Children and UNICEF in Cambodia: from 1952 to Year Zero

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam
At a Public Seminar on Children’s Rights in Cambodia – Past, Present and Future
Phnom Penh, 1 October 2009

Please allow me to start with a personal reflection.

Visiting Cambodia is always a bitter-sweet experience for me.

It is sweet – because I love this country; I feel I have a special bond with this country; I love its people, its beauty, and it is wonderful to witness how this country is making good progress in human development.

But it is also bitter – because whenever I visit Cambodia, I cannot help but feel very sad as I recall the great national tragedy of genocide that this country has gone through.

As I look around this hall, especially to our Khmer colleagues, a very special emotion fills my heart.

I lived and worked in Phnom Penh between 1973 and 1975.

I was the first resident staff member of UNICEF in Phnom Penh, and Cambodia was my first assignment. I have lived and worked in many countries around the world since then.

Whenever you return to a place where you have lived or worked before, it is natural to expect to meet at least a few people whom you knew before – a friend, a colleague, a neighbour.

Cambodia is the only country in the world today where when I return for a new visit, I do not get to meet anyone whom I had known during my first memorable stay here. It is an eerie, painful and melancholy feeling not to meet anyone whom I knew before – our Cambodian national staff, our government counterparts, other friends and acquaintances.

Yet, I know that the pain I feel is nothing compared to the agony and suffering that virtually everyone of you, all adult Cambodians, must feel as there is hardly any Khmer family who did not experience a personal tragedy during the days of the genocidal Pol Pot regime.

I can only imagine your sense of loss and tragedy, of betrayal and misfortune. In the last few days I visited the Anlong Veng area and earlier the Toul Sleng genocide museum. A visit to these sites sends such shocking chill down one’s spine. How can human beings be ever so cruel?

Yet, and yet, in spite of what each and every Khmer family has gone through, I marvel at the manner in which our Cambodian friends cope with life. To see the smile in their face, the famous: le sourir Khmer, makes me marvel at the resilience of the human spirit.

If only God gave other people, in far more privileged circumstances than what the Khmers have endured, the kind of resilience they show, and the spirit to struggle for justice and progress – the world would certainly be a much better place.

Now, let me get back to my assigned topic of children and UNICEF cooperation in Cambodia prior to 1979.

UNICEF started its cooperation in Cambodia in 1952, even before its independence, as part of its global and Asia-wide regional programme to improve child health and well-being. The earliest UNICEF-supported programme in Cambodia was treatment of a debilitating disease called yaws.

In the 1950s more than 50 million people around the world, including Cambodia, suffered from this disease. It was caused by a spiral bacteria that penetrates through the victim’s skin and causes skin lesions, boils and bumps that burst and spread all over the body damaging skin, cartilage and bones, and causing much pain and deformity.

Children were the main victims of this disease, which could be treated by injecting a single dose of long acting penicillin.

In the 1950s WHO and UNICEF launched a Global Yaws Control Programme to eliminate this disease. Between 1952 and 1964 this programme succeeded in treating 300 million people in 50 countries, and reduced the prevalence of the disease by 95 percent. Cambodia, where UNICEF provided penicillin, staff training and vehicles, was one of the great early success stories.

Later, in the 1950s and 60s, UNICEF, along with WHO, provided support for childhood immunization programmes including vaccination against smallpox, DPT, and tuberculosis.

In a book entitled “Half the World’s Children”, UNICEF’s legendary Regional Director for Asia, Sam Keeny, recounts his first visit to Cambodia in 1954. The population of Cambodia was 4 million at that time. There were only 4 medical doctors in the whole country, and 53 qualified medical personnel, 32 of them served in the Cambodian army.

In early 1950s, Infant Mortality Rate was estimated at 250 per thousand live births. In other words, one out of every 4th Cambodian baby died before reaching one year, and 1 out of 3 children could not expect to live up to their 5th birthday.

UNICEF did not have a field office or any staff assigned to Cambodia in the 1950s and 60s. From its Bangkok regional office, Margaret Gann, a deputy to the Regional Director served as de facto UNICEF Representative to Cambodia, as well as to Laos and Vietnam.

In Phnom Penh, a resident WHO health advisor was asked to help oversee UNICEF cooperation on a day to day basis.

The combined actions of UNICEF, WHO and later USAID in the 1950s, had gradually helped improve maternal and child health to the point that by 1960, IMR had gone down from 250 to 150, and average life expectancy had gone up from around 36 years to 46 years.

