Pamphlets, posters, books, and audio and video cassettes explained in detail the election process.18 The Cambodians welcomed this information and were particularly interested in the democratic experience of other countries. Eager to rid themselves of the nightmare of the totalitarian regime, Cambodians reacted favorably to new information; their excitement was clear from their responses. During civic education sessions, Cambodians described to us their fearful and gloomy past, the deaths of those they loved. In listening to these personal histories and tragic stories, we became temporary members of families where, in the act of communicating understanding, language differences were no longer a barrier.

In some districts UN Volunteers supplemented the UNTAC civic education materials with their own ideas. For example, in one province the volunteers found a way to use theatre to promote registration, which was very well received by the villagers and people living in communes. Generally, the civic education sessions felt like social gatherings where men, women, and children gathered in large numbers, delighted to see the television screens and so many new people around them. Balloons and candies were often distributed to children, adding to the festive air.

Civic education was not confined to information pertaining to elections. It also covered a wide range of issues on the process of democratization, and general information on human rights. UN Volunteers regularly assisted provincial human rights officers in disseminating human rights materials because civic education was also an integral part of the activity of the human rights component of UNTAC.

Passing the word: civic education conducted in the remote Ratanakiri province by a UNV District Electoral Supervisor and local Cambodian staff. Photo: UN Photo 186121/J. Isaac

The Buddhist monks also played an important role as a focal point in the civic education programmes in coordination with us, often lending the use of their temples to UN Volunteers for the purpose of ongoing education gatherings, registration, and polling. The Grand Patriarch Tep Vong, Cambodia's spiritual leader, organized mobile meditation teams to visit locations throughout the country for two months leading up to the election, carrying the message of peace. Consequently, UN Volunteers found common ground with Cambodia's religious community, which, while it shared enthusiasm for the goals of UNTAC, remained neutral during the election campaign.

The earlier experiences of genocide, occupation, and totalitarian government in Cambodia meant that the civic education campaign organized and taught by UN Volunteers became more than simply a matter of a national civics class. It was a seed of democratic principle that volunteers hope will flourish beyond the time of the elections and into the future as the country evolves into a true democracy.

The job of conducting education sessions, initially done by UN Volunteers, was eventually passed to the local staff under UNV guidance to enhance the "Cambodianness" of the electoral process and Cambodian ownership of the elections. The Cambodian civic education teams and interpreters became eloquent advocates of democracy, and expressed confidence in the process as they carried the message of free and fair elections in their own language to the people. The educational materials they used paved the way for healthy discussions at the end of each presentation. "Civic education," a UN Volunteer pointed out, "was a human resource building operation too, not insignificant in a country like Cambodia." In these large gatherings, our Cambodian counterparts also emphasized the all-important principle of secrecy of the vote.

During the anxious and stressful final weeks before the elections, UN Volunteers traveled extensively in their districts to emphasize the secrecy of the ballot. It was repeated, through all possible aids, including visual and written materials, that "your vote is your secret." One volunteer, describing this process, said, "We pointed out at least a hundred times in each session, that nobody, not the Khmer Rouge, not Hun Sen (at that time the prime minister), nor his State of Cambodia Police, nor anybody else would ever know whom they voted for, if they didn't tell anyone. And the miracle happened: the Cambodians believed us."19

UN Volunteer specialists also trained the local polling staff and party agents in a detailed and systematic way. At the end of the elections the performance of the Cambodian polling staff was highly commended.

Getting to the people: a UNV District Electoral Supervisor and a UN Civilian Police officer crossing the Mekong River, Cambodia, 1992. Photo: UNV/Kathleen Craf


While living in Cambodia, I discovered that the Cambodians have a fascination for Indian films, songs, and, especially, for Indian movie stars. I learned this through my own experiences traveling to the districts in my Indian saree. The villagers thought I was going to sing and dance for them! Instead, I taught them about elections and learned about their own society.

One aspect of the Cambodian society I found striking was the status and role of women. Women played the lead role in business, as well as in the family, due to the tragic Pol Pot era, when so many men died. Even as they played a dynamic social role, the Cambodian women preserved their culture, dignity, and morale. Women political candidates also appeared to be competent and confident.

