Remembering our role in Bosnia

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 20 Sep 2015

Foreign players: Selvam (fifth from right) with the visiting UN group near the Mostar bridge in Sarajevo. — Picture courtesy of Paneerselvam Perambalam.

IT has been 20 years since the Dayton Peace Accord was initialled in Ohio in the United States in Nov 1995, and signed in Paris, France the following month.

The Dayton agreement ended almost four years of civil war among the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks in the former Yugoslavia.

But the agreement didn’t tackle what later turned out to be a new flashpoint in Kosovo, says Paneerselvam “Selvam” Perambalam, a United Nations official from Malaysia who was tasked with handling all claims against the UN in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1996.

And the post-war transition was shaped by foreign players rather than the three local ethnic groups.

When Selvam arrived in the region in August 1996, he remembers, “All the buildings in Sarajevo were weeping.”

Water from damaged water tanks was pouring down walls riddled with bullet holes.

“Every single building was affected except the mustard-yellow Holiday Inn, probably because the journalists were staying there,” he recalls.

Selvam was one of the Malaysian military observers sent by the UN to Namibia from 1989 to 1990. He retired from the Malaysian Armed Forces in 1992 as a lieutenant colonel to join the UN full-time, starting out as a logistics officer.

“The perception of the UN was not good, especially among the Serbs, who threw stones at our UN vehicles,” he recalls.

“The Croats were not antagonistic but they were not fully cooperative either.”

When the civil war began, he points out, the Yugoslav army was dominated by the Serbs. Croatia got some help from Germany, Italy and the US but Bosnia was deprived of the right to self-defence, he says.

The Bosniaks had no heavy artillery or aircraft. “That is why the Serbian army was able to inflict so many casualties on the Bosniaks and, to some extent, the Croats,” the former peacekeeper explains.

“That was one of the biggest failures of the UN arms embargo. At the time, the UN had no idea of the extent to which the Serbs would go.”

Initially, the European Union was talking to all three ethnic groups through its chief negotiator Lord Carrington, and the US had left it to them, he remembers. “But the Serbs had the military edge and wanted more territory.”

Meanwhile, the UN was unable to implement its Security Council resolutions, especially to disband and disarm all irregular forces, as the Serbs did not cooperate. The UN also claimed it didn’t have enough troops to guard the safe havens and escort humanitarian convoys in Bosnia. “The US found that the war was escalating and the casualty rates were high,” says Selvam.

“It decided to get involved in 1995 and took the lead, appointing Richard Holbrooke as the US Chief Envoy to the Balkans.”

President Bill Clinton approved a massive air strike, which was also approved by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. “That air strike and the artillery bombardment by the rapid reaction force of the Implementation Force (Ifor), led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, brought all the parties to Dayton,” he says.

The Dayton talks involved the EU, Russia and the US, but the UN was left out, Selvam notes. “When the US has the will, it will get things done,” he says. “It has the might, power and resources.”

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman were “locked up” at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton until they initialled the accord.

Bosnia remained as a single state but was divided into two parts, with the Serbs holding 49% of the territory and the remainder going to a federation of the Muslim Bosniaks and the Croats.

But, Selvam points out, “The major problem which was not addressed and later came to haunt them was Kosovo. The accord had been signed in such haste and nothing was happening in Kosovo at the time.”

The Serbs later backed the separatist Serbian minority against the majority Albanian Muslim population in Kosovo, and fighting erupted in 1999. It then became a UN-mandated territory.

The Office of the High Representative was also given veto power by the Dayton Peace Accord, says Selvam, “and the three ethnic groups didn’t have much input. Each of the three had its own micro-priorities while the OHR had the macro-priority, from the point of view of the EU, which was providing the funds.”

But, he adds, “If they were all discontented, that was right. If one group was happy, that could have meant it was being favoured.”

Although the UN Protection Force was handed over to Ifor, the UN was tasked with organising the civilian police and handling the return of refugees and internally-displaced persons.

When he arrived, Selvam found the people in the former Yugoslavia hopeful after the end of the long civil war. “They were focussed on reconstruction and development. Within a year, I could see that most of the houses were halfway through rebuilding. A lot of the government and semi-government infrastructure was reconstructed with the help of the EU.”

And they were especially grateful for Malaysia’s support, he says. Malaysia was the only country which sent a battalion to Bosnia on a bilateral basis, not as part of UNProfor. “The Bosniaks really appreciated that the Malaysians came to help and made their presence felt, creating an international awareness that this problem had to be resolved,” Selvam says.

Looking back on his career in the UN, which ended in 2009 after he headed the civilian administration of the UN mission for the Kashmir dispute, he says, “The bottom line is the economy and development.”

The UN should not pull out after the peacekeeping phase, after elections have been held and a government is installed, stresses Selvam, who is now a Rotarian with the Senawang Club in Negri Sembilan. “The UN should be there to monitor peace building.”

That is a lesson it has learned in Sierra Leone, for example, where Selvam headed integrated support services and at times the administration as well during two stints.

“It has offices until today to monitor good governance, transparency, economic development and human rights,” he says.

“Once you have a job and can feed your family, you won’t think of being a rebel.”

The Perdana Global Peace Foundation, Bosnia Bank International VIP Business Club and the Malaysian-Bosnian Business Council will host an International Peace Conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina tomorrow. Themed “20 years of Peace – A way forward”, speakers include Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency Member, Bakir Izetbegovic, former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

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Politics , Bosnia , Dayton Peace Accord


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