UN Chief in Cambodia Sees `Success' on Political Front

INTERVIEW YASUSHI AKASHI. But only reduced economic disparities can end bloodshed

BY mid-September, the United Nations hopes to finish up its 18 months of directing Cambodia from communist rule to a fledgling democracy. Already, the leader of that operation, Yasushi Akashi, is claiming success.

"I myself never believed that we would not be successful in accomplishing our mission," he said on a recent trip to Japan, his home country.

The UN-sponsored election in May and the expected formation of a government under a new constitution in coming weeks, he says, is "a social revolution," ending one of the most violent conflicts spawned by the cold war.

"In Cambodia, our path was to replace authoritarian ideology with the ideology of liberal democracy, and how to channel the desire for power to something which should not be decided on the battleground but something which can be fought through parliamentary means," Mr. Akashi says. "And that is not easy."

Akashi, who is head of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), says he is often asked to pass on lessons from Cambodia to the other UN peacekeeping operations around the world.

First, he says, peace only came to Cambodia with the end of the cold war and the rapprochement between Vietnam and China, which had used the country as proxy battleground against each other.

Then, diplomacy by France, Indonesia, the United Sates, Japan, and Australia helped to bring about a UN-backed peace accord in 1991, followed by pressure on China and Thailand to curb the Khmer Rouge force of some 10,000 fighters.

"The Cambodian conflict does not have the racial, tribal, or religious ingredients which a number of other conflicts have," he says. "The Cambodia conflict, in my opinion, is essentially about ideology and about power."

At present, the balance of power among the former warring factions of Cambodia is still uneasy, despite an election that saw a 90 percent turnout and a clear winner, the FUNCINPEC party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The former incumbent government, led by Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), protested the election results. The CPP won 51 seats to FUNINPEC's 57, out of 120 total in the new parliament.

IN an awkward compromise, the former king, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, is ruler over a government that has two ministers in most Cabinet posts - one from each party.

"This arranged marriage through the go-between of Prince Sihanouk is working so far," Akashi says.

"The question is now how long this system of having two prime ministers, two defense ministers, and two ministers of interior in the hands of Ranariddh and Hun Sen will last," he says.

He hopes that they can draft a new constitution quickly that will allow the UN to end its mandate and withdraw the last of its 16,000 troops.

The Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who ruled the country ruthlessly from 1975-78 were left out in the cold after they refused to abide by the UN peace accords. To draw them out of the jungle and into the political process, Sihanouk hopes to give them some role in the government.

"The Khmer Rouge is very much present in the military sense of the term," Akashi says. "But it may not be a 10-foot military monster as some people would like to make it."

The high election turnout and the results came as an unpleasant surprise to the Khmer Rouge, leaving them confused, he says. "They realize that they have missed the bus. They are anxious to get on board."

He added that the Khmer Rouge cannot be eliminated militarily. Only effective social and economic policies that reduce the wealth disparity between the capital, Phnom Penh, and the countryside can contain the guerrillas, Akashi says.

UNTAC succeeded against the Khmer Rouge by not using military power, but "the power of information and education" by explaining democracy, elections, and human rights to a largely peasant nation of 7 to 8 million people. Information was passed by new radio transmitters and hundreds of foreign volunteers.

"Although we were sometimes considered too patient, our patience paid off," he says.

One French general in UNTAC said that he and 200 soldiers could have marched on Khmer Rouge territory and subjugated them totally, Akashi says. But he adds, "We never believed that that kind of bravado would bring about the solution to the Cambodia problem."

"Some of our Western colleagues were a bit impatient and mechanistic in trying to apply human rights outright. At the same time, some Asian leaders said they had a secret approach [to human rights]. I asked them a lot of questions, and it turned out that there is no such thing as a unique regional approach."

"In the end it is the growth of the middle class that shall become the real guardian of democracy and human rights. And Cambodia has a long way to go. But I still hope that political and economic rights will go hand in hand in Cambodia."

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