After my initial training, I was deployed to the northern province of Siem Reap as the District Electoral Supervisor for Banteay Srey. Once I and my teammate had completed the preliminary findings on our area, I was called to the provincial headquarters and remained there until the end of the mission.

My new duties included conducting civic education programmes in coordination with all UN Volunteers province-wide, coordinating with the human rights component on human rights education programmes, compiling weekly reports submitted by volunteers throughout the province, and gathering information on the activities of the political parties. I was also a member of the Committee on Complaints and Compliance, which dealt with reported violations of electoral laws and abuses of human rights. On election day, I was the International Polling Station Observer in the district of Puok in Siem Reap province.

During the first six months, I mainly worked on civic education and human rights programmes. These were designed for specific groups, such as schoolteachers, judicial staffs, and the police. I conducted a 12-session course on human rights for secondary school teachers and the staff of the provincial court. At the end of the course certificates were awarded. It was fascinating for me to conduct these courses, and to find out that most civil and political rights seemed new and strange to the people. For example, the concept of the right to form trade unions sounded not only strange, but also unacceptable to the judicial staffs, including the judges.

In the later period before the elections, as both political activities and the corresponding violence increased, the work of the Committee on Complaints and Compliance also increased. I represented the electoral component on the committee, and as such was a part of ongoing investigations. I also frequently communicated with political party officials regarding their campaigns, complaints, and the general climate of political activity.


The security and the political situation became volatile in some provinces as preparations continued for the final, hectic phase of our mission, the elections. This deteriorating situation, however, did not prevent Cambodian society from becoming gradually accustomed to the idea of democracy and to developing its own democratic mechanisms, starting with the creation of a pluralist system of parties. Political parties with platforms and ideologies officially registered themselves. At the national level there were 20 of them. Yet, for practical or security reasons, only seven or eight parties opened offices in the provinces.

There were four main political parties. The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was the ruling political party of the State of Cambodia. Just a week before the Paris Peace Conference, this party abandoned its Communist-based policies and officially adopted the principles of multiparty democracy and free economy. The United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), founded in 1981 by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was originally a liberation front aimed at ending the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. It transformed itself into a political party in 1992. The Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), which had first emerged in 1979, turned into the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP). This was one of the several groups fighting against the Khmer Rouge rule; after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements, this group also transformed itself into a political party. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), formerly KPNLAF, a non-Communist resistance army, was Cambodia's oldest political party; it reestablished itself in 1992. These main political parties, along with the smaller ones that registered, were eager to carry out their campaign activities. The people were also looking forward to participating in these meetings and being introduced to their potential leaders.

Unfortunately, an environment where parties could exercise their right to propagate their viewpoints and campaign freely did not come about in Cambodia. The concept that all political parties enjoy an equal right to campaign did not reach the party workers and their followers. They continued to act on the assumption that competition in elections presupposed physical fighting, including attacks and assaults against rival party workers and disruptions of their meetings. The ruling Cambodian People's Party was the greatest violator of democratic norms during this period. It exercised its high-handedness by openly using the state-controlled Cambodian People's Armed Forces (CPAF) and the State of Cambodia Police for political activities.

Government officials, secondary school teachers, and others were forced to campaign for the CPP. Public buildings were used as party offices. The aspirations of other parties were frustrated by continual attacks. Cambodian army soldiers also resorted to plundering the villages and creating a reign of terror. Probably fueled by the suspicion and fear that other parties enjoyed greater public sympathy and support, the CPP resorted to confiscating voters' registration cards. Rumors were spread that those who had no cards could not vote, or that the identification number of the confiscated cards was recorded and that their votes would not be secret.

Meanwhile, complaints from individuals and political parties were piling up at the UNTAC provincial offices. At UNTAC Phnom Penh headquarters, a Complaints and Compliance Unit was set up to look into the most serious cases and conduct investigations. At the provincial level, a committee composed of several UNTAC components was set up to deal with complaints. This committee held regular meetings with the local army and police chiefs, and sought their cooperation in conducting impartial enquiries.

