Cambodian Elections:From Pol Pot to the Polls Once Again

Shankari Sundararaman,Researcher,IDSA


In May 1993, the United Nations conducted the first elections in Cambodia after a span of nearly two decades during which the country had been ravaged by genocide, foreign intervention and civil war. In the form of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which came into effect in the wake of the Paris Peace Agreements of October 1991, the United Nations took over the interim administration of the country in the hope of providing a conducive environment for the conduct of free and fair elections, which was to usher in the restoration of democracy by a popular mandate. However, today it is five years since the UNTAC sponsored elections and as Cambodia prepares for the next one, there appears to be very little change for the better in the conditions that existed during the previous elections. The result is that in spite of the fact that the UN mandate utilised more than $2 billion and 22,888 peace-keeping personnel, the restoration of democracy did not achieve any lasting solution to the political instability that had been plaguing the country from the 1970s onwards. Moreover, the very fact that elections were held in Cambodia at that time seems to have been the culmination of the international community's role in Cambodia. At the time of the finalisation of the UN process there was only a need to conduct the elections, but the more significant details of strengthening the institutions that are necessary for the sustenance of a democratic system were disregarded by the leadership that took over in the post-UNTAC period. The larger task of reconciliation among the different groups that emerged as coalition partners, that is the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) and the Cambodia People's Party (CPP), as well as the urgent priority that should have been given to national reconstruction were completely ignored and this is perhaps the greatest failing of the international community that set this country upon the task of restoration, and of the leadership within the country itself. An assessment of the post-UNTAC period in Cambodia cannot be done unless there is an understanding of the actual mandate of the UNTAC and the areas in which it met with success and failure. The factors that plagued Cambodian politics in the aftermath of the elections of 1993 were direct legacies of the UN operations in that country and there has been criticism that the UN mandate was both "flawed in content and compromised in its implementation." Any realistic attempt will, however, accept that the task performed by the world body was one that had never before been attempted and the individual case of the Cambodian example could not effectively stand as an example of the UN success or failure since the Cambodian case was a combination of factors that were peculiar to the internal political dimensions within the country.

Assessing the UNTAC Role in Cambodia

The culmination of the Paris Peace Accords had led to the formation of a blueprint upon which a comprehensive political settlement for the country was based. The mandate of the UNTAC in Cambodia was an unprecedented effort that had never before been attempted, in the sense that Cambodia was the first ever case where the United Nations took over the administration of the country in the interim period prior to the elections. This task of the United Nations was well endorsed in the definition given by the Secretary General himself which stated that the UNTAC mandate was "massive in size, comprehensive in scope and precise in its mandate, the UNTAC set new standards for peacekeeping operations undertaken by the international community."1

The UNTAC's operations in Cambodia began after April 1992. Between the signing of the accords in October 1991 and the UNTAC deployment in April 1992, the United Nations Advanced Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC), took on the role of being the precursor to the UNTAC. The UNAMIC was supposed to set up the United Nation's presence in Cambodia and was also expected to provide the UNTAC with details of the ground realities that existed within Cambodia at that point. During the period of the UNAMIC itself the first signs of deterioration in the political situation in Cambodia were evident. The UNAMIC could not succeed in establishing a viable UN presence since its role in Cambodia was both unscheduled and uncoordinated.2 There were several evident signs that problems would lie ahead for the UNTAC such as the reaction to the return of Norodom Sihanouk as Head of State as well as that of the Supreme National Council (SNC); the reception that was given to Khieu Samphan's return and the riots that followed; the shortlived attempt by the FUNCINPEC and the CPP to form a coalition; the increased lawlessness and infractions that continued to plague the day to day political developments were all obvious indicators of the uncertainties that were ahead for the UNTAC.3

The role of the UNTAC in Cambodia included several tasks that were envisaged in the proposal that was laid down by the Permanent Five in the August 1990 meeting in which for the first time an enhanced role for the United Nations was accepted and it also clearly indicated that five basic tenets were considered vital in solving the political turmoil in Cambodia. These were:

(i) transitional arrangements regarding the administration of Cambodia during the pre-election interim period;

(ii) military arrangements during the transitional period;