In her book entitled “His Name is Today”, Margaret Gaan recounts fascinating tales of how UNICEF cooperation evolved in Cambodia in the decades of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

In 1954 UNICEF helped establish the first children’s ward at the Preah Khet Malea Hospital in Phnom Penh. It later supported a midwifery training school where hundreds of village birth attendants were trained.

To oversee these maternal and child health activities, WHO and UNICEF also helped establish a Maternal and Child Welfare (MCW) Division within the Ministry of Health.

Margaret Gaan recounts the story of a “Dr.” Treng, who was the first Director of the MCW Division, and a key UNICEF counterpart for over a decade. He was not really a qualified medical doctor, but a dedicated, French-trained, health technician who was thrust into the position of running the MCW Division.

UNICEF had provided 14 new shining jeeps to supervise MCW activities throughout Cambodia in the late 1950s. These were Dr. Treng’s proud possessions, which gave him some clout in the Ministry of Health.

But a serious problem arose when King Sihanouk, popularly called “Monseigneur” in those days, once issued a decree that all government vehicles were to have a ration of 100 litres of gasoline per month, regardless of the type of vehicles or their need to travel across the country.

This allowance was perhaps ok for most small Citroen cars for commuting in the city, but certainly not for MCW’s big gas-guzzling jeeps that had to ply long distances in rough roads in the countryside. But it turned out that as the Ministry could not pay any repair or maintainance bills for its vehicles, only 4 of the relatively new 14 jeeps provided by UNICEF were operational. Dr. Treng did quite nicely taking gasoline for 14 registered vehicles to operate a fleet of only 4 running ones.

In 1964 there was a major crisis as the relationship between Cambodia and the USA deteriorated sharply. As the Vietnam War intensified and threatened to engulf the whole Indochina peninsula, Prince Sihanouk was worried about Cambodia getting unwittingly enmeshed in the war. He wanted the Americans to guarantee Cambodia’s neutrality. But the Americans refused. Monseigneur was angry and suddenly decided to break off relations with Washington. Almost over- night USAID shut down its sizeable operations in Cambodia.

So much of the Ministry of Health’s funding had come from USAID that hardly any project was unaffected. Desperate, the Minister of Health summoned UNICEF’s Margaret Gaan from Bangkok to urgently visit Phnom Penh. She was asked if UNICEF might be able to substitute in some measure the programmes previously funded by USAID.

Both in terms of mandate as well as resources, UNICEF was, of course, not in a position to substitute for USAID. But it did agree to increase its support to on-going health programmes, and for a while the programmes assisted by UNICEF, not dependent on USAID, were practically the only programmes that continued to work in the mid-1960s.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, UNICEF also provided support for an innovative in-service primary school teacher upgrading programme. Most primary school teachers in Cambodia at that time barely had primary schooling themselves. There was a Primary Teacher Training School, but it could hardly cope with the demand for providing pre-service training for thousands of teachers. Meanwhile, schools had to do with untrained, unqualified teachers.

UNICEF offered to help provide a crash course of in-service training for up to 600 of the existing untrained teachers every year during two months of their summer break. This programme became so popular that many uninvited and un-registered teachers showed up from the far corners of Cambodia.

Many trainees came with their babies and care-takers, and many newly-wed teachers came with their spouses. UNICEF had to provide support for setting up a special nursery for the babies, and even a dormitory for newly-wed teachers.

UNICEF considered it one of the best education programmes it assisted in all of Asia. Indeed the desire for education among Cambodian parents was so high that by mid-1960s, gross primary school enrolment in Cambodia reached nearly 70 percent, among the highest in Asia.

The steady progress being made for children as well as in overall national development was interrupted and slowed down in the late 1960s as the war in Vietnam spread over to Cambodia, and within Cambodia politics got messy due to internal strife, periodic anti-Vietnamese riots and the growth of a strong leftist, anti-American movement.

By 1970 things came to a head, when Prince Sihanouk was traveling abroad in France and Russia, his Prime Minister General Lon Nol overthrew him.

From his exile in Beijing, Prince Sihanouk provided patronage to a National United Front for Cambodia in a coalition with the Khmers Rouges. He had judged that between the corrupt Lon Nol regime and the radical Khmers Rouges, the latter were a lesser evil.