The work of these committees was extremely slow and hazardous because of the well-known and particular role of the army and the police as tools of the ruling party. Moreover, in the interest of the security of the victims, it was not possible to reveal identities of victims. Neither was it possible in most cases to establish the identity of the offenders.

The UNTAC staff closely watched these gross violations of democratic norms and the sufferings of the villagers. The UN Volunteers offices were flooded with complaints and grievances from the people. They demanded justice from the UN Volunteers, to whom they could pour out their hearts. Most of the time we felt absolutely helpless. The promise of securing a "neutral" or "free and fair" political environment seemed meaningless.

To counter the growing fears, UN Volunteers stepped up the campaign to boost the morale of the people. We accelerated civic education programmes, particularly regarding the "tendered" ballot, a system whereby Cambodians could vote even without their registration cards, provided they had registered previously. We emphasized to future voters that even if their voter cards had been illegally confiscated, they could still vote and their vote would be secret.


A very destabilizing factor for us as UN Volunteers in the field was the contrast between the expected democratic character of the elections and the physically dangerous environment in which its preparation was taking place. Demobilization and disarmament, which should have been completed before the beginning of the election period, were abandoned.20

Security conditions, which kept fluctuating, were therefore obviously a matter of great concern for UN Volunteers. And as UN Special Representative Yasushi Akashi described it later, there was also the "... nagging question among Volunteers, particularly from the Western countries, as to the validity of elections held in an atmosphere of insecurity and the threat to freedom of expression or movement."21

Overall, the situation was becoming increasingly tense, particularly in the strategic provinces of Kampong Thom, Battambang, and Siem Reap. Violent incidents such as blowing up of bridges, exchanges of artillery fire between the two factions, and all-night shelling multiplied. In several districts UN Volunteers spent long nights in bunkers. In Kampong Thom province, two important bridges on national Route 6 linking Phnom Penh to the north and a smaller bridge on Route 21 were blown up on 13 October 1992. UN Volunteers in some parts of this province heard constant shellings at night. They expressed a need for clear information about the security situation, especially during these tense periods. In my Siem Reap province, the districts of Varin and Svay Leau controlled by the Khmer Rouge were totally inaccessible.

Political violence coupled with escalating military activity threatened the conducting of elections on schedule. Two of the major political parties expressed their dissatisfaction with UNTAC. One of the two was the Cambodian People's Party, which was itself repeatedly challenged by UNTAC for misconduct, crimes, and violations of human rights. The CPP did not find UNTAC to be a supporter and defender of the government, which it probably had expected, and it started to openly criticize the operation.

The FUNCINPEC was gravely concerned by the murders of its party workers. In December 1992, Prince Sihanouk issued a statement saying that he could not "... stay without reacting when confronted with the multiplication of political terrorist acts and the continuation, with absolute impunity, of crimes with political motivation."22 He also said that the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia was apparently incapable of stopping the violence, and threatened to stop working with UNTAC and the government of Cambodia if they could not maintain peace in the country.23

The Khmer Rouge engaged in ongoing attempts to destabilize the country. One of its methods was the slaughter of the Vietnamese in Cambodia. One evening in March 1993, a band of gunmen attacked a floating village of sleeping Vietnamese fisherman in the north of Tonle Sap Lake. Thirty-five people were killed and 24 others were injured. Two weeks later, in another floating village, eight more Vietnamese were murdered.24

Starting in early 1993, the movements of UN Volunteers and local staff within the districts for education and preparation of polling had to be curtailed because of the danger. The general sentiment was that UNTAC had failed in its basic task of securing an environment conducive to the elections. It was embarrassing for us as UN Volunteers to explain the ideas of freedom of expression and political assembly, and at the same time to helplessly watch the gross violations of basic human rights.

There was another problem connected to the deteriorating security situation. During the recruitment of the local polling staff, thousands of candidates thronged to the district offices seeking to be hired by UNTAC. UN Volunteers even discovered that Cambodian People's army soldiers and local policemen had appeared at the exam to qualify as polling officials, which was forbidden under electoral rules, and had passed the exam before it was discovered that they were soldiers and policemen. Some of the Cambodians who were not recruited expressed their disappointment and anger at the UN Volunteer recruiting officials. Several UN Volunteers received threatening messages.

