United Nations transitional authority in Cambodia
The United Nations (UN) operation in Cambodia from 1992 to 1993 was, at the time, the most ambitious and expensive undertaking in the peacekeeping experience of the organization. At a cost of around US$1.7 billion, 22,000 military and civilian personnel were deployed to implement the comprehensive political settlement of the Cambodia Conflict under United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
Bangladesh's force contribution to the Mission included an infantry contingent. The 3rd East Bengal Regiment was selected to form the Bangladesh Contingent with necessary supporting sub-units and manpower from all arms and services. I (then-Lt Col) was posted as its Commanding Officer.
The Contingent consisting of 850 personnel deployed in Cambodia in April 92 returned to the Country after successfully completing its mission in August'93. The activities of the Contingent of this period would be discussed following highlights of the salient aspects of the overall Mission. However, Bangladesh Contingent's portrayal shall be drawn with its important activities avoiding the province of tactical details of military operations.
Brief History of the Conflict and the Establishment of UNTAC
During the Khmer Rouge (KR) rule of the country (1975–1979), about 1.5 million Cambodians died from starvation, disease, overwork, and execution. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, drove out the KR, and set up a new socialist government. For the next 12 years, a civil war raged as the Government and its Vietnamese backers were challenged by a coalition based in Thailand that included the KR and two weaker forces, the Cambodia Royalist faction loyal to the former king, Norodom Sihanouk known by the acronym FUNCINPEC, and the pro-Western KPNLF force. The 4 parties (also referred to as factions) were signatories to the Paris Agreement.
There were intense diplomatic activities over the years to arrive at a political solution to the conflict. In Paris, on 23 October 1991, the parties signed the Agreements on the Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict. It required the United Nations to set up the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
THE AIM OF THE UNTAC
UNTAC's aim was to restore peace and civil government in Cambodia through free and fair election leading to a new constitution. To achieve the aim, UNTAC was to exercise 'supervision or control' over all aspects of government, monitor civil policing of all factions, rehabilitate essential infrastructure and assist in economic development, promote and protect human rights, repatriate and resettle refugees and displaced persons; and organize mine-clearing training for the locals alongside demobilization of factional forces.
BANGLADESH CONTINGENT IN SEAM REAP PROVINCE DEPLOYMENT
Through well-synchronized programs, the Contingent became ready for deployment within two and a half months. The Contingent reached Sattahip in Thailand by UN provided chartered planes. From Sattahip, the Contingent traversed a distance of 700 kms by road and reached the bordering town of Aranyaprathet, near the Cambodian border, by78-unit vehicles which arrived at Sattahip port by sea from Bangladesh.
On the following morning, the Contingent moved to the staging area at Sisophon through the border-crossing point at Poipet in Cambodia. The weather was dry and temperature rose up to 40°C. Even under such conditions water had to be rationed rigorously, since water-availability in the area was too meager. After staying for 3 days at that locality, the Contingent moved out to 12 different locations. The staging area is still referred to by all the Contingent members as 'Karbala'. Braving the odds, including mine threats, Bangladesh Contingent could deploy in all its 12 locations before the last date given by UNTAC, and was the only Contingent which could meet the UNTAC timeline.
MILITARY CONTINGENTS' TASKS
The Military Contingents were tasked to disarm and canton all armed forces of the Cambodian parties, ensuring a 70 per cent level of demobilization, providing secure support to all unarmed UNTAC and UN components and take necessary measures to establish a secured environment for the whole Mission.
INITIAL AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY (AOR) AND DISARMING OF FACTION FORCES
Initial AOR was demarcated considering tasks of disarming and circumscribing the faction forces. Our AOR included part of Seam Reap province and the whole of Banteay Meanchey. We were to disarm the faction forces located in the AOR. But initially, only about 30% forces in our AOR were disarmed. Soon it became apparent that the KR forces would not deposit their arms to UNTAC on multifarious pleas. The process of disarming was stopped by UNTAC since all other factions expressed that their security would be in danger if armaments were possessed only by the KR.
In this period, we moved extensively in our AOR for getting a fair understanding of the culture, general conditions of the people, preparing means of road communication, maps of the areas controlled by the factions,and meeting local as well as faction leaders. We started with selective civic operations to assess its effectiveness. This proved to be very helpful for our next phase of operations.
Deployment for Holding Election
After failure of Disarmament, the UNTAC focused on holding of the election with or without KR. Hence, the UNTAC redrew the AOR of military contingents conforming to the provincial boundaries. Bangladesh Contingent was given the responsibility of the strategic Seam Reap province. In the new AOR our locations of deployment increased to 18 including Seam Reap Airport. We were overstretched but retained full operational effectiveness.
The UNTAC and the UN components for the province were positioned in Seam Reap town with field level offices in all the districts. Our sub-units were also deployed at different districts. But there was no effective mechanism in place to coordinate the functions of various components at the provincial level.
In our AOR, 33% of the area was under KR control. Some of the important roads at places, and our own camps were within small arms range from the KR border posts. The violent acts were gradually increasing. We deduced from the changed situation that we would be required to fight to protect UN and UNTAC members from KR's aggressive attacks launched to disrupt the election.
APPROACH TO PREPARING CONTINGENT MEMBERS FOR FIGHT
The contingent members knew well that, it was a Peacekeeping Operation and one would be allowed to open fire only in self-defense. But many did not realize that even fighting for self-defense could be intense. I had long discussions with my officers over the issue. They were instructed to fortify their locations, ensure that all persons carry arms and ammunition for 24 hours, and are in proper battle dress during any move outside the camps; and practice drills against attacks on the camps and probable ambushes. They would also practice hostage rescue operations. All these actions were aimed at gradually changing the mindsets from peacekeeping to facing severe hostile circumstances; and it did present itself in time.