(iii) elections under UN auspices;

(iv) human rights protection;

(v) international guarantees.4

The UNTAC's operations in Cambodia began in April 1992, with a sizeable number of personnel, i.e. approximately 15,900 troops, 3,600 civilian police and over 1,000 international staff. In addition, there were also about 1,000 international election monitors and roughly 56,000 local recruits during the actual polls The entire operations of the UNTAC were headed by Yasushi Akashi of Japan and its military component was led by Gen. John M. Sanderson of Australia. The operations of the UNTAC can probably be broadly divided into five major tasks. First, the UNTAC was to oversee the administrative procedures within the country. The logic of this arrangement was that the factions within the political fray should be equally placed in the run up to the elections. Other than Hun Sen's CPP, which had been in power since the Vietnamese intervention in 1978, the other parties had little or no experience in the governmental structure. The three main opponents that emerged in the aftermath of the Paris Peace Accords to challenge the CPP's position were the FUNCINPEC or the Royalists who had been under Sihanouk and later Ranariddh, the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) which was led by Son Sann and had earlier been known as the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) and the Khmer Rouge itself which by the end of the UNTAC period had completely jeopardised the UN role in Cambodia.5 These three groups had earlier been a part of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK), a grouping of the factions that had been stationed along the Thai-Cambodia border during the years of the stalemate. In fact, even the UN had given recognition to the CGDK when it questioned the legitimacy of the Heng Samrin/ Hun Sen group which had been placed in position after the Vietnamese intervention.6

During the interim period it was hoped that the hold which the Hun Sen group had over the administration would be minimised, thereby providing the necessary environment for the conduct of free and fair elections. This clause of the treaty was one of the most crucial factors that was to ensure a neutral political climate. However, it was soon proved that this clause of the treaty was unrealistic since the UNTAC could not completely undo the administrative system of the State of Cambodia (SOC), which was the former name of the CPP. In fact, the Paris Peace Process had identified five key Ministries as those that the UNTAC would take over during the interim period. However, the UNTAC's control over these five Ministries was not assured since the SOC conveniently changed the names as well as the orders of these and the question of the UNTAC's control over them never arose. One of the criticisms was that the Hun Sen faction had an upper hand in the elections due to the administrative advantage that it enjoyed compared to the other factions. What must be stated here is that it would be very difficult to completely undo any administrative set up and provide a totally neutral environment. The proof of the UNTAC's success lies in the fact that in spite of the criticism that the CPP enjoyed an upper hand, the party that emerged victorious in the aftermath of the elections was the FUNCINPEC.7

The second task that was entrusted to the UNTAC was the demobilisation of forces, which was divided into two separate categories —the first was the observation of a ceasefire and the second included regroupment, cantonment, disarming and the demobilisation of factions. According to the norms laid down in the Paris Treaty, the UNTAC was supposed to assist in a "phased and balanced" withdrawal that would lead to the demobilisation of 70 percent of the forces. This objective was to be achieved prior to the registration of voters. This task too was jinxed right from the start. In the aftermath it seems apparent that none of the factions was really willing to lay down arms. It is significant to remember that in terms of military strength, only the PDK and the CPP had any clout. The Khmer Rouge were the first to violate the ceasefire agreement as well as to back out of the demobilisation process. Once this occurred, even the SOC showed an unwillingness to abide by the demobilisation clause—in fact, it is a widely accepted fact that the SOC willingly laid down old arms and ammunition while the more sophisticated weapons remained with the troops.8 In November 1994, after the UNTAC sponsored elections there was a move by the coalition government to acquire arms aid that was to assist them in fighting the Khmer Rouge factions. This, however, did not materialise since the international community believed that supplying arms to Cambodia would only increase the problem of the proliferation of light weapons in that country since the arms would be used by troops who would willingly sell these to the Khmer Rouge itself. Today Cambodia is an easy market for the procurement of small arms such as M-16s, Kalashnikovs, Norinco hand grenades and handguns.9