In sensitive provinces, we UN Volunteers frequently faced intimidation and threats from the very people who initially welcomed us with warmth and friendliness. Suddenly they turned indifferent and even hostile. The Cambodian staff were also victims of intimidation. The same staff who at one time had taken so much pride in being part of UNTAC now had to conceal their identity cards. In spite of this, these Cambodians continued to perform their duties with the same spirit and enthusiasm, even as deteriorating conditions led to UNTAC, CIVPOL, and military casualties in ambushes or mine explosions.

These frustrations and anxieties crystallized in the tragic murder on 8 April 1993 of Atsuhito Nakata, UN District Electoral supervisor, and his Cambodian colleague. Lay Sok Phiep, in Kampong Thom. The volunteers of that province had repeatedly expressed concerns about their own safety, since the province had long been a site of cease-fire violations and political violence. Following the death of our Japanese colleague, 10 out of 16 UN Volunteers in the province of Kampong Thom decided to leave the mission because of dejection, anger, and fear for their own lives. UN Volunteers in Khmer Rouge-controlled areas in other provinces almost had to give up their districts, as in Svay Leu and Varin, or operate in a very cautious and restrained way.

With elections drawing closer, we volunteers found we could no longer inject optimism into the scene as we had in the initial period of our assignment. As of April 1993, one UN Volunteer had been wounded in ambush, one had been injured by an exploding mine, one had been bitten by a poisonous snake, and one had been murdered. All these incidents occurred while the UN Volunteers were performing their duties. About 25 per cent of the UN Volunteers suffered from one kind of illness or another, including malaria and dengue fever. The longer the UN Volunteers were in the country, the greater were the risks to their own personal security. We pressed for improved security arrangements and a review of the prospects for free and fair elections.

An emergency two-day security workshop was held in mid-April 1993 in response to the mass discontent, fear, and anxiety among UN Volunteers about the deteriorating security situation and the absence of a neutral political environment. Chaired by the UN Volunteers deputy executive coordinator and attended by all UNV district electoral supervisors and senior UNTAC staff in Phnom Penh, the meeting's objective was to determine the security conditions in the provinces and to address security issues through measures to be adopted and implemented. As a result, Force Commander Lieutenant-General J.M. Sanderson promised to increase the military response to the needs of the electoral component as we got closer to the elections. He emphasized the need for more coordination and cooperation between electoral and military personnel.

In the security meeting the UN Volunteers were asked by UNTAC officials not to show the same enthusiasm and vigor as during the registration period. We also were asked to restrict our activities, and not to venture in areas that we felt were not safe without CIVPOL or military escort. Special Representative of the Secretary-General Akashi and Lieutenant-General Sanderson asserted that if the election did not take place as scheduled, it would never happen. The probability of war breaking out if elections were canceled in May was reasonably high, they said.25

Despite the lack of clear assurances that their safety could be guaranteed, a large majority of the UN Volunteers returned to their districts, ready to stay until the task was accomplished. One UN Volunteer from a high-risk area was heard to say: "We have worked for this so long and we would like to see some fruitful results." Out of the 465 district electoral supervisors, 60 decided not to go back to their districts. Some of those had faced serious difficulties and life-threatening situations; others were simply skeptical or discouraged.

The feeling of security or insecurity among the UN Volunteers depended heavily on the level of communication and confidence between the electoral and the military components in the provinces. For instance, in Kampong Thom province, the UN Volunteers stated that they doubted the ability of the Indonesian battalion to protect them effectively, especially after an Indonesian battalion camp had been overrun in late March 1993 by undisciplined government soldiers trying to steal radios.

