Chhay Vet: UNTAC in Battambang

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In 1991 I was nineteen years old and Cambodia still had a very tightly controlling Communist government. My country hadn’t opened up and it was only recently that the Vietnamese soldiers had left. You can imagine, therefore, the great shock we had in Battambang when Australian soldiers wearing blue berets arrived. I’d never seen anything like it.

The Australians came first to set up a base two kilometers out of town and then many others arrived too. They came from all over the world – The Philippines, India, Eastern Europe, Columbia, Paraguay – places I’d only ever seen on maps.

Their job was to disarm and control the different fighting factions by keeping them away from each other and at first the Khmer Rouge participated. Khieu Sampan went to Phnom Penh and a detachment of KR soldiers arrived in Battambang to meet the UNTAC people. We all came out to stare at them. I saw that the KR was very smart and disciplined – far more than the FUNCINPEC soldiers.

Then Khieu Sampan made demands that Hun Sen couldn’t agree to, so the KR went back to the jungle and the election went ahead without them. UNTAC made demands of Hun Sen too. Mainly they demanded brothels and girls and despite Hun Sen saying he could not agree to their request, they still got what they wanted.

What I mainly remember about UNTAC in Battambang was their appetite for women and girls. They all wanted girls and all had different desires. The Australians usually organized for expensive dancing girls from the Champeng Vong or Tan Sour Nightclubs to be sent to their compounds. (You can see the Tan Sour – in English, Paradise – behind me in the top photo and it was demolished recently. The land is on sale for $500,000.) The Asians – Malaysians and Phillipinos – wanted very young virgin girls and would pay hundreds of dollars to poor families in local villages to get access to their daughters. The Indians, Bangladeshis and Africans spent all their spare time and money in cheap brothels, but what they all had in common was their desire for sex with Khmer women and girls.

Ek Phnom is a very peaceful village eight kilometers from Battamang which has an 11th century temple and lily ponds. Khmer people from Battambang often go there with their families at weekends to enjoy a picnic. A brothel opened there for the UNTAC soldiers. Ek Phnom never had a brothel before that.

We also learned quickly to be careful on the streets as the UNTAC people were crazy drivers and were usually drunk. We really had to watch out for them. Still, they had good medical facilities so after they knocked us over they would usually take us to their hospital.The one positive thing about UNTAC was their hospital which did help people who had been in traffic accidents.

Apart from that, they were a disaster and we finally lost all respect for them, when, during the election, some KR trying to disrupt voting, attacked the village of Sneng, 20 kilometers from Battambang. The UNTAC soldiers heard the KR coming and ran away to hide in the rice fields. Their job was to protect our security and human rights yet they didn’t do either.

They were also very stupid. During the election registration and probably as a joke, UNTAC were given an old French map of Bantey Meachy to use. They ended up crossing the border and trying to register a Thai village for the 1993 Cambodia election. UNTAC invaded Thailand!

UNTAC spent $1.6 billion nationally on their mission and we believed that when they left, all their equipment would be left behind and donated to us. So when it became clear in 1993 that this wouldn’t happen, we stole everything we could from them. We stole their cars from their compounds and we stole their money. I’m not ashamed about this at all.

These days there is little in Battambang to remind us of UNTAC. Many women had abortions so there were no babies left behind, Champeng Vong Nightclub closed down years ago and the Tan Sour Nightclub was demolished recently. The villas that were rented to UNTAC people for $2,000 a month are now rented out for $500 per month. But out in Ek Phnom lives a Malaysian man who came to Cambodia with UNTAC and stayed behind to marry a Khmer woman and work as a builder. She left him years ago so he lives alone now. I’ve met him and he speaks Khmer perfectly.

Chhay Vet

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