However, in spite of these setbacks, the UNTAC did succeed in completely repatriating and rehabilitating roughly 360,000 refugees of whom two-thirds were in agriculture. By using Quick-Impact-Programmes (QIP), as well as medium to long-term developmental projects, the UNTAC successfully completed the repatriation of nearly 310,000 by February 1993 and almost 100 percent of the task was through by the time of the elections. The UNTAC's actual achievement was that in spite of all the obstacles the elections were actually held with a massive turnout of 90 percent. The result was a coalition between the FUNCINPEC and the CPP.10 The functioning of the coalition in the five years since the UNTAC sponsored elections has been a litmus test for the ruling coalition. There has been a great deal of criticism against the UNTAC that its mandate in Cambodia was incomplete. Several commentators of the Cambodian scene have raised the question as to whether the UNTAC mandate in Cambodia ended with the elections or there was a need to go beyond the elections ? Whatever be the verdict, the UNTAC's task in Cambodia was successful to the extent that it allowed the Cambodian people for the first time in over two decades the right to express their choice in the country's leadership in as free and fair a manner as possible. This itself was the UNTAC's primary achievement. During the post-UNTAC period, several complications in the internal political dynamics emerged that were further compounded by the total lack of coordination among the ruling coalition which was to greatly hamper the structural apparatus of the country that had no foundations for the kind of partisan politics that leaders played.

Political Developments Since the UNTAC

Within a few months of the UNTAC sponsored elections, it became apparent that the coalition government and the alliance between the leaders of the FUNCINPEC and the CPP was merely a "marriage of convenience" between increasingly incompatible partners. One of the disadvantages of the election itself seems to have been the lack of a clear majority to either Hun Sen or Ranariddh. The very fact that these two leaders, who till then had been unable to share even the most minimum of courtesies towards each other, were forced to become partners in a coalition did not augur well for the future of Cambodian politics. Probably the first major hurdle for the coalition's functioning was the fact that the CPP, in spite of having emerged as the junior partner, wielded more authority than the FUNCINPEC over the actual apparatus of the governmental set-up. Right from the beginning, the CPP and the FUNCINPEC did not regard each other merely as partners in a coalition but also kept in mind that the other was the chief political rival—the goal for both the parties, therefore, was not the smooth functioning of the government on a day to day basis, but was more the issue of who would emerge as the victor in the next elections. In fact, what seems surprising about the Cambodian scenario is that the elections were not called earlier. The challenge to the FUNCINPEC arose from the fact that the CPP had managed to have unchallenged authority over the administration for almost fifteen years. The CPP's control had permeated to the lowest levels of the country's administrative structure and any attempt by the FUNCINPEC was underscored by the fact that its hands within the coalition were tied. Today, as a result of the political malfunctioning, Cambodia's political future remains uncertain. The most important aspect in all this is that the country remains deficient of the institutions that are required for the growth of a democratic set-up, and the inability of the government to build the requisite structures has hindered the continuation of international aid.

One of the most significant challenges to the incumbent government has emerged from the Khmer Rouge itself. The security threat that had been posed by the scattered presence of the Khmer Rouge is one that had earlier completely undermined the working of the coalition. In the first few years after the elections, the Khmer Rouge did enjoy a few gains, especially with the small victories that it made at Pailin and Anlong Veng. However, within a few years, the fighting spirit of the factions dwindled. While the skirmishes continued, there was really no significant challenge from the group, especially after September 1996. In September 1996, King Sihanouk granted a royal pardon to one of the most notorious Khmer Rouge members who had been responsible for the atrocities of the Democratic Kampuchea period, Ieng Sary.11 The second nail in the Khmer Rouge's coffin came when there was infighting among both Son Sen and Pol Pot in June 1997. This was the final test for the survival of the group and whatever loyalty had remained in favour of Pol Pot was shattered when he ordered the killing of his former Defence Minister Son Sen and ten other members of his family. What was ironical in the fall of Pol Pot was that the very group that had sustained and nurtured him as Brother Number One in the years of the Cambodian stalemate were the final arbiters to pass judgement on the killing of Son Sen. The falling from grace within the faction led to the complete dismemberment of the clique but for a small group that remained under the control of Ta Mok, a former General who had been responsible for the arrest and denunciation of Pol Pot within the Khmer Rouge.12

