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Sunday, July 21, 2002


Flawed assumptions that courted disaster

PEACE, POWER AND RESISTANCE IN CAMBODIA: Global Governance and the Failure of InternationalConflict Resolution, by Pierre P. Lizee. Macmillan/St. Martin's Press, 2000, 206 pp. (cloth)

According to the famous dictum, war is the continuation of politics through other means. Is the reverse true? Is politics merely war in another guise? That question hangs over this fascinating study of the Cambodian peace process.

Pierre Lizee, an assistant professor of politics at Brock University in Canada, agrees with critics that the peace process failed -- a controversial judgment itself -- but maintains that the failure was the product of the assumptions of the peace plan, not, as the traditional assessment would have it, the result of how it was implemented. If he is right, we need to reconsider the way we think about conflict resolution.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, or UNTAC, was the most ambitious U.N. peacekeeping effort ever. According to the 1991 Paris Peace Plan that established the U.N. mandate, the world body would virtually take over the administration of Cambodia in the runup to and during national elections. It was a staggering assignment. The country had been torn by two decades of war, an interlude of rule by the genocidal Khmer Rouge and subsequent invasion by Vietnam. Not only were Cambodian political forces intensely competitive, but the KR were still lurking in the hinterlands, determined to fight on.

The results of the historic 1993 ballot were breathtaking. Despite threats by the KR, virtually all voting-age Cambodians went to the polls. The royalist FUNCINPEC party received 45 percent of the vote, while the ruling Cambodian People's Party, headed by Hun Sen, got 38 percent.

Yet Hun Sen refused to turn over power. Since UNTAC had not taken control of the "power" ministries, as authorized by the 1991 peace plan, the CPP was able to demand and win a power-sharing arrangement. (That is usually considered the chief cause of the "failure" of the Cambodian peace process.)

Conflicts among the political parties continue to this day. There was a coup attempt in 1997, and violence remains an accepted part of Cambodian politics. The essential role that sheer, raw power plays in determining political winners and losers has forced many to concede that the peace process has indeed failed.

Lizee argues that the problem with the Paris Peace Plan, and by extension, UNTAC, was not implementation. Rather, it was that the plan's logic, which called for "the establishment of peace in Cambodia through the instauration of a democratic process in that country, entailed the development of a set of institutions and a form of politics which did not appertain to Cambodian society."

The Paris plan reflected Western notions of conflict resolution. It assumed that political competition had to be institutionalized, and could be channeled through existing political and social structures. Those structures would limit "acceptable" behavior; at the same time, the commitment to nonviolent politics would further legitimize those structures and the power exercised by those who controlled them.

(This is a distillation of some of the theoretical aspects of peace to which Lizee devotes considerable discussion, and may be a bit hard to understand. The density of these explanations is the chief drawback of this book. They are certain to put off most nonacademic readers.)

That isn't how peace works in Cambodia. The country's war-torn history has meant that politics "remains the domain of factionalism and does not allow the growth of the wide social structures which would be able to regulate the use of violence." Instead, violence has been legitimized to maintain a balance of power among factions.

Lizee's conclusion is worth quoting at length.

"Attempting to mediate between the different factions or to negotiate with them reduced the dynamics of the Cambodian conflict to a confrontation between those factions and overlooked completely the sociopolitical conditions which made a movement beyond violence impossible.

"In other words, to think that bringing the actors of the conflict to the negotiation table could end the conflict rested on the assumption that these actors needed only to resolve their differences for the conflict to be resolved. This assumption did not take into account that these actors were placed in a society which did not provide them with institutions and the social structures on which it would have been possible to articulate the type of peace proposed by UNTAC."

That is common sense. Peace is hard enough to impose -- and virtually impossible if the society isn't prepared for it. To take the most extreme example, Pol Pot was unlikely to accept elections that were sure to deny him power. He may not have had the power to impose his will, but he could reject many of the alternatives.

The machinations by the Cambodian factions prior to the 1993 elections support Lizee's thesis. Up to the ballot, the country's political leaders tried to agree among themselves on power-sharing -- and short-circuit the democratic process put forward by the international peace plan. While all political systems encourage compromises, the critical point is that the failure to reach agreement doomed the peace plan if the country didn't have alternative peaceful dispute-resolution mechanisms. Cambodia didn't and the peace process collapsed as a result.

One observer of Indochina has argued that "the opposite of war in Cambodia is not peace; it is government." He may be right. But even "government" assumes certain relationships and norms about ways to resolve conflict. Lizee reminds us that those assumptions are far more deeply rooted than we imagine -- and we cannot take them for granted.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.

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