The Prince’s patronage provided tremendous boost to the Khmers Rouges who at that time were just a small band of leftist political extremists, discontented minorities and disaffected intellectuals. With the Prince’s patronage the tiny rag-tag party became a powerful force enjoying political, military and moral support of North Vietnam and China.

Because of growing insecurity in the countryside, chaos in urban areas, and the indifference of the Lon Nol regime, most basic services to children, including those supported by UNICEF, ceased to function effectively.

In February 2003, American and Vietnamese negotiators reached the historic Paris Peace Agreement. Although the agreement was between USA and Vietnam, it was bound to impact on the situation in Laos as well as Cambodia, which after all, were side-shows of the larger Vietnam conflict.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations at that time, Kurt Waldheim, welcomed the Paris Peace Agreement. He said that both his predecessor U Thant and he had tried very hard to stop the Vietnam War, but all their efforts had failed. Now that peace was on the horizon, he said, the UN would be involved in a major post-war relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction programme, and he asked all relevant UN agencies to actively support this effort.

UNICEF was the first UN agency to respond immediately to Waldheim’s call. Its Executive Director, Henry Labouisse announced that UNICEF would launch a massive relief and rehabilitation programme for the benefit of children all over Indochina.

I was finishing my graduate studies at Princeton University in the US at that time, and had developed a very special interest on Indochina. So when I heard about UNICEF’s initiative for Indochina, I contacted UNICEF and asked if I could be of any help. I was hired on the spot and sent off to Cambodia.

UNICEF did not have an office or any resident staff in Cambodia at that time. In fact, because of increased insecurity, many embassies and aid missions were cutting down on staff and even contemplating closure of their offices. In the Summer of 1973, Cambodia was the theatre of the heaviest US bombardment of the War in Vietnam and Indochina.

Into that quagmire I was sent as the first resident staff member of UNICEF to negotiate the opening of a new UNICEF office to run a potentially massive relief operation. I arrived Phnom Penh on 4th of September 1973, and initially started operating out of the UNDP office.

Two months later, a young Canadian named Paul Ignatieff arrived as the first UNICEF country Representative. And one month after that a young Lebanese fellow named Joseph Acar joined us as our Admin and Finance Officer.

The three of us – all young, inexperienced and new to UNICEF – established an office, hired a dozen Cambodians, and a few other international staff, and started running a fairly sizeable relief operation.

Inexperience and adversity, combined with the youthful enthusiasm of our team actually helped us develop some ambitious programmes. Fortunately, at UNICEF headquarters in New York, there was a special unit exclusively dedicated to Indo-China. We could count on them and the regional office in Bangkok to help our team of novices not to make too many mistakes.

I have here a copy of the UNICEF Annual Report for the Khmer Republic for 1974. It discusses the social, economic and political situation of the country, the challenges facing women and children in Cambodia at that time and UNICEF’s programmatic response to those challenges.

A dominant feature of the situation was that because of heightened insecurity in the countryside a large numbers of Cambodians were internally displaced – we called them refugees then. Initially, the Khmer extended family system was able to absorb them. But this system broke down as the trickle of refugees turned into a flood – by 1973 there were a million internal refugees, growing to 2 million in 1974, and nearly 3 million – or close to half of Cambodia’s population by April 1975.

Buddhist temples, schools, private homes became filled with refugees. The relocation of population from productive rural areas to more secure provincial towns led to massive drop in agricultural production and resulting food shortage and huge stress on public services.

The country’s economy also began to collapse with 64 percent of the national budget allocated to military spending. During 1974 the cost of foodstuff increased by 300 percent, non-foodstuff by 600 percent, and the value of national currency tumbled by 500 percent.

The condition of women, children and the elderly deteriorated rapidly. As public health services were overloaded with war-wounded and displaced persons, maternity and pediatric services became choked. Child malnutrition increased.

There was a real hunger for education at all levels of Khmer society, and even during this difficult period parents attached great importance to sending their children to school. Most schools operated two or three shifts every day, despite huge shortage of teaching aids and educational materials.

By the end of 1974, nearly 70 percent of Cambodia’s territory was under the control of the Khmers Rouges or a no-man’s land, while 70 percent of the population lived in areas controlled by the Phnom Penh Government. Accounts from refugees indicated that the health and education situation of children in areas under control of the Khmers Rouges was really bad, but that the nutrition situation was better than in the provincial towns.

As the Government was mainly concerned with its own survival, people depended on relief services provided by foreign-funded NGOs such as CARE, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Red Cross, etc. and US provided food imports. UNICEF stepped in to provide complementary support in cooperation with all these agencies and the remnants of some tottering government services.