In the immediate consequence of Pol Pot's arrest, the international community, led by the United States, readdressed the question of a trial for Pol Pot on account of the Khmer Rouge's crimes against humanity. It was hoped that the United States with the assistance of the Thai government would be able to arrest Pol Pot and remove him to a destination where it would be possible to hold a trial. The view was that an international tribunal could be organised either in Canada or in the Netherlands, where such a tribunal already existed for those suspected of war crimes in Bosnia.13 Another move that had been proposed earlier was that the United Nations should act as a tribunal for the crimes perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge—this, however, did not receive much of an impetus since it was expected that China would veto any moves in this regard due to the support that it had offered to the Khmer Rouge during the years of the stalemate.14 The repercussions of the Pol Pot trial would have affected even the international community because of the role that it had played in giving clandestine support to the group. While China may have opposed the move, Thailand would have received considerable flak on account of the fact that the Thai government had been unable to control the private business interests which sustained the Khmer Rouge. While the Thai government had stated that it had no relations with the Khmer Rouge, they were unable to enforce any rule against the business transactions between the Khmer Rouge and the members of the Thai military who were involved in private business in timber and gems from the regions of north-western Cambodia. In fact, even the United States would have been questioned for its support to the CGDK, of which the Khmer Rouge was a significant part. The United States may claim that its aid was being given to the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), that is the republican group within the CGDK. However, since only the Khmer Rouge had any fighting capacity, it was only to be expected that the aid would get diverted. If these matters had been brought openly to the forefront it would have been rather unpleasant for the groups concerned.

In the light of this, Pol Pot seems to have done everyone a favour by succumbing to an uneventful and quiet death. It remains to be seen whether the Western powers will carry out the promise of bringing the other members of the faction to book. In that context, the two most notorious members of the group are Ieng Sary and Ta Mok—the former has already been granted a royal pardon by King Sihanouk and the latter is being wooed by the two leading political parties. What is crucial, however, is that the Khmer Rouge has lost its sting as a political grouping that can undermine the strength of the government. The demise of Pol Pot and the dismemberment of the group are clear indicators that the faction no longer offers a viable political or security challenge to the government in power. According to Stephan Heder, "It no longer makes any sense whatsoever to call whatever remains a Khmer Rouge movement because with the realignment of forces over the last few years, the concept of a Khmer Rouge movement no longer exists."15 There is a great deal of relevance in this statement since the faction as it existed in the Seventies and Eighties is no longer present. The Khmer Rouge's personality had changed over the past years and the more senior members had been replaced by junior cadres who were not as rigidly steeped in the Marxist-Leninist ideology that was the forte of the senior group.

While much of the Khmer Rouge has been fractured away into smaller groups and they have no political relevance in terms of being a single force that can be of significance, the group is in no way unimportant since the leading political factions are vying for the remnants of the factions. In fact, it was this aggressive courting of the Khmer Rouge that led to the coup d'etat in July 1997 in which Hun Sen took control of the creeky and corrupt administration. The fact that the FUNCINPEC under Ranariddh had managed to forge an alliance with the Khmer Rouge was cause for worry within the CPP and this prompted Hun Sen's action in the absence of Prince Ranariddh.

Countdown to the Polls

In the last one year since the coup that ousted FUNCINPEC leader Prince Ranariddh, Hun Sen has managed to gain effective personal control over the armed forces and has also been responsible for selecting a group of choice commanders who have agreed not to let the result of the general elections affect the CPP's control.16 The most tragic consequence for the country's economic plight was the coup, after which much of the international aid that was coming to Cambodia was halted. Moreover, Cambodia's inclusion into the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was also stalled as a result of the coup. In an attempt to justify his position, Hun Sen claims that he had been compelled to launch a coup—the logic was that in the absence of any action from the CPP, Prince Ranariddh with the connivance of the Khmer Rouge would have ousted Hun Sen.17 The position of Hun Sen was consolidated within the country after the coup by a series of well planned and effectively executed political victimisation and it is believed that over 40 close associates and supporters of the FUNCINPEC, particularly of Ranariddh, perished under mysterious circumstances. Apart from this, criminal charges were levelled against Prince Ranariddh for his participation in arms smuggling as well as in collusion against Hun Sen and the CPP. In March 1998, Ranariddh was convicted for both these crimes and was sentenced to 30 years in prison and $54 million fine.18

