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  • The UN and the Cambodian Transition
  • Julio A. Jeldres (bio)

On 23 May 1993, after more than a decade of repression and intimidation, the people of Cambodia put their trust in the secret ballot in an election organized and supervised by the United Nations and guaranteed by international monitors. In so doing, the majority of Cambodians, for the first time in many years, expressed their desire to live in a democratic society and spoke up by themselves instead of being told what to say by their rulers or being spoken for by foreign sponsors.

In a massive voter turnout—90 percent nationwide and as high as 97 percent in some provinces—Cambodians gave 45 percent of the vote and 58 seats in the 120-member Constituent Assembly to the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC in its French acronym), a royalist grouping led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The incumbent ruling party, Premier Hun Sen's Vietnamese-backed Cambodian People's Party (CPP), came in second with 38 percent and 51 seats. The Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) won 3.8 percent and 10 seats, with the remaining single seat going to a minor party known as Moulinaka. The guerrilla cadres of the Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, remained on the sidelines, neither fielding candidates nor making good on their threats to disrupt the balloting.

Few societies have been as badly devastated by war, foreign occupation, and state repression as Cambodia. In the early 1970s, following the military overthrow of Prince Ranariddh's father, Prince [End Page 104] Norodom Sihanouk, massive U.S. bombing related to the Vietnam War wreaked havoc on the country's infrastructure. Then in 1975 came the darkest chapter in Cambodian history as the Khmer Rouge, a small and extremely violent group of French-educated Marxist intellectuals, fought their way into power. Their rule from 1975 to 1978 was the time of the "killing fields," as at least one million Cambodians were murdered in a horrific campaign of bloody purges and forced evacuations of entire cities. In December 1979, Vietnam launched a massive invasion of its smaller neighbor and installed in power an administration comprising Hun Sen and other former Khmer Rouge cadres hand-picked for their loyalty to Hanoi.

The Vietnamese invasion caused a realignment of forces in the region. The countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), previously worried most about Chinese expansionism in the region, now joined forces with China and the United States to check the imperial designs of heavily armed Vietnam. The members of ASEAN saw the Khmer Rouge as their only buffer against Vietnam, but one that badly needed to be lent some respectability: thus the noncommunist Cambodian resistance was created. In addition to the FUNCINPEC-sponsored National Army of Independent Cambodia, the noncommunist resistance included the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) forces of Son Sann (who also leads the BLDP). The ranks of the resistance swelled with recruits drawn from the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled Cambodia for Thailand immediately after the Vietnamese invasion.

On 22 June 1982, the two noncommunist groups joined the Khmer Rouge in establishing an uneasy alliance called the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CDGK), which received diplomatic and financial support from ASEAN, China, and the United States and swore continuing resistance to Vietnam and its satellite regime in Phnom Penh. The CGDK occupied the Cambodian seat at the UN, retained diplomatic missions (run by Khmer Rouge members) around the world, controlled some territory in western Cambodia near the Thai border, and was successful in preventing international recognition of the Phnom Penh regime, as well as in securing an annual UN General Assembly resolution condemning Vietnam's actions in Cambodia. But relations between the partners of the CDGK were bloody, with Khmer Rouge troops often killing soldiers from both of the two noncommunist fronts.

In 1986, after years of bloody stalemate between the Cambodian resistance on one hand and the forces of Vietnam and the Hun Sen regime on the other, the first signs of movement toward a settlement appeared as both sides gave indications that they would be prepared to talk, first through foreign...


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