The Forgotten UN Intervention to Build Democracy in Cambodia

Alexander/Buddhist monk, Cambodia

At the end of the Cold War, Cambodia was a nation in tatters. Its Vietnam-backed government was unable to replace the four-fifths of its budget that had previously been provided by USSR and Eastern Bloc donations. It exercised sovereignty over only a part of its formal territory. The rest of Cambodia was divided between three warring parties: the communist forces of the Khmer Rouge, the anti-communist Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, and the royalist FUCINPEC. Each led an army equipped by a foreign great power. But with the Cold War over, these powers had no compelling interest in continued fighting. The path lay open for the United Nations to broker a ceasefire and integrate the broken nation into a new, more liberal world order.

To build peace in Cambodia, the UN planned on staffing a full-sized interim government, pouring money into development and state capacity projects, and arranging a fair election to decide who would govern the country after the UN mission had departed. For the UN, this was a high stakes endeavor. As Sebastian Strangio describes it in his newly revised book, Cambodia: From Pol Pot to Hun Sen and Beyond, this was an opportunity for the body to finally “fulfill its foundational promise as the embodiment of a singular ‘international community’” and set the tone for a new era where “peace could be engineered, democratic institutions molded, and human rights implanted in the DNA of nations emerging from bloody conflict.”

That was three decades ago. To most foreigners today, Cambodia is a small and insignificant kingdom, remembered, when remembered at all, as the site of horrific Cold War massacres. Little is asked of the Cambodia that came after the killing fields. There are numerous reasons for this neglect. Cambodia’s markets are underdeveloped and unimportant to international commerce. It has never been a hotbed of terrorist activity. For most of the last three decades, the kingdom stood at far remove from great power geopolitics. 

All of this has allowed us to forget the role Cambodia played in the creation of the post-Cold War world, when it was subject to one of the largest international interventions of our age. The kingdom’s subsequent fate shines a dark mirror on the international order. This is another reason Washington gives so little thought to Cambodia: to think hard about the country is to confront unpleasant truths about the nature of the world the West made. Behind the intervention in Cambodia was a belief that human affairs had their own telos. Democracy was everywhere triumphant. History was propelling mankind towards a liberal future. It was in Cambodia that this liberal teleology first shattered. It was there that the world rediscovered that history is no slave to liberal values—and that so much liberal statecraft is less a serious attempt to build a liberal world than it is an attempt to shore up our own moral credentials. 

Cambodia is an ideal introduction to the problems posed by the Cambodian experience. Strangio is a talented writer, and his book is a brisk and incisive tour of Cambodia’s post-Khmer Rouge history. Drawing on the decade Strangio spent reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia begins with an unusually honest set of reflections on that experience: 

As journalists in Cambodia, our main frame of reference [for understanding the country] was the global human rights regime…We worked closely with the country’s human rights groups and NGOs, the other beneficiaries of the UN mission. Together, we formed an informational symbiosis, generating huge quantities of data, much of it detailing Cambodia’s persistent failure to live up to its international human rights “obligations.” But there was something curiously abstract about the freedoms we enjoyed. No matter what we and our Khmer colleagues wrote, little seemed to change. The rich and powerful remained a law unto themselves, as they had been for as long as Cambodians could remember…The human rights groups had their own name for all of this. They called it “impunity.” But the word was so frequently deployed, and so bleached of cultural and historical context, that it soon lost much of its force.

The story of that missing context begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Cold War antagonisms. 40 years before, America had demonstrated that it was possible to build a durable, liberal-tilting order out of the ruins of great power conflict. That new order was built through great effort and careful statesmanship. The efforts of those early order-builders were vindicated in the last decade of the Cold War, when one country after another blossomed in democracy. In Europe, the iron curtain fell; in Asia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan all transitioned peacefully from dictatorship to democracy. A liberal tide was rising, and wise statesmen believed they had the chance to harness its power to once again refashion the international order. 

The key moment in this transition fell between the years 1991 and 1992, when George Bush articulated his vision of a “New World Order,” the Soviet Union fell apart, and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali presented his report, “An Agenda for Peace.” The world was hurtling towards a new liberal consensus: with America as its leader, an international concert of powers would devote itself to maintaining the common peace, open up the globe to joint trade and shared development, and use the machinery of multilateralism to strengthen democracy and human rights across the world. 

