“Mission Impossible”: The UN in Cambodia showed the limits of nation building early on

FILE PHOTO: UN peacekeepers patrol the streets of Phnom Penh in an armored personnel carrier
FILE PHOTO: UN peacekeepers in an armored personnel carrier patrol the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 27, 1993. REUTERS

March 13, 2022

By Kate Lamm

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Just over 30 years ago, a crackling radio in a refugee camp on the Thai border broke Sam Sophal the news that the United Nations was coming to his war-ravaged homeland of Cambodia.

For Sam Sophal, who only survived the Khmer Rouge genocide because his mother bribed Khmer Rouge executioners with her silver watch, the promise of peace was irresistible.

The UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived on March 15, 1992 with great expectations, the first UN nation-building operation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, raising hopes that democracy would flourish around the world.

But well before last year’s Shambolic fall of Afghanistan and costly international missions in Iraq, Kosovo and elsewhere, Cambodia served as an early warning of the shortcomings and limitations of nation-building.

At the time, UNTAC was the most ambitious and costly UN mission, but despite its $1.6 billion cost and $20 billion in subsequent international aid, hopes of creating a vibrant democracy have long since faded.

“I was very proud during the UNTAC time because I was the first generation to bring peace to Cambodia,” says Sam Sophal, 60, who got a job as a translator with the mission shortly after it started.

“Now I see we went backwards. To one-party rule,” he said from the shade of a jujube tree in his backyard in Phnom Penh.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, the same man in power before the UNTAC mission, remains leader, presiding over what critics say is an authoritarian government with most of the opposition leaders in exile or in prison.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan rejects accusations that Hun Sen is an autocrat and that he has campaigned for peace and democracy since 1979.

The United Nations said in a statement that UNTAC’s original mandate “to restore to the Cambodian people and their democratically elected leaders their primary responsibility for peace, stability, national reconciliation and reconstruction has been fulfilled”.


A prophecy foretelling a “blue-eyed god” who would one day bless and restore the land had spread through the villages in Cambodia’s darkest years.

When UNTAC arrived with their sky-blue flag and helmets, they were seen as the incarnation of that deity, some even painting their houses a UN shade of blue, recalled Youk Chhang, executive director of the Cambodia Documentation Center.

“Conflict, genocide, invasions, refugees… and then suddenly there was blue sky,” he said.

A former French colony, Cambodia had weathered decades of devastation by the early 1990s after being drawn into the Vietnam War. An estimated 1.7 million people died during the four-year “Killing Fields” regime of the Khmer Rouge, about a fifth of the population.

A Vietnamese invasion in 1979 toppled the Khmer Rouge and sparked a war that pitted the expelled Maoists and two other factions against the invaders and their Cambodian allies.

UNTAC’s greatest achievements have been in bringing hundreds of thousands of refugees home from the border camps in time for the May 1993 elections, when nearly 90% of voters stood to vote.

“For the first time, we felt very free,” said Youk Chhang, who spent two weeks at a polling station guarding ballots.

“It was a nice feeling.”

But Hun Sen, prime minister before UNTAC, came second and was quick to complain of vote-rigging. The polls, he said, are worse than the pain of losing an eye in combat.

Threatening to break up the country, Hun Sen forced a power-sharing agreement in which the man who won the vote, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and Hun Sen assumed the roles of first and second prime ministers.

“There aren’t two prime ministers in the world,” said Sam Sophal, still amused by the arrangement.

“Think of a car and two drivers, who takes over?”

The coalition eventually disintegrated in bloodshed, with forces loyal to Hun Sen ousting Ranariddh in a 1997 coup.


In retrospect, UNTAC was criticized for giving in to Hun Sen and then simply deserting her in September 1993. But even then, many said it was obvious their mandate was imaginative.

“The people who planned it were crazy. It was definitely a mission impossible,” says academic and author Craig Etcheson.

“To expect all these people to parachute into a devastated country, a foreign culture with no language skills and achieve anything was pretty crazy.”

UNTAC’s goal of democracy has always been hampered by Hun Sen’s ambitions.

“He was so far from being a Democrat that you knew it probably wasn’t going to end well,” recalled Tim Carney, UNTAC’s intelligence director. He now refers to Hun Sen as a “dictator”.

Hun Sen is one of the longest-serving leaders in the world and chairs a one-party parliament.

In 2017, a court dissolved the main opposition party while taming a vibrant media landscape that had thrived under UNTAC.

Since the great Cambodian experiment, democracy has been in retreat around the world.

According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, for the first time since 2004, there are more autocratic states than democracies.

As with many UN missions, expectations in Cambodia were impossibly high, said former military observer J Floyd Carter, who was arrested by the Khmer Rouge during his UNTAC operation.

“After I was in Cambodia and then in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Haiti, there were similar disappointments… It’s getting 55% of what it set out to do,” Carter said of the United Nations.

Carney said the United Nations is more realistic these days. After the coup in South Sudan last year, she prioritized dialogue over democratic master plans.

“You’re just trying to start a conversation,” he said. “Which I think is the best thing foreigners can do.”

When UNTAC was dissolved, it left Cambodia with a tense political arrangement that was almost bound to fail.

“UNTAC was the first test,” says Sam Sophal, “but they didn’t complete the mission.”

Sam Sophal, who is now retired after 24 years at the United Nations, says corruption and nepotism have left Cambodians with no political alternatives.

“The people of this country believe in democracy and human rights, but who will lead them?” he asked.

(Reporting by Kate Lamb; Editing by Kay Johnson and Robert Birsel) “Mission Impossible”: The UN in Cambodia showed the limits of nation building early on

Bobby Allyn

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