The major programmes supported by UNICEF during 1973-75 included provision of emergency medical stockpiles for civilian hospitals in Phnom Penh and provincial towns; supplies, equipment and training grants for maternity and pediatric wards of hospitals and health centres; nutritional supplements provided to children in refugee camps; hygiene and sanitation education and support provided largely through Buddhist temples and monasteries; educational materials and logistical support for primary schools and pre-school centres, and supply and installation of prefabricated schools and furniture imported from Singapore to meet the acute shortage of classrooms.

In line with its policy of helping children in need everywhere regardless of the politics or jurisdiction of the authorities under whose control they came, UNICEF tried to contact the GRUNK and the Khmers Rouges authorities. These contacts were made mainly in Hanoi and Beijing through UNICEF New York under the leadership of Monsieur Jacques Beaumont – who would come to play a major role later in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmers Rouges regime.

UNICEF did provide some modest help for health services in the Khmers Rouges controlled areas through Vietnam, but these could not be expanded or sustained because of the impossibility of monitoring the use of our assistance and frankly, the indifference of the Khmers Rouges authorities to any services for the civilian population.

By the end of 1974 it became clear to all of us that the days of the Lon Nol government were numbered. As in the rest of Indochina, we were gearing up for a major post-conflict relief and rehabilitation programme for the women and children of Cambodia. We had started developing contingency plans.

At the beginning of 1975 security situation deteriorated rapidly. The Khmers Rouges tightened the noose around Phnom Penh and the city came directly under their rocket range. Many embassies started evacuating their staff. In the UN agencies also we started gradual evacuation of our international staff.

I left in early March 1975 when the British embassy evacuated its staff and citizens and a few other stragglers of miscellaneous nationalities like me in what was truly a daring, traumatic and dramatic flight from Phnom Penh to Butterworth Airforce Base in Malaysia and onto Singapore and Bangkok.

In Bangkok I set up and headed a small Khmer Operations Unit from where we monitored the situation in Cambodia, and started preparing contingency plans for returning to Cambodia, after the situation stabilized hopefully following a quick transfer of power from the Lon Nol regime to the GRUNK.

Phnom Penh fell to the Khmers Rouges on 17 April 1975. UNICEF’s last remaining staff members there were Paul Ignatieff and Joseph Acar, who like all other foreigners were herded into the French embassy. After a grueling confinement of over a week, they like all other foreigners, were trucked out of Cambodia to Thailand. The rest, as they say, is history.

UNICEF’s wish and all of our desire to quickly return to Cambodia and to provide relief services to its traumatized women and children had to be deferred for 4 long years as Cambodia descended from 1975 to Year Zero.

I do not wish to rekindle your memories of the bitter past, as I know many Cambodians, and their friends

now want to try to forget the nightmare and move on to build a better future for their children.

But as a catharsis for my own sentiments, allow me to recall how I – and some of my colleagues felt before the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh on that fateful day of 17 April 1975.

The Khmer Rouges were known for their brutality and extremism even before they conquered Phnom Penh.

But the Lon Nol regime at that time was so corrupt, and lacking in any legitimacy that some of us felt that perhaps the government-in-exile of Prince Sihanouk, the GRUNK (Gouvernement Royale Uni National de Kampuchea), though dominated by the Khmers Rouges, might actually be a better regime for the Cambodian people than the Lon Nol regime.

We knew there were 3 factions in GRUNK: a) Prince Sihanouk’s loyalist supporters, b) the radical

extremists of the Khmers Rouges – Saloth Sar, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea and Son Sen, and c) three young and progressive French-educated moderates: Khieu Samphan, Hu Nim and Hu Yuon .

Some of us speculated that when GRUNK came to power, there would probably be a power struggle among these three factions, and that the royalists and the extremist Khmers Rouges would neutralize each other and the progressive moderates in the middle might command greater influence.

Many left-leaning Cambodians, and even foreigners like me therefore wished to see a GRUNK victory to stabilize the situation and to provide relief to the suffering Cambodian masses.

But as we all know, things turned out worse than the worst case scenario that anybody had imagined.

When the triumphant Khmers Rouges entered Phnom Penh, on 17 April 1975, initially people welcomed them with white flags. Within hours the intentions of the Khmers Rouges became clear. Cambodia moved from 1975 to Year Zero. The whole country turned into a massive concentration camp, and “killing fields” cut off from the rest of the world.

