THE United Nations has launched its largest peacekeeping operation in history, the UN Transition Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), despite major budget problems. Security Council donors cannot afford the UN's potentially greatest success to become its biggest failure, nor deny Cambodia its first democratic elections and its best chance at peace.
The race against the May monsoon season is on; a budget crunch delayed deployment of the 22,000 UN contingent for the 18-month, $1.9 billion operation. UNTAC must be deployed now if it is to succeed in its tasks: monitoring the cease-fire, demobilizing and cantoning the four warring military forces, supervising the existing Phnom Penh government, and organizing elections.
The repatriation of more than 380,000 displaced Cambodians from camps in Thailand started late last month, despite renewed fighting, banditry, lawlessness, and uncleared land mines. The primary security threat to Cambodians and UN personnel is hundreds of thousands of unmapped mines that inflicted more injuries during Cambodia's 12-year war than any other weapon.
The task of repatriating and resettling more than 500,000 Cambodians displaced from their homes is riddled with challenges: from land-rights conflicts between landlords occupying the past homes of returnees, to questions of overlapping mandates between various UN agencies, such as who will pay to feed and resettle demobilized troops not considered refugees.
Disarming 200,000 soldiers and 250,000 militia personnel, and gathering more than 300,000 weapons from guerrilla forces that traditionally melt into villages and hide in isolated mountains is no easy task. UN troops must be free to investigate for hidden militia and arms caches - a right which Khmer Rouge already denies UN forces.
To save cantonment expenses, the UN would like 100 percent demobilization, but as that is tantamount to surrender, Prime Minister Hun Sen politely refused. To maintain the largest military base as a post-election insurance policy, guerrillas are quietly moving military families inside Cambodia, calling it "voluntary demobilization."
Setting a peacekeeping precedent, the UN will place the five key ministries of the Phnom Penh government under the "direct control" of UNTAC civil administrators. While the coalition Supreme National Council enshrines Cambodian sovereignty, for the first time an international organization will supervise and control the functioning of a sovereign state to maintain a level political playing field. UNTAC won't have even a skeletal state to run unless it gets there soon to maintain basics like electricity an d communications. War and corruption have pushed Hun Sen's bankrupt regime to the brink of collapse as unpaid civil servants turn to free-enterprise for survival.
IN mid-1993, UNTAC will organize "free and fair" elections in a country with no history of democratic elections; the first step, party registration, begins this month. While Hun Sen came to the United States to build his international legitimacy, General Sak, military chief of the US-backed Republican guerrilla opposition, came here to build legitimacy for Cambodia's newest Republican political party, the Liberal Democratic Party. For a month, Sak is campaigning for voters, candidates, and funding among overseas Cambodians in the US, Canada, and France.
This fresh breeze of political freedom may signal emerging democracy. However, while no one expects the genocidal Khmer Rouge to sweep a democratic election, neither will the non-communists unless they stick together. Parties factioning now to win seats on the national assembly will need coalitions later if they want any power in Cambodia's new government and to resist a Khmer Rouge comeback.
The Khmer Rouge pose the primary long-term threat to peace in Cambodia. The Maoist guerrillas' preelection violations - forced mass repatriations, detentions, and shooting of a UN helicopter - can only be stopped with the cooperation of their two main patrons, China and Thailand.
UNTAC's dilemma is funding. While Japan has already paid $25 million and pledged to give UNTAC more than Tokyo's 12.5 percent share of UN peacekeeping, the US Congress recently added only $270 million for all of UN peacekeeping. The $200 million earmarked for Cambodia falls short of Washington's 30.4 percent assessment of UNTAC's $1.9 billion projected bill - $577 million for 18 months. UNTAC's chance at success will be crippled without Washington's full commitment. Compared to the millions the US has sp ent on war in Indochina, spending $577 million on peacekeeping in Cambodia is a cheap tool to help rebuild what we helped destroy.
Investing in democracy in Cambodia is also an investment in future US national interests. Supporting UNTAC will strengthen the UN and will foster regional political and economic stability - requisites for the growth of new markets for US business. Strategic American economic and political engagement in post-cold-war Southeast Asia, an emerging economic powerhouse, is crucial for US global competitiveness.