A quarter of a century has passed since a UN-backed peace agreement set Cambodia on the path to multi-party elections and the end of a bitter civil war.
Yet, as the 25th anniversary of that historic peace agreement nears on October 23, Cambodia’s experiment with democracy and the situation of human rights are deteriorating.
Political analyst and government critic Kem Ley was assassinated in Phnom Penh on July 10. A killing which many ordinary people are blaming on the government.
Kem Ley was the most high profile killing of a community organizer since the murder of environmental campaigner Chut Wutty in April 2012.
“I think this is the time… for the United States to use its prestige, to use its power, to play and important supportive role to help Cambodian’s attempt to reinstate democracy,” journalist and author Elizabeth Becker said.
Becker was speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC last week, as part of a panel discussion titled Cambodian Democracy and International Accountability.
Prime Minster Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for decades, has become an expert at playing the ‘China card’ against the US to his own advantage, said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation.
It is now time the US stuck to its core values and no long give in to Hun Sen, he said.
“Hun Sen is only playing us against the Chinese,” Lohman told the audience of around 100 participants, mostly members of the Cambodian diaspora in the US and researchers.
“He gets benefit from us [the US]. He gets benefit from the Chinese. And he continues to do what he wants,” Lohman said.
Washington needs to take a principled stance and distance itself from the Hun Sen government amid the worsening human rights situation, he said.
“If you [Hun Sen] want to get closer to China, go get closer to China,” he added.
The discussion focused on Cambodia’s progress towards more-inclusive democracy, and the responsibility of the international community to ensure that has happened 25 years after the Paris agreement, which many countries, including the US, helped broker.
Many agreed that the international community is still needed to play an important role in Cambodia’s domestic situation 25 years after Paris.
Some participants even suggested inviting UN peacekeepers back to Cambodia, to help ensure the 2018 national election is truly fair and free.
They were quickly told that a UN mission requires an invitation by the government to enter a sovereign state, and that the UN’s mission to organize a Cambodian election ended after the country’s nationwide poll in 1993.
The role of Cambodia’s political opposition was also discussed.
Becker, a long-term observer of the country and author of “When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution,” described Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy as being “a big disappointment.”
Sam Rainsy is not strong enough to stand up to Hun Sen’s machinations, Becker said, noting that the opposition leader continues to flee to France when the political situation becomes tense in Phnom Penh.
“I think Sam Rainsy has been a big disappointment on a whole bunch of issues… why he continues to go back to Paris is beyond me,” she said.
Sam LaHood, regional deputy director of the International Republican Institute and the institute’s director in Cambodia from 2012 to 2013, said Sam Rainsy’s popularity among the youth was strong.
LaHood recounted the huge numbers that turned out – estimated at 100,000 people - to welcome Sam Rainsy’s return from self-imposed exile just prior to the 2013 national elections.
People lined the streets to welcome Sam Rainsy and young people got behind the opposition leader, resulting in the CNRP making huge gains against Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the election that year.
“You know, seeing that sort of thing, it gives me continued sort of encouragement and the idea that there is a lot of interest in seeing things change… in Cambodia,” he said.
Ou Kim Hourt, a member of the audience from Philadelphia, said he was putting his faith in the US Congress finding long-term solutions for the issues that face Cambodia.
“In the US, it’s better to rely more on the parliament to achieve long-term goals,” he said.
Prom Saonora, another audience member, wanted more immediate action.
To ensure that Kem Ley’s memory does not simply fade, Prom Saonora suggested that Cambodians choose a specific day and time each week to honk their car and motorcycle horns or blow whistles for one minute as an act of remembrance.
“This is to show that we honor Kem Ley, because if we don’t do that people will forget him in just one or two more months.”