Cambodians fall out with the UN peace-keepers

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The Independent Online
THE LATEST issue of the Cambodia Times, the country's only English-language weekly, has it in for Eric Falt, chief spokesman for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac). Apparently Mr Falt had summoned Western and Japanese correspondents to a press conference, but had failed to notify the Cambodia Times. The newspaper said that when it complained, the spokesman replied snappishly: 'I can't be calling everybody.'

If this is true, Mr Falt must be regretting his impatience. Without naming him, the Cambodia Times devotes an entire leading article to an attack on him, and, by extension, the West.

'The Untac spokesman's office regards itself more as an agent of the Western press than as a provider of information to the local people, who time and time again come last in their order of priorities,' it thundered.

'This gives rise to a strong feeling amongst the local press that Untac is really a Western transplant plonked in the middle of the country, run by Westerners for the sake of good media ratings in the Western world and their bosses at UN headquarters in New York. Cambodia, it seems, is just incidental to the whole process.'

The newspaper goes on to claim that many Untac officials, 'especially those from the West', look down on Cambodians and treat them in their own country as second-class citizens. While the Japanese head of Untac, Yasushi Akashi, labours tirelessly for peace, some of his colleagues behave like colonialists, it says. Some of the Western journalists on whom the spokesman's office allegedly fawns, and even Untac officials themselves, can think of examples to bear out the Cambodia Times. The newspaper is not alone in its concern at the impact of 16,000 troops and 6,000 civilians from more than 40 countries on this small, violent and desperately poor nation.

Somalia and Bosnia may attract the headlines, but two-thirds of the UN's peace-keeping budget is being spent in Cambodia. Even the organisation's own financial controllers have complained at the lavishness of the operation, with two vehicles for every three Untac personnel and almost as many computers. The flood of dollars, now a second currency, has created prosperity, but of a lopsided kind. The boom is confined to service industries. Nobody is investing long-term until it becomes clear whether Untac's mission to bring peace and hold elections will succeed or fail.

Worse yet, much of the money pouring in is pouring straight out again, to businessmen from south- east Asia and beyond. The Grand Hotel at Angkor Wat is being renovated by a Thai company to accommodate the parties of elderly French tourists clambering over the ruins. The depredations of the Khmer Rouge created such a shortage of skills in Cambodia that most of the artisans refurbishing properties for UN use are from Thailand or Vietnam. The only local entrepreneurs are corrupt ministers and officials selling government assets to the highest bidder. The Phnom Penh government's policemen and soldiers, many of whom have not been paid for months, extort what they can from their fellow countrymen.

In many ways Untac has failed to set a better example. There is bickering between volunteer election workers, some risking their lives in remote areas for dollars 700 ( pounds 460) a month, and full-time UN officials, who are earning a special allowance of dollars 145 a day on top of their tax-free salaries. Nobody has a good word for the multi-national police contingent: too many of them feel naked without the guns they carry at home, say their critics, and have no idea how to carry out investigations when they are not allowed to beat up suspects.

The whole operation could have cost much less than pounds 1.2bn, and been considerably more effective, the complaint goes on, if Cambodians had been allowed to play a larger part. Most scandalously, there have been cases where pay to Cambodian staff has been delayed for weeks, and then made up by useless cheques.

The Cambodia Times may be right to blame the West for Untac's shortcomings, but its strictures might carry more weight if it were not published by a Malaysian public-relations company, part of a group whose interests are heavily promoted in its pages. If it were not for the UN, the Cambodia Times would not exist.