The coup also led to certain changes in the composition of the armed forces. When the UNTAC sponsored elections had been held, it was accepted that the forces of the FUNCINPEC and the CPP, which till then had separate forces, would be combined within the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). After the coup d'etet of July 1997, a new law was promulgated by which political parties could not maintain individual forces.19 As such, the troops that were loyal to Prince Ranariddh became a resistance group after the coup and this led to much of the violence within the country where the soldiers of the two sides clashed. The fighting continued and moves to reinstate Ranariddh were unsuccessful until the Japanese used their diplomatic skills to broker a peace between the two leaders. This plan included two important facets—firstly, in view of the security situation in Cambodia, Ranariddh was to be tried for his compliance in arms smuggling and collusion in absentia, thereby giving him the security that he had asked for. Second, the plan also envisaged a royal amnesty for the Prince by King Sihanouk which was to be recommended by the government.20 Hun Sen's willingness to grant a pardon to his chief political rival should come as no surprise to anyone who understands the Machiavellian streak in the man. Realising that international acceptance of the situation in Cambodia was crucial to the resumption of aid, he strongly supported the royal amnesty, which opened the way for Ranariddh's participation in the elections, which was considered essential by the international community.21 The royal amnesty to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, paved the way for the pardon of the three Generals who had defected from the armed forces on account of their loyalty to the deposed Prince. This task was more difficult since the peace talks for the cessation of violence and the reintegration of forces did not come through easily—the talks failed in four rounds and only a call for cessation of violence by Hun Sen to the armed forces under his command ushered in a temporary respite, which allowed the elections to proceed.

One significant feature of the elections was that the United Nations agreed to coordinate the process in Cambodia, its presence being a factor for reassurance for the political parties concerned as well as for the voters. In a memorandum to the Cambodian government that was accompanied by a letter from the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan had indicated the urgency of improving the conditions that prevailed within the country and had also laid down the rules and procedures under which Cambodia would work with the United Nations in coordinating and monitoring the elections.22 Under the United Nations plan, a Secretariat and Coordination Council was set up in Phnom Penh and the strength of this was increased from five to fifteen, among whom ten were to coordinate the security arrangements in the provinces. The plan also included the presence of several international observers who would act as the technical advisory group to the National Election Committee (NEC), which was an all Cambodian group that was to oversee the coordination of the elections. Another feature was that in the initial phase there were to be about 30-50 observers from different countries and this was increased to approximately 400 observers closer to the elections, of which the ASEAN provided about 75.23 This group was to act under the United Nations and was called the Joint International Observer Group (JIOG). The election process was also funded by the international community, particularly Japan and the European Union, with a total of around $26 million.24

Some early analyses of the trends indicated that the CPP had very little chance of actually gaining an upper hand in the elections. On the basis of an independent poll that was released prior to the actual voting, it was believed that the most popular candidate was Sam Rainsy—a former Finance Minister and associate of Ranariddh who had been extremely outspoken against corruption within the coalition. Rainsy had been discharged from office in October 1994 and had later been expelled from the FUNCINPEC. Having formed his own political party, he returned to the fray after a few years in the political wilderness. Rainsy's Cambodian National Party received 32 per cent of the Phnom Penh vote, which was roughly 13.5 per cent of the national estimate. Both the FUNCINPEC and the CPP followed with 19 per cent and 8.7 per cent of the Phnom Penh vote and 12.4 per cent and 10.3 per cent of the national estimate respectively.25 In spite of these predictions, it was quite obvious that the elections were tilted in favour of the CPP from the very beginning—with the campaign marked by both intimidation and violence, as well as media coverage that greatly placed the CPP at an advantage, there was no option but for the CPP to win. What is remarkable is the will of the Cambodian people—despite the fact that such challenges were present, the population did not show a sense of apathy, but a willingness to vote. More than 80 percent of the registered voters seemed to have voted and in some places even a cent percent ballot was cast. What seems highly debatable is the urgency with which the JIOG declared the elections to be free and fair. At the same time the, Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), stated that there were incidents of intimidation and oppression and that the elections were rigged in favour of the CPP.26 The early trends showed that the CPP was likely to win 65 to 66 seats of the 122 seats in the National Assembly, followed by the FUNCINPEC with about 42 to 45 seats and the Sam Rainsy group getting around 13 seats.