The martial aspect of this new ethos found its expression in the first Gulf War. Using multinational forums like the UN, America built a vast international coalition to contain the aggression of Saddam Hussein. That war was explicitly conceived as an attempt to use military force to set the ground rules for the new post-Cold War order. The flip side of that coin—Boutros-Ghali devised the neologism “peacebuilding” to convey it—faced its first test in Cambodia. Just as the international community had built a broad-based coalition to fight a war, now a similar coalition would come together to end one. Arms had played their part in crafting the new order; now, peace-building would be given the chance to do the same. 

From the viewpoint of 2021, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) foreshadowed the more familiar Coalition Provisional Authority that governed Iraq a decade later. But in contrast to the invasion and occupation of Iraq—the illustration of American arrogance and unilateralism par excellence—the 1992 intervention that produced UNTAC was done the “right” way. The intervention was the product of two years of diplomatic negotiation, a consensus agreed to by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council and all of Cambodia’s neighbors. It was not only conducted under the auspices of the UN but employed 20,600 UN personnel from over one hundred countries. The UNTAC chief was not a white man, but a fellow Asian—Japan’s Yasushi Akashi. This $2 billion dollar mission was then the largest peacekeeping operation the UN had ever conducted. From the beginning, Akashi was given a clear mandate to use that $2 billion dollars to bring stability, democracy, and human rights to Cambodia. 

When Akashi left Cambodia in 1993, he declared that UNTAC was “a striking demonstration to the world that an intractable conflict can be resolved and seemingly irreconcilable views can be reconciled.” Unfortunately, Akashi was lying through his teeth. The “peace plan,” as Strangio notes, “was a product of superpower compromise [that] bore only a vague resemblance to the political realities inside Cambodia.” The UN presence could pressure Cambodia’s warring parties into accepting a temporary ceasefire, but it could not make them accept the legitimacy of the UN-imposed government. 

The Khmer Rouge was one of the first factions to test the limits of the UN mandate. They withdrew from the ceasefire agreement, refused to disarm, and threatened to attack any UN force that entered their territory. Unwilling to fight a war on Cambodian soil without additional authorization, the UN allowed the Khmer Rouge to do as they wished. On one infamous occasion, Akashi’s motorcade encountered a Khmer Rouge roadblock—a single bamboo pole laid across the road, with a few young soldiers left to man it. “Refused” entry to the road, Akashi ordered his armed convoy to turn around.

Strangio quotes King Sihanouk’s sharp judgment of the scandal that followed: “The Cambodian people believed that the UN blue berets were like Jupiter threatening to unleash lightning against the Khmer Rouge. What do the people see? When the Khmer Rouge advances, UNTAC pulls back.” 

The lesson was not lost on other actors in the Cambodian political system. The sitting Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—which would eventually disarm the Khmer Rouge by bribing their commanders to switch sides—concluded that the UN was toothless and that there was no need to comply with the standards it imposed. Soon, they were using violence and assassination to keep control of the polls. With that, the last pillar of the UN’s mandate–to arbitrate a fair election–went up in smoke. But the UN, knowing that the world’s leading powers would rather pretend they had achieved their stated goals in Cambodia than pay the costs necessary to achieve those goals, packed up to prepare for its next project. 

The legacy of UNTAC was thus not the democracy, stability, or peace the UN had promised, but something else—a pattern that runs the length of Cambodia’s post-Cold War history. Always too marginal to great power politics or international commerce to justify the sort of authoritarian accommodations the West granted to states like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, Cambodia was instead subjected to a foreign policy putatively built around “values.” To support these values, the self-declared “international community” would dangle donor money and other forms of outside support to Phnom Penh, conditional on good behavior and meaningful reform from the Cambodians. In order to keep donor money flowing, powerful Cambodians would feign to be committed liberals. Donor organizations, charged with making the world a better place, would in turn pretend that the Cambodian playacting was the real deal. 

Beneath the façade, the country continued being governed through the same patterns of patronage and violence that dominated its politics for the last three centuries. Rather than undergirding a new democratic regime, all liberalism did was create a new framework for these actors to prove their legitimacy to outside powers.