This Unit of ours had participated in the Liberation War and had a good number of senior NCOs and JCOs who fought for the liberation of our country. They were distributed equally in all 18 camps and were ready to fight for the honor and prestige of the nation. Their actions motivated others, and the Unit became ready for all contingencies.
TAKING PEOPLE ON BOARD THROUGH CIVIC ACTION PROGRAM
For the UN mission in Cambodia to succeed, it was vital that the Cambodians knew why the UN was there; saw a prospect of their lives changing for the better, and believed that their participation as voters was worth the risk of going to the polls. We embarked on a Civic Action Program to increase contact with the people with our own resources. A large group of people gathered at the programme sites. We interacted with them and distributed leaflets written in Khmer, French and English that had motivational messages and relevant information for the people. Some of our officers also could reasonably communicate in Khmer, which made the programs more effective. Our initiatives included, though were not limited, to the following:
* Oral Saline preparation and its administration.
* Organize inter-school, commune and faction football and volleyball competitions leading to competitions at District and Provincial levels.
* Provide dress for traditional dance teams in communes and districts. They organized the traditional dance programs after a gap of many years.
* Organized first aid, computer, AIDS awareness, vehicle repair, welding and driving in all our camps.
The Civic Action teams carried VCR recorders and portable generator to show local and Hindi movies (popular amongst people) in remote areas. This initiative attracted huge number of people, which was good for our motivational programme.
COORDINATION WITH OTHER UNTAC COMPONENTS AND THE ELECTION
Security situation started deteriorating and violent actions by KR increased. The requests for escorts and security arrangements were on the increase. It became extremely difficult to ensure security for the operations of all the components. We had meetings with different component heads at provincial levels and succeeded in convincing them to have regular meetings at Contingent headquarters to coordinate the operational activities. It worked, and was really effective. This procedure was also replicated at district levels.
The Provincial Electoral Office and the Contingent worked in close co-operation. All the UNTAC relevant component-heads in the Province made several visits to District level offices as one team to have extensive discussion at the field levels to formulate a comprehensive Registration and Election plan. The bottom up approach worked well, and most importantly, all realized that the Electoral Component was the core organization at that stage. Consequently, the Electoral Component could register more than 98% of the eligible voters.
As apprehended, the security situation in Cambodia deteriorated, and the KR started attacking UNTAC personnel and camps. One Japanese international staff died in an armed attack by KR in one of the provinces in the east. Feeling insecure, all electoral staff wanted to withdraw from all the provinces but Seam Reap. They were asked to attend counselling sessions in the UNTAC Headquarters. Electoral staff from our sector did not want to attend the session mentioning that they were safe in the Sector.
Due to the overall worsening of the security situation, the UNTAC highest body was discussing in a meeting whether to conduct election in the Seam Reap province. Force Commander Lt Gen John M Sanderson asked me over telephone from the meeting-room whether the election could be held in the AOR. I instantly answered in the affirmative. The meeting decided to go ahead with the election in the province.
General Sanderson, in a Sector Commanders' Conference, following killing of the Japanese electoral, stated: “I fail to understand why the electoral staffs from a Sector where not a day passed without serious intimidation, did not want to leave their stations, while all others, including from relatively safer areas came to the Capital.” He further said, “The answer could be found in the coordinated approach in the Sector”
The election was held and more than 90% voters safely cast their votes. It was a success of a combined effort of all the components.
MAJOR ATTACKS BY KR
One of our camps at Pouk had a strength of 40 personnel. It was attacked by about 300 KR troops. The locals gave the information to the camp commander about the impending attack. The battle continued for 4 hours. After suffering heavy casualties, the KR withdrew. In this battle one of our soldiers died.
Registration of voters was going on in a location near to KR-controlled area. The local KR troops attacked with heavy weapons. The attack was repulsed. The company commander leading the patrol sustained severe injury.
We were attacked in another voter registration camp. Seam Reap town was attacked thrice by KR. The attack on Seam Reap Airport was repulsed. There were many other incidents, but the Contingent faced them all with boldness and courage.
An article in ASIAWEEK made all of us proud, and I am sure it would be same for the readers:
ASIAWEEK, MARCH 17, 1993
Article: The Long Story: On the Front-line with Asian Troops in Cambodia.
“It was at Svay Leu that a Bangladeshi unit was bombarded by artillery for 4 weeks. An American military observer there at the time, Maj Charles Lockley, says “there was no question they were firing at us. The Bangladeshis showed fortitude. They were well-trained and cool under fire”.
DISCIPLINE AND ATTITUDE
The Contingent always respected the local culture. The personnel were perfectly firm in the conduct of their duties without being rude, restraining themselves from any kind of bad behavior.
We were completely aware of the danger of AIDS and its consequences. Appropriate measures were taken considering the realities of the situation, and we returned safe from the Mission. The following Article may reveal a lot more:
NEW YORK TIMES: MONDAY, JAN 7, 1996, PG. E6
Article: When Peacekeepers Turn into Troublemakers
The article was about bad behavior of the Peacekeepers in various missions including UNTAC. But about Bangladesh it writes:
“On the other hand, Bangladeshi soldiers, drawn from a poor and fractious country are remembered for discipline and humanity.”
A total of 82 persons from the Contingent received Force Commander Commendation Certificates for their bravery in operations.
I always put a question to myself: “What would have been the state of Cambodia if UN had not established UNTAC?”. One thing I knew for sure: The war would have continued with all its severe Psychological and Physical casualties.
We believed that how UN forces would be viewed by the local population must be the primary focus of mission activities.
The writer is former Contingent Commander in Cambodia.