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new internationalist
issue 240 - February 1993

Cambodia's been done
Ten million land mines still in place, the Khmer Rouge armed to the teeth,
increasing their territory - and the UN calls it a 'peace process'?
To Paul Davies in Cambodia it looks more like an international
conspiracy to make the country's war a non-story.

Recently a talented photographer friend spent much time and energy trying to sell some of his work on Cambodia. Virtually all the papers and magazines he approached told him: 'Sorry, Cambodia has been done'. No one took his work.

I presume they meant that after 20 years of war, genocide, invasion and starvation, there is peace at last. The basis for their optimism: the signing of the Peace Accords in Paris on October 1991 under the auspices of the United Nations.

But there is a different story that needs to be told. In the year since the peace was signed more land mines have been laid in Cambodia than taken out, and there has been as much armed conflict as during any of the war years of the 1980s.

So why all this myth-making - by the UN and others? Cambodia has no oil; it is of little strategic importance. Perhaps the answer is that most of Cambodia's ills have their roots in foreign interference over decades, centuries even.

The intemational community wants a solution and it's pinning its hopes on the election of an acceptable new Cambodian government in May 1993. Thereafter the UN can politically wash its hands of the subject and leave Cambodians to work out their own destinies.

Therein lies the danger - and the cynicism. The host of ugly legacies left by the foreign intervention of the past few years is being ignored. The most obvious of these is the now UN-recognized, reconstructed Khmer Rouge organization. Responsible for the deaths of nearly one million Cambodian civilians from 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge is now part of the peace process. The gamble of the Paris Accord was that peace with this organization was possible - leaving aside the whole issue of whether it was desirable. It is now plain that the gamble has failed. And Cambodians will be the losers.

Already the Khmer Rouge have committed around 15 major breaches of the Peace Accord. In Spring 1992 they broke the ceasefire by launching a major attack in the province of Kompong Thom which produced thousands of refugees. More recently they blew up two key bridges on National Route 6, cutting off two major provinces. The upshot is the Khmer Rouge now control twice as much of Cambodia as they did this time last year.

Furthermore they have broken the Paris Accord by refusing to demobilize their troops or to give information about land mines they have planted. Nor have they co-operated with the UN's Transitional Authority in Cambodia or allowed the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to work effectively in Khmer Rouge zones. Peace keepers, human-rights monitors, civil administrators and electoral officials have come across similar obstacles. Clearly Pol Pot is not playing the game.

In response the UN has passed a series of increasingly stiffly-worded resolutions. But it continues to pour billions of dollars into this peace process - maintaining that for any settlement to be comprehensive the Khmer Rouge must be inside the deal. And for the time being the Khmer Rouge are giving just a little here and there. The real danger lies in what they will do when the UN and its 15,000 peace keepers leave the country three months after the elections.

There are, of course, more Cambodian players involved in the peace process than just the Khmer Rouge and the state of Cambodia. Since 1982 the West has supported the Non-Communist Resistance (NCR) which includes supporters of the former ruler Prince Sihanouk. The Resistance is actually dominated by the Khmer Rouge - but the West has preferred to ignore this. The West has also preferred to overlook the fact that the Khmer Rouge have been using UN refugee camps along the Thai border as bases.

Throughout the 1980s Westem aid kept the NCR artificially strong. Since the UN's peace process started nothing seems to have changed. Roads funded by the UN to help with refugee resettlement have been extended to the Thai border enabling the Khmer Rouge, now the richest guerilla group in the world, to pursue a lucrative trade in gems and timber concessions. UN requests that the border be closed or controlled are ignored.

But perhaps the most disgraceful myth of this 'UN time', as Cambodians refer to it, surrounds the issue of land mines. Cambodia now has the highest incidence of land-mine amputees of any country in the world. There are between 300 and 700 amputations every month, and one in every 236 Cambodians has lost a limb as a result of land mines They are not only a human tragedy. In agricultural provinces such as Battambang land-mines render vast tracts of farm land, irrigation works, roads and villages unviable. In several areas they are the largest single cause of impoverishment, the largest single impediment to the re-development process. And yet in Battambang province, one year after the Peace Accord, not one single mine had been removed by the UN. The contrast between the energy with which de-mining was conducted in Kuwait and what is being (or not being) done in Cambodia, could not be sharper.

Meanwhile, half the refugees in the UNHCR camp of Khao-I-Dang have refused to register for repatriation because they believe there is no true peace or security in Cambodia and they fear persecution by the Khmer Rouge. The UNHCR is planning to counsel such people. They and the entire UN operation in Cambodia would do better to listen to these voices and take on board some simple truths. But with so many millions invested, nobody seems prepared for an honest reappraisal of the situation.

Paul Davies is a relief worker based in Battambang, Cambodia.
The NI's April issue will investigate the Cambodia situation in depth.

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