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Intersect Magazine

Yasushi Akashi's Daunting Struggle To Bring Peace To Cambodia

By Peter S. Crosby

January, 1993

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA. Jet turbines of the white Soviet-made helicopter whine down the sonic scale until its rotors begin to lazily lope. A slight Asian man in beige safari suit steps out of the craft gingerly. As he emerges from the swirling red Cambodian dust to greet a lineup of provincial officials, burly soldiers in blue berets swarm behind him. He shakes hands deliberately, smiling stiffly, his balding pate and oversized, gold-rimmed glasses shining in the noonday tropical sun.

Hardly the image one conjures up when thinking of Atlas with the world on his shoulders, but Yasushi Akashi's padded epaulets carry an equal burden: the "new world order."

Akashi is the head of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) -- by far the largest and most expensive of the 26 UN peacekeeping missions to date. And, because it is viewed as an important test of the UN as the global security force, it is also likely to be the most difficult.

After 20 years of war in Cambodia, the UN is essentially attempting to reconstruct the entire country-in just 14 months. By demobilizing Cambodia's four warring factions, repatriating half a million refugees, and educating 4 million virgin voters about democracy, UNTAC hopes to conduct a "free and fair" national election before May 1993.

Even with more than 20,000 military an UN personnel from over 40 countries and total funding of almost $3 billion, the obstacles are daunting. In addition to a ruined infrastructure from the sixties, a government rife with "one for you, two for me" corruption, and an annual inflation rate of 150 percent, there are an estimated one million land mines, drug-resistant malaria, and the uncooperative, genocidal Khmer Rouge to deal with.

But Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Cambodia Yasushi Akashi is confident. Worldwide expectations that the UN will be a cure-all don't seem to faze him. Nor does Japanese government pressure for a diplomatic victory in Asia. "I've been in the hot seat before," Akashi says, "and Cambodia is not the hottest."

The 61-year-old Akashi was not even the first choice for the post. Abmed Rafeeuddin, now head of ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) in Bangkok, was offered the job by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali but was reluctant to take the position. "In the beginning I also was very hesitant," admits Akashi. "I knew the complexity of the job, the controversies which could arise because of certain ambiguities."

But gray areas, nuance, and tact are this career diplomat's forte. The last five years of his three-and-a-half-decade stint United Nations were spent as the Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs. Before that, he spent 12 years as Undersecretary-General for Public Information. Foreign consuls in Phnom Penh praise his plain-speaking, cool handling of the personalities in this Cambodian conundrum. Several remark on his ease and familiarity with Eastern and Western mentalities; one Western diplomat describes Akashi as a "World citizen."

Born in Akita, Japan, and schooled at university of Tokyo, Akashi pursued graduate studies at the University of Virginia and Columbia's Fletcher School. That experience, plus 30 years of living with his wife and two children in New York City (the site of UN headquarters), have enhanced his international perspective.

That he has little experience in Asian diplomatic circles has not seemed to matter. "I am here representing the UN, the entire international community," says Akashi. Negotiations in Cambodia are conducted in English and French; Akashi is fluent in both. "At the same time," he says, "I think the Cambodians are somewhat happier with an Asian."

Yet nothing could have prepared him for dealing with the Khmer Rouge, killers of an estimated one million Cambodians during their agrarian revolution from 1975 to 1979, or their reclusive leader, Pol Pot. Akashi says of them, "I think even Machiavelli would be more welcome."

Although the Khmer Rouge signed the UN-brokered Cambodian peace plan in Paris in October1991, they have balked at or failed to participate in almost every stage of its implementation. They insist -- but never produce conclusive proof -- that Vietnamese troops remain in Cambodia, and have murdered civilians of Vietnamese descent to drive home the racism in their message. They deny access to UN peacekeeping troops in the areas under their control, especially along the western border with Thailand, where timber and gems are being stripped for cash. Meanwhile, an estimated 13,000 to 30,000 Khmer Rouge refuse to move into cantonment camps -- as the peace accord dictates, and as the other three factions have done. They have also declined to disarm, still violate cease-fire agreements and attempt to spread their communist doctrine in the villages.

Akashi, while condemning Khmer Rouge noncompliance and threatening them with sanctions, leaves the Khmer Rouge room to maneuver, letting them save face and keeping them in the peace process. "It was quite clear the Paris accords would lead to all kinds of divergent factions," Akashi says, rationalizing the three-year international process and the accords. It was the result many compromises."