As the borders of the country were hermetically sealed, it was difficult to know what exactly was going on. But slowly reports started filtering out of a horrific social engineering experiment.

All cities and towns including Phnom Penh were emptied out – even hospital patients, the elderly, the disabled and children were forced to evacuate at gun point. Many died or were killed along the way as they were forced to march to the country side.

People were rounded up and killed for wearing glasses, reading books, speaking a foreign language, eating at the wrong time, and even for crying for their dead relatives. Former bureaucrats and businessmen, teachers and professionals were killed along with their entire families, as the Khmers Rouges regime felt that it could not count on their total and unquestioning loyalty. Even some Khmers Rouges sympathizers were killed for failing to find enough “counter-revolutionaries” to be executed.

After emptying all cities and towns, the Khmers Rouges proceeded to dismantle the country’s intellectual and administrative structures. Religion was banned, money and currency were abolished, private property was prohibited, agriculture was collectivized.

Hundreds of thousands of people were executed; hundreds of thousands died due to starvation or disease. Out of the estimated population of 7.3 million in 1975, close to 2 million people perished during the “new miracle” of Democratic Kampuchea.

The situation of women and children worsened dramatically. Infant mortality increased from 146 per thousand live births in 1960 to 263 in 1980. Life expectancy at birth tumbled from 46 years in 1960 to 39 by 1981.

The education sector was completely devastated with 80 percent of teachers killed and all schools closed for half a decade.

My colleague Ian Hopwood will speak about how we found the situation of children and women at the end of this horrific experiment of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist “socialist miracle”, and how UNICEF tried to help rescue women and children – the survivors of the living inferno called Democratic Kampuchea.

Our other colleagues will speak about UNICEF’s productive partnership with the government and people of Cambodia in the past 30 years since the resumption of UNICEF cooperation, and how we look forward to collaborating to build a brighter future for this country’s children in the years ahead.

Let me conclude with two final observations:

After the holocaust during the Second World War, the whole world said in unison “Never Again” – never again would humanity tolerate or allow such genocide to occur.

Unfortunately, Cambodia became the first and the worst of the genocide to occur since the holocaust. Since then we have seen and allowed genocide to occur in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda on a massive scale, and in many other countries in subtle and less visible forms. Shame on all of us!

With the world’s fantastic information, communication, early detection and action capacity today, we must once again commit, with greater resolve to, Never Again, never again will we allow such atrocities to inflict humanity.

Since we are celebrating 30 years of the resumption of UNICEF cooperation for the children of Cambodia, it is natural for us to reflect on the role of the United Nations of which UNICEF is an integral part and often a shining star.

Having served UNICEF and the United Nations for 35 years, I am very proud of the United Nations. The Charter of the UN is among the finest documents ever written reflecting the greatest aspirations and ideals of humanity for a world of peace, prosperity, human rights and human dignity.

Cambodia and 192 other Member States of the UN consider it an indispensible organization and swear by the principles of its Charter.

But if we could re-write the Charter of the United Nations today, I would want to correct one fundamental flaw in it – which paradoxically is both a strength and a weakness of the UN: that is the principle of inviolability of sovereignty and the related provision of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign member state.

So many crimes against humanity of horrific proportions have been committed and continue to be committed by brutal regimes, like the Khmers Rouges, under the guise of sovereignty.

Shocked and chagrined by such horrors, the UN has now come up with the concept of “responsibility to protect”.

This concept approved by the Summit of World Leaders at the UN in 2005 and recently reaffirmed by the General Assembly states that when a Government is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens against massive violations of human rights, or from catastrophic natural or man-made disasters, the international community has a responsibility to help protect such vulnerable populations.

But hiding behind the cloak of their sovereignty, many regimes still resist such international responsibility to protect the masses of humanity in great peril.

Sovereignty is very important but it cannot be so sacrosanct that it trumps all other considerations.

The responsibility to protect must, of course, be applied in a principled and universal manner to protect humanity, not in a selective way to penalize certain regimes.

After all, the Charter of the United Nations is written in the name of “We the Peoples of the United Nations”, not “We the sovereign Member States of a divided world”. Consistent with this invocation of the Charter, I look forward to a day, when the “responsibility to protect” will be enshrined in the Charter, and all of us will invoke it to ensure that Never Again will the children of Cambodia and the rest of the world have to endure the inhuman atrocities that they had to bear in our life-time.

Thank you.