No one mastered these tactics better than Hun Sen, the savviest of Cambodia’s strongmen. Beginning his career as a low-level cadre in the ranks of the Khmer Rouge and then switching sides to join the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea, Hun Sen was skilled at wearing whatever suit the situation required. It was easy for him to play the part of a duly and democratically elected Prime Minister. Nevertheless, Hun Sen’s liberal commitments were never more than skin deep. Each step in this self-declared democrat’s consolidation of power was founded on atrocity: opposition party workers shot while registering voters, rallies and strikes disrupted by grenade attacks, journalists doused with acid after inconvenient investigations, lands expropriated from the peasants who opposed important developments, newspapers and radio stations shuttered for reporting the truth, opposition politicians jailed when they became too popular, and so forth. 

Only rarely was Hun Sen directly implicated in any of this violence, but it was clear that even if he had been, there was little outside observers could do about it. Their powerlessness seems surprising: for the first two decades of his rule, three-fourths of Hun Sen’s governing budget came from foreign loans and aid packages. The keepers of the liberal world order seemingly had all the leverage they needed to guide the Cambodian system towards liberal democracy. But they soon found that the only effective agent of change in Cambodia was the strongman himself. Hun Sen had made himself the indispensable man of Khmer politics, the sole force that held the system together. In these early years, nothing could be done without him—including the reforms anti-corruption watchdogs and human rights organizations constantly called for. 

Hun Sen was responsive to these calls. When aid money was siphoned off in its millions to private pockets, or when a prominent innocent died in an outbreak of political violence, Hun Sen would appear before the cameras and declare a new reform campaign to save Cambodia and pacify his liberal donors. But Hun Sen was canny: he ensured that these reform schemes would be implemented so gradually as to not occur at all. Donors were willing to accept the appearances for realities. Besides, their attention was divided. Once international attention shifted to some other global crisis, both their demands for reform and Hun Sen’s promises to implement them would be forgotten as the international community gathered to save some other part of the world in need.

Part of the problem was that there was no reliable liberal counterweight to Hun Sen for anyone to support. The UNTAC elections forced Hun Sen into a shared power scheme with the royalist party FUCINPEC, headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of Cambodia’s constitutional monarch Sihanouk. But Ranariddh was no more a democrat than Hun Sen was. Having grown up in France, Prince Ranariddh was adept at speaking the kind of language Western ears like to hear. But Strangio presents the prince as he spoke in his less guarded moments. This Ranariddh described democracy as “just a phrase to be talked about in idle gossip,” concluding that “discipline is more essential in our society.” Ranariddh’s deeds matched his words. FUCINPEC was just as committed to siphoning off government funds into their own pockets, just as happy to squish other opposition parties out of the government, and just as reliant on extra-governmental patron-client relationships to maintain their power as Hun Sen’s CPP was. 

Like Hun Sen, Prince Ranariddh maintained a personal militia to buttress his power. Also like Hun Sen, he planned on using violent force to remove his rival. But Hen Sen struck first. The 1997 slaughter of FUCINPEC’s armed forces has been called a coup. In reality, as Strangio argues persuasively, “the fighting was the culmination of months of mutual escalation between two rival centers of power bent on maximizing their own control,” more “mini-civil war” than “coup in the ordinary sense.” If the slaughter was one-sided, it was not because a faction of peaceful democrats had been victimized by a norm-breaking authoritarian, but because the losing faction was simply so much less competent than their rivals at authoritarian power politics. 

With FUCINPEC defeated, Westerners dissatisfied with Cambodian autocracy rested their hopes on Sam Rainsy, the new leading light of the anti-CPP opposition. Rainsy, at least, was not corrupt: he made his name as a finance minister devoted to exposing crookery in both FUCINPEC and CPP finances. Rainsy’s activism had a cost: he lost first his ministry, then his parliamentary seat, and finally his membership in the existing party system. But if Rainsy’s stance on corruption left him with no actual power in Cambodia, it made him spectacularly popular in Western activist circles abroad. 