In contrast, in the province of Siem Reap the security conditions were even worse than those in Kampong Thom, but a major difference was the confidence the UN Volunteers had in the Bangladesh battalion. Chief Electoral Officer Professor Reginald Austin agreed that "there is a high level of confidence in the military in Siem Reap even though it is actually a much more disturbed place than Kampong Thom."26

Fortunately, the situation by the end of April and early May 1993 was relatively quiet. It was, however, the uneasy calm before the storm. Following a brief respite, a final and severe challenge to UNTAC's ability to hold elections on time came in the form of surprise attacks by the Khmer Rouge as it made its last effort to sabotage the elections. It attacked four of the provinces, one after another.27

In the very early hours of 3 May 1993, shelling and firing began in Siem Reap, the province where I worked. It was countered by firing from the state army. Cross-fire continued for nearly six hours before the Khmer Rouge army retreated. Once again, an uneasy calm descended over the country, and continued until the day of the general elections.

Contrary to all expectations, the Cambodian elections were held peacefully at the end of May. They were a great victory for the Cambodians, for UNTAC, and for the UN Volunteers. More than 4 million Cambodians, representing 89.6 per cent of the registered voters, cast their ballots at the 1,400 fixed polling stations or at the 200 mobile stations in remote or dangerous areas.28


Taking part in the 24,000-person UNTAC operation, against heavy odds, in setting up the democratic process in Cambodia was an extraordinary experience. This was my first mission and it proved to be not only highly challenging but also very rewarding personally. I particularly enjoyed the civic education sessions in the villages and communes. For each one of the UN Volunteer specialists serving in Cambodia, and especially for those deployed in sensitive provinces, the mission was a test of confidence, tolerance, and determination.

Above all, the major requirements towards making a satisfactory contribution in any operation are commitment and faith in the objective of the operation. Granted an enormous amount of responsibility, we UN Volunteers performed our duties under physically demanding conditions, and were constantly vulnerable to reactions of those around us.

However, at the end of the day, we UN Volunteers felt that it had been worth all the trouble. The large turnout of voters in long queues on 23 May brushed aside all fears and vividly demonstrated to all of us the reason we had stayed on. The success of the Cambodian election was also a personal achievement for everyone in UNTAC.

Serving with UNTAC in the field required a great deal of adaptability and flexibility. Often the situations in the districts were not fully understood and appreciated at the provincial headquarters and the national capital. Therefore, decisions taken at higher levels frequently did not reflect local requirements. This often led to frustration and dejection. An UNTAC official who worked as a provincial human rights officer and later became UNTAC special prosecutor in Phnom Penh went so far as to say that people at the provincial headquarters or national capital give "... ridiculous orders which sometimes just have to be disobeyed because they are not safe.... "29

Functioning between these two influences - the on-the-ground reality and the official policy - also required special qualities. Adaptability was essential to manage the physical and social conditions, but it was also necessary to respect the local traditions and cultures in order to earn the cooperation and friendship of the people. In Cambodia, for instance, women have a strong sense of proper dress, and the society did not approve of short dresses. Most UN Volunteers respected this tradition and dressed accordingly.

Though UN Volunteers had the capacity and dedication to carry out their responsibilities, the level of success in achieving the desired results and overcoming the dangers depended greatly on the ability of each UN Volunteer to establish and maintain good working relationships with people from other UNTAC components. A greater understanding of each other's backgrounds, combined with more efforts at tolerance, could have furthered mutual cooperation and cordiality.

CIVPOL's presence at the district level added support and assistance in the vital areas of transportation and logistics. UN Volunteers confidence was increased by district-level meetings with local police and army representatives to exchange views on security issues. The provincial level military component kept a close watch and an obvious presence in the provinces. Within the provinces, UN Volunteer specialists stayed in constant communication with each other through hand radio and car radio sets. In some provinces, the provincial electoral officer called for a weekly meeting of all UN Volunteers at the provincial headquarters.

A major difficulty we UN Volunteers faced within UNTAC was our relationship with the CIVPOL. The civilian police force was drawn from different ranks and nations, and there were great variations in their conduct and performance. There were, in fact, many instances in which the CIVPOL's negligence towards their duty or outright misconduct could have put the lives of UNTAC personnel, and especially of UN Volunteers, in danger. These cases of negligence or misconduct also could have had a disastrous effect on UNTAC's image in the eyes of the local population.30 In several districts, UN Volunteers who worked closely with the CIVPOL were obliged to express their disapproval and disappointment.

