Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Widyono: Dancing in Shadows

Benny Widyono (2008) Dancing in Shadows: Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge, and the United Nations in Cambodia Rowman &Littlefield, Lanham USA; 323 pp.; ISBN 978-0-7425-5553-2.

The United Nations is a masterful organisation in terms of producing information and cogent analyses on a wide range of issues. Its influence in knowledge production is formidable. But as a forum for political debate, as a mediator in conflicts and as a development agency, it has a very mixed and generally sorry record. It is plagued by far too many overlapping and often ineffectual agencies. Its international role is always hostage to the political whims of the permanent members of the Security Council – spoilt brats one and all. And its development aid activities are usually well conceived, under-funded, staffed by often inexperienced ‘experts’ and poorly executed. Cambodia since 1979 has been a textbook example of the mess that the UN often leaves in its wake.

Benny Widyono, an Indonesian economist resident in the USA, was a long term career bureaucrat in the UN. Since retirement he has taught economics at the University of Connecticut and advises an investment fund in Cambodia. It’s not clear if he has ever held a proper job. His book is based on his experiences during two UN assignments in Cambodia, first as a provincial director of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in Siem Reap in 1992-93, and then as the UN Secretary-General’s envoy in 1994-97. The latter position is akin to being the gossip columnist for the diplomatic community.

Fearing the fall of another ‘domino’ as Cambodian King Sihanouk grew closer to North Vietnam in the 1960s, the US backed a coup which brought an anti-Communist military group to power in 1970. The change of ideology brought no change in the mode of government, based on control of the population and extraction of wealth by a small and cruel elite. The poor rebelled, and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge seized power. The new regime was only different in that it sought to destroy, rather than extract, wealth but was even more assiduous in controlling the population and maintained a long tradition of a small and cruel elite.

The Khmer Rouge, like most ideologically driven authoritarian regimes, killed off its opponents (both real and imagined) and proved utterly incompetent at governing. Many starved to death and others began pouring over the border into Vietnam. Current Cambodian leaders Hun Sen, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin defected from the Khmer Rouge and crossed the border in 1978. With Vietnamese help they organised a resistance force and in the last week of December 1978 invaded Cambodia along with Vietnamese regular troops, pushing the Khmer Rouge out of much of the country and delivering a new government in January 1979 with Heng Samrin as prime minister. (Hun Sen became PM in 1986.)

You would think that putting an end to the mass slaughter and humanitarian crisis in Cambodia would have earned the kudos of the international community, but in fact the opposite was the case. All permanent members of the UN Security Council, except for the Soviet Union, condemned the invasion. China resented the rising power of Communist Vietnam from which it was estranged, and the USA and its entourage of hangers-on were still smarting from the defeat of the USA by Vietnam a few years before. So, no UN assistance to Cambodia and no recognition of the new government. Until 1991, the UN welcomed the murderous Khmer Rouge as the representatives of Cambodia, even though they clearly did not govern the country. Widyono captures the squalid morals of the UN in this period and rightly gives credit to Indonesia, and to a lesser extent Australia, for their part in engineering a way forward.

UNTAC was deployed to Cambodia progressively in 1992 with a view to setting up a general election. It was also given a high level of control over government functions. But typical of the UN, it was under-resourced and had poorly judged or understood the context into which it was sending troops and bureaucrats. Widyono, in bureaucrat mode, waxes lyrical about how UNTAC brought hope to Cambodia, but glosses over or completely ignores the corruption it engendered, the enormous surge in prostitution and trafficking of young women and girls to serve its military, the assaults by its soldiers on Cambodian civilians, the traffic injuries and deaths (especially at night in Phnom Penh) caused by its vehicles, and the arrogance of its functionaries, many of whom left a lasting resentment among Khmers. What Widyono does explain well is the high degree of impotence on the part of UNTAC in either governing the country or in influencing the administration. UNTAC staff were largely excluded from areas still controlled by the Khmer Rouge, and elsewhere the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP, formerly the Communist Party of Cambodia) maintained a tight control over all government functions.

Cambodia had a Communist government from 1979 to 1991 that was heavily dependent on Vietnamese support and which has spawned a government structure very similar to that in Vietnam. UNTAC and its aftermath created a clumsy interregnum during which the USA hoped to force, via the UN, a pro-Western government on the country. This strategy appeared to succeed in the elections of 1993, with the royalist faction winning the most seats (the dominatrix style of the Communist government hadn’t gone down well), but this did not address the disjunction with the fact that the CPP controlled the country. It wasn’t until the 2003 elections that the status quo ante was restored and then confirmed in 2008. The CPP had by now dropped the Communist label and was committed to economic growth, but otherwise the style of government was all too familiar: control of the population, the smashing of dissent, and extraction of wealth for a small, cruel and very, very rich elite.

Widyono’s book focuses on the interregnum period and the attempts by the UN and international governments to rail against reality. He provides a lot of interesting detail on the UNTAC process, though it is understandably focused on the province where he was stationed. In that dissociative state of the long-term bureaucrat, UNTAC’s work is described by Widyono as if it were all done by someone else. You get very little sense of his personal involvement or how his decision making influenced events (or didn’t).

The second part of the book deals with the ‘twin’ years when Cambodia was saddled with two prime ministers and two sets of greedy fingers in every ministerial pot. Widyono describes how the two leaders grew increasingly frustrated with each other and how this eventually led to violence erupting on the streets of the capital. The capricious and often damaging role of Sihanouk, always driven by a lust for power, is also well drawn. Unfortunately, Widyono left Cambodia in May 1997, just before things came to a head, so his account from the middle of that year is second hand. He goes on to give an overview of the continued friction in government resulting from the 1998 elections, which was eventually resolved in 2003. He remains optimistic about the longer term prospects of the country, though expresses some concern about persistent economic inequality and weak capacity in government.

This is a book that is well worth reading for the detail it provides on many political events from 1992 to 1997. It says very little about the lives of most Cambodians and the deeper patterns of politics and culture that shaped those events. In his preface, Widyono says he hopes to bring an ‘Asian’ perspective to the events, though is never clear about what this is supposed to mean. Rather, these are very much the recollections of a die-hard bureaucrat and there is nothing here that could not have been written by any UN time server appointed to the same positions. In 1994, when the 9 year old daughter of a UN staffer was deliberately shot and left bleeding on the roadside by thugs linked to the military, her mother flies her to Bangkok, ‘vowing never to return.’ Widyono’s response? ‘I lost a good secretary.’ For the UN’s grey masses, people are just bit part actors and politics is all a game.

The book has a useful chronology, detailed references and a good index. Those interested in Cambodia’s recent history, and in the way the UN behaves, will be amply rewarded by reading this book. There is also a Khmer version of the book, but it has the banal title Witness to History. Don’t we all fit that description?

A final caution: my copy was a paperback but expensive, as books from academic publishers tend to be. Numerous pages fell out as I was reading because of the poor quality binding and the laminated cover frayed at the corners. Those wishing to read the book should consider buying or borrowing a hard cover version, or reading the e-book.

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