Yet once again Westerners found themselves perpetuating an illusion. When addressing English-speaking audiences abroad, Rainsy would speak about the opposition’s political program in terms of democracy, accountability, and respect for universal human rights. When speaking in Khmer, Rainsy’s message was different. To Cambodian audiences, he presented himself as an ardent nationalist, spewing forth venomous attacks on Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority, and calling for a militantly anti-Vietnamese foreign policy. Sam Rainsy’s political allies would go a step further, peddling conspiracy theories that blamed Vietnamese agents for the Khmer Rouge massacres. It is difficult to tell which Rainsy—the liberal cosmopolitan or the vitriolic nationalist—was real and which was the act. Perhaps both were roles designed to appeal to their chosen audience. The gap between the two is telling. Despite Western wishes to the contrary, the poor and largely rural Cambodian electorate was far less inspired by liberal values than by revanchist territorial claims and anti-Vietnamese prejudice. 

Strangio describes parallel gaps between the expectations of the “international community” and Cambodian realities in multiple domains. He recounts how Western aid money is funneled directly into private pockets, and how foreign development plans saddled Cambodia with schools and medical stations without providing the country with the teachers or doctors to man them. He devotes a chapter to the thousands of foreigners employed in the NGO-aid complex, a complex whose main effect is hobbling indigenous state capacity—a phenomenon which scholars have documented across the world

Strangio also narrates the bizarre story of the UN’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal, whose trials were supposed to stand as a symbol of universal justice levied against tyrants guilty of “crimes against humanity.” But in Cambodia, humanity mattered far less than local political realities. Hun Sen manipulated the trials to ensure that his own cronies escaped culpability for past crimes, and to save face, the UN “took a series of messy political accommodations and concealed them behind a mirage of justice.” They did so under pressure from Australia, the U.S., and other Western nations who did not want the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s $200 million price tag to climb any higher. “The fact is,” Strango observes, “supporting the [the trials] was a useful way for Western governments to bolster their moral credentials while supporting an undemocratic status quo.” 

Those words are an accurate gloss on the larger Western project to transform Cambodia. Conceived in the birth-pangs of the post-Cold War order, this project was a product of that moment’s unique triumphalism. In those heady years, it was easy to believe that liberal democracy was both a historical inevitability and a moral necessity. This strange cocktail of determinism and moralism would not only set the terms of Cambodia’s engagement with the “international community”—but also undermined that community’s attempt to remake Cambodia in the liberal image. 

Cambodia exited the Cold War a poor and broken country, economically isolated from the wider world, scarred by forty continuous years of war, unable to exercise sovereignty over its own territory, and still suffering from the depredations of the totalitarian experiment that killed around one-fifth of its people. Bringing this country in line with the purported international standards of democratic liberalism was a titanic task. It could never have been accomplished except through colossal expenditures and unceasing attention on the part of liberal powers. 

But in a world where liberal democracy was an inevitable product of history itself, that sort of investment was never thought necessary. The guardians of the liberal order were caught in a trap: driven by moral strictures to support Cambodia’s liberal development, liberal powers could not accept a Cambodia that fell below their standard. When presented with the actual costs of bringing the kingdom up to this standard, they balked and looked for ways to remove Cambodia’s problems from the agenda. Confident that history would do the job they could not afford, the “international community” uncritically accepted and paid for any faux-reform or fake democrat that made it look like Cambodia was finally moving towards liberalism. A more recent equivalent to their mindset might be found among 2000s-era Bush administration officials who believed that an extended American presence in Iraq was unnecessary because of the local readiness for a democratic regime. Yet, in both cases, history never did its part. The illusion would soon pop, and the whole cycle of moralism, hypocrisy, delusion, and waste would begin anew.

The failure to remake Cambodia into a peaceful, prosperous democracy contrasts sharply with past experience in liberal nation-building. The process of developing the German, Japanese, and Italian empires into a network of democratic, U.S.-aligned states was the unspoken template for many of the nation-building projects of the last three decades. But those interventions were unusual. They followed a destructive war that discredited existing ideologies and elites; in contrast to Cambodia, where the UN tried to build a coherent political system out of an artificial ceasefire, the devastation of the Second World War and the uncompromising terms forced on the Axis in surrender had genuinely wiped the old slate clean. The threat posed by the Soviet Union, in turn, forced the Americans to compromise on ideological purity: they were willing to tolerate distinctive models like Europe’s Christian Democratic parties or Korea’s state-led development of markets if it brought stability—and thereby, legitimacy. 