The actual results also tallied with these early estimates. Both the Opposition leaders were quick to reject the results of these elections and stated that they had been heavily rigged in favour of the CPP. The belief of the Opposition was that Hun Sen completed at the ballot, the trend that he had initiated with the coup last year—that is, a consolidation of power by the rule of the gun which had the tacit blessings of the international community that had acted as the observers. There seems to be a considerable amount of truth in this—despite the traces of ambiguity there is an acceptance that the elections were free and fair. The only explanation for this seems to be that the international community may be overcome with a sense of compassion and fatigue as far as Cambodia is concerned. While Hun Sen has shown a willingness to form a coalition with the FUNCINPEC, both the FUNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy group are not willing to join forces with Hun Sen. One factor is very clear—Hun Sen does not intend to give up the reigns of control without a fight and in the event of no coalition being formed, he will resort to a constitutional change to go beyond the clause of needing a two-thirds majority. What must be borne in mind is that any obstacle in the path of the CPP will be overcome—whether by fair or foul means, is not the question. Strangely enough the fate of this fledgling democracy depends upon one man—Hun Sen.



1. The United Nations and Cambodia 1991-1995, Blue Book Services vol. II (New York: Department of Public Information, UNO, 1995), p. 3.

2. See Shankari Sundararaman, "Cambodia Since the UNTAC: Deep Into the Quagmire," Strategic Analysis, vol. 21, no. 6, September 1997, p. 931.

3. Keesing's Record of World Events, vol. 37, no. 11, p. 38573.

4. n. 1, p. 88.

5. Ibid., p. 46.

6. For the first three years of the conflict the United Nations had given recognition to the Khmer Rouge which had been overthrown when Vietnam intervened in Cambodia in December 1978. At this point there had been considerable debate over the question of the Cambodian seat within the UN with both the Khmer Rouge and the People's Republic of Kampuchea claiming the rights to legitimacy in that country. In June 1982, with the formation of the CGDK, the seat in the UN was occupied by them; however, several observers believed that this did not achieve any real change since the foreign policy of the CGDK was still handled by the Khmer Rouge and it effectively meant that the Khmer Rouge was still given the recognition. This has been one of the most complex debates in the Cambodian crisis—the right of granting recognition to a group that had been responsible for one of the most brutal periods in Cambodian history over that of a group that had been established due to foreign intervention.

7. Discussions with Benny Widayano, Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Cambodia, October 26, 1994, Phnom Penh.

8. Ibid.

9. For details, see Pierre Paccaud, "Cambodia's War Syndrome," The Statesman, June 22, 1998.

10. The FUNCINPEC won a majority with 45.47 per cent of the votes polled; the CPP received approximately 38.23 per cent of the votes polled; and the BLDP got 3.81 per cent of the votes. The remainder of the votes were shared by seventeen other political parties.

11. Khaleej Times, April 17, 1998.

12. For details, see Nate Thayer, "Brother Number Zero," Far Eastern Economic Review, August 7, 1997, p. 15.

13. The International Herald Tribune, April 23, 1998.

14. The Hindu, May 1, 1998.

15. n. 12, p. 16.

16. Nate Thayer, "No Real Winners," Far Eastern Economic Review, July 30, 1998, p. 22.

17. The Statesman, March 22, 1998.

18. Ibid.

19. V. Jayanth, "Back from the Brink," The Hindu, April 12, 1998.

20. Ibid.

21. n. 17.

22. The Hindu, April 10, 1998.

23. For details, see V. Jayanth, "UN Decides to Coordinate Elections in Cambodia," The Hindu, April 7, 1998; Khajeej Times, May 20, 1998.

24. Dominic Faulder, "The Election Circle," Asiaweek, July 24, 1998, p. 24.

25. n. 16, p. 22.

26. The Hindu, July 31, 1998.