One of the shortcomings of this operation was the lack of coordination and effective communication between UNTAC components. Each UNTAC component (e.g. military, CIVPOL, electoral, etc.) tightly safeguarded its operational jurisdiction and authority. This hampered the cordiality between the components. For example, there could have been improved coordination between the UNTAC electoral and human rights components, since public education was an integral part of both. Unfortunately, coordination between these two components did not improve. In some provinces, it was purely through the individual initiatives of the UN Volunteers that human rights education - normally in the purview of the human rights component - was carried out by the electoral staff.

Some other negative aspects of UNTAC operation, especially social problems such as prostitution, emerged out of relations with the local population. For example, in some instances of attacks on UNTAC police residences by the local uniformed officials, the motive turned out to be UNTAC police officers relations with local women. The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) held a workshop in April 1993 on "The Social Consequences of the Peace Process in Cambodia," which recommended stricter guidelines governing recruitment, briefing, and training of peacekeeping personnel.31

UN personnel involved with peacekeeping and electoral duties could have also become involved with post-conflict community development work and thus become a part of the rehabilitation and reconstruction process. Some of the UN Volunteers had a strong desire to continue their work in this direction. We wanted to train and educate the local population on a variety of issues, such as sanitation and deforestation. Our year-long acquaintance with Cambodia produced a very clear idea of local needs and requirements. Unfortunately, as a general rule, this did not happen. After the elections, most UN Volunteer specialists were repatriated.


"Nothing the UN has ever done can match this operation," said UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali just before Cambodia's elections.32 UNTAC was the first comprehensive peacekeeping operation undertaken by the UN in a member state. Despite the difficulties, UNTAC's success ultimately was seen as a demonstration of the ability of the United Nations to organize elections.

UN Volunteers played a central role in achieving this task. The operation placed great demands on us. In addition to professional and educational qualifications and experience in our respective fields, our tasks required the non-quantitative qualities of courage and determination to live under circumstances where even the basic necessities of life were not always adequately secured. In addition, what made UN Volunteers different from other components was our daily contact with the population, which was our own distinct advantage.

Civic education was a significant factor in dispelling the fear that gripped Cambodia. As a fellow UN Volunteer summed it up, "The voters had fears. Fear of being killed, fear of being isolated, fear of losing face, fear of being seen as a cynic and fear of being declared renegade.... Our strongest weapon to root out the fear in voters was the provision of secrecy of the ballot." The success of the civic education programme represented a crucial contribution in the final victory of the ballot box in May 1993.

Credit also goes to the military chief and his component for showing great restraint throughout the operation. UNTAC maintained its position as a peacekeeping force, and did not change into a peace enforcing force, despite numerous requests for more forceful action against the Khmer Rouge because of its non-compliance with the Paris Agreements.33 The Cambodian experience demonstrated the effectiveness of establishing a mass presence of international and local staff all over the country. The presence of three parallel UNTAC components, military, civilian police, and electoral, contributed significantly in building confidence in the country.

For UNTAC the election of the Constitutional Assembly34 by the people was the end of the operation, but for Cambodia it represented the beginning of a process of consolidating democracy, whose roots are still fragile. In order to ensure political stability, the Cambodian political parties need to grasp the proper meaning of political campaigning. The Cambodian people already have demonstrated continued faith in, and commitment to, the democratic system.

It was the inability of UNTAC to compel the Khmer Rouge into compliance with the Paris Peace Agreements, coupled with that faction's controlling 5 to 10 per cent of the territory, that threatens to disturb the peace and tranquility of the nation. But the Khmer Rouge is no longer a force with a popular base and international support. Cambodia's new democracy and rehabilitation efforts have worked, and are working, to neutralize this warring faction.35 Cambodia today is open for foreign investment to rebuild its economy and to continue the process of reconstruction. The seeds of hope have been planted where there was fear, and new ideas have been introduced where there was isolation. The mine field is now a more level playing field that needs continued international support to sustain the progress that has been made.