Most important of all, however, was the commitment Americans brought to the task of building a new order. The American post-war intervention in East Asia and Western Europe were open-ended commitments to rebuilding the pillars of the old order on American lines. Having just suffered from the failures of interwar diplomacy, American statesmen were not afraid to ask their leaders—and even their populations—to shoulder the terrific responsibility of ensuring that those failures did not recur. The stakes were never so high in the Cambodian case, and the international commitments were correspondingly low. From the beginning, UNTAC was designed as an interim solution to Cambodia’s problems. In contrast, American forces still garrison bases in Germany and Japan some 75 years later.

The democratization of South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines occurred with far less effort on the part of the “international community.” Having occurred just before or during the UN’s intervention in Cambodia, they were another source of hope for the Westerners who dreamed of building a democratic Cambodia. Yet the differences between those three nations and the Cambodia of 1992 are instructive. All three were decades removed from large-scale war. All three were key American allies; for two generations, their ruling classes had sent their children to American schools, and their business classes were enmeshed in the markets of the liberal world system. By the early 1990s, two of these three had successfully industrialized, and even in the more rural Philippines, politics was centered on Manilla’s urban core. Cambodia, in contrast, was almost entirely rural. 

In other words, these countries possessed both local actors and elites who could really build up functional and aligned regimes, and the material and social prerequisites for the U.S.’s favored regime type of a market-oriented liberal democracy. Notably, it was precisely in states like Saudi Arabia or mid-century Singapore—neither of which obviously had these prerequisites—that the U.S. relaxed its demands for conformity. When faced with similar obstacles in Cambodia, though, the UN and its major allies more or less shrugged their shoulders and abandoned the project.

While American diplomacy was critical to securing each of these democratic transitions, democracy was an internal development in all the success stories. Decades of organizing and resistance had created genuine popular movements for democracy. America did not conjure these forces, but instead pressured the leaders of Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines, who understood they were dependent on American favor, to back down before them. None of these conditions—peace, high rates of urbanization and literacy, market integration, a popular democracy movement, and geopolitical dependence on a liberal hegemon—held in the Cambodian case. Most still do not. It was foolish to expect Cambodia to follow in their footsteps, and unfair to condemn it for failing to do so.

When placed against these examples, what seems most distinctive about the international community’s intervention in Cambodia was a strange intolerance for illiberalism married to a general unwillingness to shoulder the true costs of liberalization. The closest parallel to Cambodia’s post-Cold War development is thus America’s ill-fated attempt to remake Iraq and, especially, Afghanistan. There too, a liberal power sought to transform lands torn by war and state terror into model democracies. There too, we find well-meaning Westerners assuming that historical necessity would do most of the hard work of liberal development. There too, we find outsiders passing off Potemkin reforms as moral victories. There too, we find foreigners unwilling to accept illiberal realities caught in a cycle of delusion. 

The difference—in terms of the post-Cold War political spectrum of the liberal world order—is that the “international community” did not precede its interference in Cambodia with invasion. In Cambodia, American soldiers were never the instrument of liberal reform. Yet these reforms failed anyway. Perhaps then, invasion and militarism bear less responsibility for the failures of 21st century statecraft than is commonly thought. Cambodia’s experience suggests that America’s defeats in the Near East were not merely failures in the use of military force, but something altogether more fundamental. Having overthrown a geopolitical enemy, the Western alliance did not possess the singular goal of building a functional and aligned regime that actually corresponded to local conditions. 

For Americans, this may be the most useful lesson to take from Strango’s Cambodia. Our error was not in the tools used, but in the aim pursued and commitment to it. In both Cambodia and Afghanistan, we had faith that history moved with us. Decades later we realize the truth: our attempt to remake the world in our image did not make us history’s handmaidens, but history’s fools. 

Tanner Greer is the director of the Center for Strategic Translation and a correspondent for Palladium Magazine. His writing focuses on contemporary security issues in the Asia-Pacific and the military history of East and Southeast Asia.