Life after the UN in Cambodia

July 17, 1996

The Tan Family
By Rithy Panh
SBS Television. Sunday, July 21, 8pm (7.30 in SA)
Previewed by Allen Myers

This is a stark documentary of a Cambodian peasant family repatriated from a camp in Thailand in 1992 as part of the UN-supervised elections which were supposed to end the fighting in that desperate country but didn't. It concludes SBS's three-part series on the United Nations.

The film revolves around two closely related refrains: "Without a paddy field, you are lost" and "We were promised land ..."

The repatriation of the refugees from the camps was far from the worst thing UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) did. But it was often done very badly, usually despite the good intentions of aid workers involved, because the welfare of the refugees wasn't a real concern of the "great powers" whom UNTAC was serving. The only real point was to go through the motions of carrying out provisions of the peace accord and to create an illusion of normality that could justify — or at least deflect attention from — UNTAC's systematic undermining of the Cambodian People's Party government.

And so, large numbers of Cambodian refugees were bussed back "home" — generally not even to the same province from which they originated. Depending mostly on luck, they received anything from the longed-for paddy-field on which to re-establish their means of subsistence, to a small cash substitute, to not much more than promises.

The Tan family would fall somewhere in the middle range: after many delays, they are finally given a small parcel of land, but it is not suitable for rice, and their attempts to grow fruit trees are unsuccessful.

Rithy Panh's film simply and movingly tells the story in the family's own words. It gives no background to the repatriation program and the UN's involvement, but even so it is hard not to glimpse the UN's shabby role in the tragedy.

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