His diplomatic approach to dealing most radical group in the UN's operation has been heavily criticized, however. Publications from Le Monde to The Asian Wall Street Journal have decried what they perceive as a lack of authority and efficiency.

UNTAC's former Deputy Force Commander, French Brigadier General Michel Loridon, has also blasted Akashi by repeatedly calling on the UN to be more aggressive with the Khmer Rouge. "We must push the KR until they fall into the sea or into our arms," said Loridon, who was removed from his post last year in July and sent home.

"Peacekeeping, not enforcement" is Akashi's credo. We are not here to fight our way," he insists. We are here to maintain the peace and to persuade all the parties of the integrity of our mission.

"I have been criticized both right and the left: too soft for some (especially French politicians), and too hard for others," Akashi says. Yet he has pushed ahead without the Khmer Rouge on many issues: cantoning the other factions, forming an election law that included third-generation Cambodians (which infuriated the Khmer Rouge), and distributing international rehabilitation funds. Khmer Rouge radio retaliated by calling for his resignation.

But diplomats point to his skillful handling of the interim government's Supreme National Council, where Akashi deftly allows the objections of the Khmer Rouge to be heard but does wait for their consensus. "It is important to have all four parties with us as we go along. But sometimes, unfortunately, we have to proceed on the basis of the agreement of three of the four," he says.

This operating strategy grew into "Option B": the threat of holding the Cambodian national elections without the Khmer Rouge. The possibility of their exclusion, coupled with UN economic sanctions (endorsed by both the Chinese -- once the patrons of the Khmer Rouge, as well as the recently demilitarized Thai government) is forcing the KR guerillas into a tough negotiating position. Do they gamble on becoming international pariahs -- which they've never been because of the perversities of Cold War posturing, or do they conform (albeit nominally) with the peace process?

Akashi is betting his diplomatic career on the latter. He believes the Khmer Rouge will comply with the 70 percent disarmament and demobilization in order to stay in the elections. "The Khmer Rouge have to come around," Akashi says. "The question is when."

Tremendous financial aid and political pressure from Japan have also been applied to support Akashi's mission. Senior Japanese diplomats have been meeting with the Khmer Rouge to thrash out acceptable terms for their demobilization, and last June Japan's Foreign Ministry sponsored the International Conference on the Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Cambodia in Tokyo. The program was soliciting $580 million in aid; it received $800 million in pledges, mostly from the government of Japan.

By far the biggest commitment the Japanese have made was the historic deployment of some 600 peacekeeping troops to Cambodia. Even though the force was an engineering battalion, the move required an amendment to Japan's pacifist constitution, which was penned after its defeat in World War II. The troop contribution came only after years of debate and required monumental political will; it marks the beginning of a new era for Japanese international influence.

"It has been an aspiration of Japan to play a more significant, constructive political role in Asia, as well as in the UN," says Akashi, deflecting charges that the government is only supporting their man in the hot seat. "The negative legacy of the past is almost nonexistent in Cambodia, so it is a very good place in Japan's new initiative can be felt."

Though Japan's drive to cast off its "economic giant, political midget" stenotype still smacks of political opportunism, Akashi believes that "the Japanese interest in Cambodia's recent tragedies and suffering is genuine and widespread."

Yet Akashi also subscribes to another agenda: the future of Japan in the United Nations. Locked out of the inner circle comprised of the five veto holders on the UN Security Council, Japan desperately wants to show that it can function in a world-class diplomatic manner. And with recent talk of reformulating the UN that goal has become more urgent than ever. Akashi predicts that "other UN peacekeeping operations should enjoy personnel contributions from Japan as well."

For now, Yasushi Akashi is focusing Cambodian elections in May. "We have to maintain our position of principle, our purpose," he says resolutely. Disregarding the myriad delays, his optimism persists. "We may have to cut some corners, but I think we will be able to stick to our plan."

If UNTAC is successful in bringing peace to one of the most war-torn corners of post-World War II history, pundits predict that Akashi could become the next secretary-general of the United Nations. "I don't envy the Secretary-General," says Akashi. "The burden is tremendous, but the means given to him are very limited."

Would he want that burden? "The job should not go to someone who aspires to it, but to the one who is the best qualified," he answers. After a lifetime in the service of the UN, he says he knows what it takes: intellectual capability, moral strength, a vision of the future of the UN, lots of diplomatic wisdom, and tact. "But a combination of these things is not easy."

Neither is carrying the new world order.

Peter Crosby is a Japan-based writer and photographer who reports on events throughout Asia.