1. For more information on the history of Cambodia, see Kaonn, Vandy. Cambodge: 1940-1991, ou la politique sans les Cambodgiens. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1993, pp. 1-157.

2. Randall, Stephen J. "Peacekeeping in the Post-Cold War Era: The United Nations and the 1993 Cambodian Elections." Behind the Headlines 51 (Spring 1994), no. 3: 1-16.

3. The four Cambodian warring factions that were parties to the negotiations were the Peoples's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), currently called the Government of the State of Cambodia, and represented by Hun Sen; the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCIPEC), led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk; the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), led by Son Sann; and the Party of Democratic Kampuchea (PDK), also known as the Khmer Rouge, led by Khieu Samphan.

4. "Towards Peace in Cambodia." United Nations Focus. UN Doc. DPI/1091-September 1990-3M.

5. Additional meetings were held among the four Cambodian factions in Jakarta in February 1990 and in Tokyo in June 1990.

6. Letter dated 30 October 1991 from France and Indonesia transmitting, as representatives of the Co-Chaimen of the Paris Conference on Cambodia, the full text of agreements signed in Paris, 23 October 1991, by the States participating, in the Conference, 30 October 1991, UN Doc. A/46/608-S/23177. For a historical and negotiating background, as well as a legal analysis of the Paris Peace Agreements, see Ratner, Steven R. "The Cambodia Settlement Agreements." American Journal of International Law 87 (January 1993), no. 1: 1 - 41. The Paris Peace Agreements consisted of a Final Act and three agreement instruments: Agreement on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodian Conflict; Agreement concerning the Sovereignty, Independence, Territorial Integrity and Inviolability, Neutrality and National Unity of Cambodia; and the Declaration on the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Cambodia.

7. The United Nations and Cambodia 1991-1995, The United Nations Blue Books Series II. New York: United Nations Department of Public Information, 1995, pp. 1-351. This collection of United Nations documents, with an introduction by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, provides a comprehensive record of the Organization's efforts in Cambodia.

8. Doyle, Michael W. and Nishkala Suntharalingam. "The UN in Cambodia: Lessons for Complex Peacekeeping." International Peacekeeping 1 (Summer 1994), no. 2: 117-147.

9. The Agreement on a Comprehensive Settlement of the Cambodian Conflict provided inter alia for the creation of a Supreme National Council (SNC) composed of the four Cambodian factions as the legitimate source of authority in Cambodia. Throughout the transitional period, SNC acted as the center of national internal unity and sovereignty, while at the same time it represented Cambodia to the outside world.

10. The Security Council, approving the Report of the Secretary-General on Cambodia containing his proposed implementation plan for UNTAC, 19 February 1992, UN Doc. S/23613, authorized the establishment of UNTAC in Resolution 745, 28 February 1992, UN Doc. S/RES/745/1992, for a period not to exceed 18 months.

11. The duties of the military, civil administration, civilian police, human rights, repatriation, and rehabilitation components were as follows: the military component was charged with the verification of the withdrawal of foreign forces, along with their arms and equipment, and the supervision of the cease-fire. Its tasks also included demobilization, weapons control, and monitoring the cessation of outside military assistance. The civil administration component was responsible for the direct supervision and control over the state of Cambodia administrative agencies, in order to ensure a neutral political environment for the conduct of the elections. This allowed for an unprecedented involvement of the UN in a country's administration. The civilian police component (CIVPOL) was designed to ensure effective and impartial maintenance of law and order as well as the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The human rights component concentrated on encouraging the ratification of international human rights instruments and on organizing an extensive campaign of human rights education. Refugees were the responsibility of the repatriation component. Rehabilitation of the country fell to the rehabilitation component, which focused on the maintenance and support of basic infrastructure, institutions, utilities, and other essential services as well as urgent humanitarian needs.

12. There were a total of 674 UN Volunteers serving in Cambodia in different specialties. See Whitcomb, Giles M. and Kanni Wignaraja. Collaboration Between United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and United Nations Volunteers (UNV). Evaluation 1 April-15 May 1993. Geneva: United Nations Volunteers, 1993, pp. 1-72.

