More than 100 Cambodian-Americans gathered in Alexandria, Va., on Oct. 21 and Oct. 22 to commemorate the anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, but participants said that two decades later, Cambodia still struggles with issues of human rights, democracy and the encroachment of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.
“Democracy in Cambodia has gone backward,” said Yab Kimtung, who helped organize the conference. “Big opposition parties have been oppressed. Information about human rights, democracy, free and fair elections or land grabbing has not been widely spread to the public.”
Kem Sokha, president of the minor opposition Human Rights Party, was a guest speaker. He said Cambodia has become a country with a “unilateral” political system, exactly as it was before the peace accords were signed on Oct. 23, 1991.
“The ruling party won 90 seats in an election that I think was not fair,” he said.
Opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly “can’t suggest to parliament to change even one comma in a law,” he said.
“The government, parliament and the courts are under the control of the communist party,” he added, referring to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which had its beginnings in communist ideology.
Kimsour Phirith, a lawmaker for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, also attended the conference. He too said the country’s democratic system has backslid since the signing of the accords.
“I want democracy and human rights respected in Cambodia,” he said in a speech. “The only way we can achieve that is to change the current leader. For any political party to win in the subsequent elections, if you can’t lead the country, the people will change you again. The change will bring real democracy to Cambodia.”
That kind of change has proven difficult for the country’s opposition parties, who have remained divided following the 2008 election.
Conference organizer Prom Sunnora called unity among the opposition a “last resort,” as the country heads toward local elections in 2012 and national elections in 2013.
“Supporters both in Cambodia and abroad have to urge all the opposition leaders to unite,” he said.
In Phnom Penh, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the administration had no plans to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the accords, but he said the government has followed the spirit of the agreement.
The accords “unite” all Cambodians, he said, but the rebuilding of the nation should be “based on the will of the Cambodian people, not that of the diaspora.”
“Every five years, all qualified political parties can stand for election,” he said. “It is unnecessary to do something opposite to the will of the Cambodian people.”
The Paris Accords also set out the boundaries for Cambodia, but critics charge that encroachment from Cambodia’s neighbors continues today.
Seng Pengse, president of the Cambodia Border Committee, an advocacy group based in France, told VOA Khmer that if the government does not honor the agreement, former co-chairs of the Paris Peace Conference, which were France and Indonesia, can intervene “to report to the United Nations.”
The government has not canceled border agreements it made with Vietnam in 2000, he said, which has been problematic. The Cambodia-Vietnam Joint Border Committee has done work “which is opposite from the spirit of the Paris Peace Accords,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cambodia remains in a prolonged military standoff with Thailand, who Seng Pengse said was ignoring a map drawn by the French at the turn of the 20th Century.
“When Thailand sees that Vietnam does not respect the map, it does not want to respect the map either,” he said.