Cambodia Since April 1975


The 1991 Paris Peace Agreements invested Cambodian sovereignty in a Supreme National Council (SNC), which was headed by Norodom Sihanouk and contained representatives from the four factions. The SNC in turn delegated "all powers necessary" to implement the accords to the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia or UNTAC, whose mandate was far reaching:

Under the Agreements, the United Nations was to organize and conduct free and fair elections; coordinate the repatriation of Cambodian refugees and displaced persons; coordinate a major programme of economic and financial support for rehabilitation and reconstruction; supervise or control the existing administrative structures in Cambodia; supervise, monitor and verify the withdrawal of foreign forces, the cease-fire, the cessation of outside military assistance to all Cambodian factions and the demobilization of at least 70 per cent of the military forces of the factions; coordinate with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the release of all prisoners of war and civilian internees; and foster an environment of peace and stability in which all Cambodians could enjoy the rights and freedoms embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant international human rights instruments (The United Nations and Cambodia 1995:8). To accomplish these tasks, UNTAC deployed some 16,000 military personnel and 5000 civilians, including 3,500 police, the largest UN operation to that date. (Several analyses of the UNTAC era have appeared in print, see for example Heder and Ledgerwood 1996, Shawcross 1994, Ledgerwood 1994, Doyle 1995, Utting 1994.)

Although the representatives of Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge, had initially signed the Peace Agreement, they refused to participate in cantoning and demobilizing of troops. In the run-up to the election, they attacked SOC held areas, UN forces and ethnic Vietnamese civilians. In response to Khmer Rouge noncompliance, the SOC also refused to demobilize its forces.

UNTAC proved incapable of supervising or controlling the "existing administrative structures" of the SOC administration. The SOC retained control of the government at all levels, including the national security apparatus. A campaign to harass and contain opposition political parties resulted in the deaths of more than 100 opposition political activists across the country in 1992-93.

Other aspects of the UN mission were more successful. More than 360,000 refugees living in camps in Thailand were repatriated to Cambodia in time for the May 1993 elections. The Human Rights component, hampered by a small staff and few resources, was able to run education campaigns, arranged for the release of political prisoners, and brought about improvements in prison conditions. The Information and Education division ran a radio and television campaign to educate voters and convince them that the balloting would be secret.

Most successful was the organization and management of the elections. The core of the electoral component was 700 UN volunteers stationed around the country at the district level. Working with dedicated local staff, these volunteers registered 4.8 million voters. Despite Khmer Rouge threats to attack the electoral process, and the deaths of a Japanese electoral volunteer and his translator, the process of setting up the voting sites continued under UN and SOC military protection.

The voting on May 23-28, 1993 was a joyous affair. Ninety percent of the voters who had registered turned out to vote. The fact at they did so in such large numbers despite Khmer Rouge threats was a resounding act of defiance against Khmer Rouge claims to legitimacy or support. The elections were the beginning of the end of the movement.

Of the twenty parties on the ballot, only four won seats in the new 120 seat National Assembly. FUNCINPEC won the most votes with 45 percent (58 seats), the Cambodian People’s Party (the old PRPK) had 38 percent (51 seats), Son Sann’s Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) had 3.8 percent (10 seats), and the Molinaka Party gained enough votes in one province for a single seat. According to the Paris Agreements, approval of a new constitution required a two-thirds majority of the new National Assembly.

While the lack of a two-thirds majority gave FUNCINPEC reason to consider forming a coalition government, there were other more convincing reasons. The CPP was unwilling to admit defeat, or to turn over control of the government to FUNCINPEC. In the days after the election, the CPP alleged fraud in the election process and declared that the eastern provinces of the country would secede and set up an independent state.  This forced a series of negotiations with Sihanouk at the center of the conflict. He eventually suggested a compromise whereby FUNCINPEC would receive 45 percent of the government portfolios, the CPP 45 percent and BLDP 10 percent. There would be two Co-Prime Ministers and within the ministries, the leadership would be further divided, for every CPP Minister, there would be a FUNCINPEC vice-minister and vice-versa. This astonishing compromise set the stage for years of chaos, mistrust, and political intrigue. The CPP finally formally recognized the election results on June 21, 1993.

Read a background essay on  UN PeaceKeeping Missions: the Lessons from Cambodia.

Read a background essay on whether the elections were free and fair.

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