13. Akashi, Yasushi. "The Challenge of Peacekeeping in Cambodia." International Peacekeeping 1 (Summer 1994), no. 2: 206.

14. Whitcomb and Wignaraja, Collaboration Between, p. 62.

15. Whitcomb and Wignaraja, Collaboration Between, p. 22.

16. The Khmer Rouge refused to canton, disarm, and demobilize its forces, and ultimately resumed hostilities, alleging that the Paris Peace Agreements were not being implemented properly. According to this faction, Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia and the State of Cambodia had not surrendered power to the Supreme National Council. See Ratner, Steven. "The United Nations Operation in Cambodia and the New Peacekeeping." In Daniel Warner, ed. New Dimensions of Peacekeeping. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1995, p. 49.

17. For instance, the first UNV/DES team to register Cambodians in a Khmer Rouge area was successful thanks to the valuable support of CIVPOL and the local administration and to the distribution of rice to the people by UN Volunteers. By doing this, the UNV/DES team prevented a violent Khmer Rouge response, since it would not seem right in the view of the people to use violence against the people who were helping them.

18. The Training, Education and Communications Division of UNTAC was responsible for producing these materials.

19. Free Choice - Electoral Component Newsletter, UNTAC - Information and Communication Division, 30 April 1993. Besides reviewing the overall situation in all districts, this internal newsletter described the UN Volunteers' tasks and achievements, and functioned as a vehicle of UN Volunteers' opinions.

20. Ratner, "The United Nations Operation in Cambodia," p. 49.

21. Akashi, "The Challenge of Peacekeeping in Cambodia," p. 206.

22. The Bangkok Post, 15 December 1992.

23. The Bangkok Post, 15 December 1992.

24. "Voter Registration a Success - Cease-fire Violations Continue." Cambodia, UN Chronicle (June 1993): 24-25.

25. "Free Choice."

26. "Free Choice."

27. Akashi, "The Challenge of Peacekeeping in Cambodia," p. 204.

28. "Cambodia Election Results." United Nations Focus: Cambodia UN Doc. DPI/1389-July 1993-5M.

29. Interview conducted for the Australian radio programme Background Briefing (Cambodia), The Talk of Australia (ABC Radio tapes, no date), cited in Peter Utting, ed. Between Hope and Insecurity: The Social Consequences of the Cambodian Peace Process. Geneva: UNRISD, 1994, p. 30.

30. The fact that the quality and qualification of the civilian police sent by UN member states were uneven was recognized by Special Representative of the Secretary-General Yasushi Akashi and was recalled in overall assessments of UNTAC. See Akashi, "The Challenge of Peacekeeping in Cambodia," p. 214; and Ratner, "The United Nations Operation in Cambodia," p. 55.

31. Utting, Between Hope and Insecurity, pp. 1-241.

32. Statement made by UN Secretary-General in April 1993 and cited in "The 'Second Generation' - Cambodia elections 'free & fair' but challenges remain" - UN Peace-keeping, UN Chronicle (September 1993): 32.

33. See Lieutenant General J.M. Sanderson, International Humanitarian Law and the Role of Military Establishments, Speech to Australian Red Cross Regional Conference. Australian Defence Studies Centre, Camberra, December 1994.

34. With 45.47 per cent of the votes, FUNCIPEC of Prince Norodom Sihanouk won 58 seats in the 120-seat Constitutional Assembly, while CPP, led by Hun Sen, won 51 seats. The promulgation of the new Constitution took place on 24 September 1993. Accordingly, a constitutional monarchy was established and Prince Sihanouk was elected King of Cambodia (he holds the throne, but not the power). Prince Hanariddh and Hun Sen were elected as first and second prime ministers. See "UNTAC mandate ends - New Constitution, Government welcomed" - Cambodia, UN Chronicle (December 1993): 16-18.

35. Neou, Kassie. "Don't Squander Progress in Cambodia." Herald Tribune (3 March 1995): Editorial Page.