Luke Hunt, Phnom Penh
Updated: October 25, 2021 01:57 AM GMT
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen prepares to cast his vote during the general election in July 2018 as his wife Bun Rany (left) looks on. Three decades after a landmark agreement ended years of bloody violence in Cambodia, its strongman ruler has crushed all opposition and is eyeing dynastic succession. (Photo: AFP)
Cambodia marked the 30th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords on Oct. 23 with authorities attempting to justify the state of the country’s democracy while fending off foreign criticism of the deterioration of fundamental freedoms.
The diplomatic community offered qualified praise, particularly in regards to poverty reduction, but sidestepped sensitive issues surrounding human rights, which have been under closer scrutiny ever since the ruling party won every seat contested at elections in 2018.
British ambassador Tina Redshaw congratulated Cambodia “for its remarkable progress” but urged the government to “reinvigorate the ambition of the agreements and Cambodian constitution to ensure its own political future.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen used the occasion to launch a new 30,000-riel (US$7.50) banknote picturing himself and King Norodom Sihanouk holding their hands aloft when the late monarch returned to his homeland after the accords were signed.
He reminded Khmers that on that day he wore a bulletproof vest and was prepared to sacrifice his life against any attempts to harm the monarch, but the accords and the arrival of peacekeepers with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) still elicit a mixed response.
Relations between the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and peacekeepers were often tense and Hun Sen has even accused UNTAC, which comprised 22,000 service personnel from 46 countries, of bringing HIV-Aids into the country.
The best news in Cambodia since independence in 1953 was when the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered in 1998
But it was UNTAC’s failure to end the war which remains a sticking point and last year the government removed the Paris Peace Agreement Day from its list of public holidays.
The 1991 Paris Peace Accords did restore the monarchy, injected about $2 billion into a failed economy, and laid the groundwork for historic elections in 1993, but they did not disarm the four warring factions, including the Khmer Rouge, or deliver a desperately needed peace.
The 1994-95 dry season offensive near Pailin in western Cambodia forced 50,000 people to flee their homes and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees noted that “the country was back at war even before the last of the peacekeepers left” in September 1993.
“It was an ugly and nasty little war, mostly forgotten by the rest of the world,” said Michael Hayes, co-founder and former publisher of the Phnom Penh Post, which he established in 1992. “The civil war with the Khmer Rouge lasted another seven years.”
More offensives followed and claimed about 10,000 casualties, military and civilians, before the civil war, which began 1968, ended in 1998 when the last of the Khmer Rouge finally capitulated and their surviving leaders were put on trial for genocide.
“The best news in Cambodia since independence in 1953 was when the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered in 1998,” Hayes added.
“Hun Sen’s multiple detractors, both domestically and internationally, hate giving him credit for that, but he deserves it, as do the 1991 Paris Peace Accords in their own convoluted way as well.”
The war's end bolstered Hun Sen’s popularity, particularly in the countryside, and enabled him to solidify his power base, but the CPP was shocked by the 2013 election when the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) came tantalizingly close to winning the popular vote.
Violent demonstrations erupted following that poll amid unsubstantiated allegations the elections were rigged, with the government repeatedly accusing the United States and diasporas there and in Australia of backing the CNRP and a “color revolution.”
The European Union has withdrawn some trade perks and the US has imposed sanctions on individuals among the ruling elite, while Congress is debating the Cambodian Democracy Act, which if passed will provide scope for further sanctions.
But unfortunately democracy and human rights have rather been used, often [at] times as instruments of some major powers to pursue their own geopolitical agenda
At an anniversary ceremony in Phnom Penh on Oct. 23, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn did his bit to deflect any blame leveled by the West over his country’s human rights record, saying Cambodia “continued to witness attempts at regime change through an undemocratic approach.”
He also said attempts by UNTAC to establish a Western-style democracy had not taken into account Cambodia’s “special characteristics” given the trauma inflicted by the 30-year war.
“Democracy is a value we learn and gradually construct and strengthen. But unfortunately democracy and human rights have rather been used, often [at] times as instruments of some major powers to pursue their own geopolitical agenda,” he said.
Criticism of the government in Cambodia is rare, but critics abroad were unimpressed and vocal at the many political and academic seminars held to commemorate the accords.
Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, an influential architect behind the accords, said “Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family” while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line.
“We did a great job in bringing peace but blew it on democracy and human rights,” he added.
Banned opposition groups living in exile have tied the anniversary to the dissolution of the CNRP by the courts four years ago and used the accords as a benchmark to rebuke Hun Sen’s government.
The dissolution was instituted by a court system ranked by the World Justice Project at second from the bottom out of 139 countries and enabled the CPP to win every seat contested at elections in 2018.
Peaceful protests like this one are precisely the sort of activity that were supposed to be protected under the human rights provisions of the Paris Peace Accords
A crackdown was also initiated on the free press — including the closure or sale to government-friendly business interests of two English-language daily newspapers — and NGOs. Dissidents, bloggers and online critics, including rappers, have been jailed.
Many Western businesses exited the country, punishing the economy, which the government hoped to offset with major infrastructure projects initiated under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Since then CNRP leader-in-exile Sam Rainsy has threatened to return and stage a popular rebellion aimed at ousting Hun Sen, resulting in more arrests. CNRP president Kem Sokha, a popular figure in much of the country, is under house arrest on treason charges.
It was a point driven home in the lead-up to the anniversary by a small protest staged outside the French embassy where about 20 people, mostly wives of detained politicians, had gathered with signs demanding respect for human rights and delivered a petition to the ambassador.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said protesters were met by around 40 police, in uniform and plainclothes, and video footage showed officers “violently pushing people to the ground, kicking them” and trying to pull away their banners and signs.
“Peaceful protests like this one are precisely the sort of activity that were supposed to be protected under the human rights provisions of the Paris Peace Accords,” he said from Bangkok. “But Hun Sen’s government has now diminished those guarantees to absolutely nothing.”
That protest was ignored by the overarching state-owned and government-friendly press.
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