PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Thirty years ago, as the Cold War was drawing down, four warring factions from Cambodia and 18 members of the international community signed the Paris Peace Accords, a comprehensive agreement that laid out a process to end the country’s long civil war.
Looking back over the decades since the document was signed Oct. 23, 1991, observers of Cambodian politics said the Accords have had a mixed impact on the country. While it successfully started the end of the civil war, its flawed implementation early on allowed the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to erode the Accord’s democratic and human rights provisions.
Yet, they said, the Accords remain an important reference point for national and international political players that seek to promote democracy in Cambodia.
Currently, however, its influence on Cambodia’s political system has all but disappeared. In 2017, the CPP returned the country to a type of one-party rule that preceded the agreement and cracked down on democratic freedoms.
“The [Paris Peace Accords] is the last vestige of the dream that was Cambodian democracy, human rights, and freedom,” Ear Sophal, a scholar of Cambodia’s politics and development at Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management, told VOA Khmer.
“The CPP/Hun Sen has tried to make people forget it ever happened. CRNP/Sam Rainsy have tried to keep the idea of the [Accord] as a sacred document that still needs to be fulfilled: a promise no-one should forget,” he said, referring to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CRNP) and its former leader. “It is about control of history and of the future.”
The most important political goal of the Paris Peace Agreements, only implicit in its actual text, was to bring the Cold War in Asia to an end, disentangle outside powers from Cambodia’s domestic struggles, and put politics back in Cambodian hands."
Ambitious accords, never fully implemented
From an international perspective, the Accords are considered a success as all five permanent UN Security Council members agreed to end their support for the different warring Cambodian factions, while Vietnam agreed to end its decade-long occupation of the country. They also agreed to the first, large post-Cold War UN peacekeeping mission, which administered the state in order to implement the peace deal.
Signatories include the permanent Security Council members, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, and a number of other Asian countries.
On a national level, the comprehensive political settlement signed on October 23, 1991 involved commitments to disarm and demobilize the factions ahead of free and fair elections for a new government. And to establish a multi-party electoral system, rule of law and human rights protection in Cambodia.
Accountability for crimes during the war was dropped from the agreement after objections of China, the Khmer Rouge’s former patron, while Western leaders were reluctant to revisit the United Nations recognition of the Khmer Rouge as the rightful leaders of Cambodia throughout the 1980s, and accusations related to the heavy U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s, according to a 2017 United States Institute for Peace brief on the Accord’s impacts. A UN Tribunal for Khmer Rouge-era crimes began only in 2007.
The implementation of the national-level commitments of the Paris Peace Accord was troubled from the start. The UN mission was unable to prevent the Khmer Rouge from breaking the agreement and resume fighting. Later, after the 1993 elections, the UN mission accepted CPP demands for an equal share of power in the government, despite the Royalist FUNCINPEC party winning a plurality of the vote.
With a precedent set for a tepid international response, Prime Minister Hun Sen, throughout the 1990s, used the CPP’s communist-era grip on government bureaucracy, armed forces, the courts and local networks across the country, to force the Royalist opposition out of politics. Meanwhile, his government managed to defeat or cause defections among the internationally abandoned Khmer Rouge forces, who collapsed by 1998.
The international community fêted the defeat of Pol Pot’s forces and failed to punish Hun Sen’s power grab in violation of the Accord’s democratic provisions.
Journalist Sebastian Strangio said, “The most important political goal of the Paris Peace Agreements, only implicit in its actual text, was to bring the Cold War in Asia to an end, disentangle outside powers from Cambodia’s domestic struggles, and put politics back in Cambodian hands. It achieved all of these things to a large degree.”
“However, it is questionable whether the pact’s human rights provisions were ever fully achievable” after decades of war, repression and political rivalry, as well as lingering ethno-nationalism in Cambodian politics, he told VOA Khmer.
“I think that most nations that signed the Paris Agreements were quite realistic about this, viewing these principles as essentially aspirational,” said Strangio, author of the 2014 book ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia.’
“The contradiction of the treaty is that it aimed to disentangle foreign governments from Cambodia’s internal struggles, while committing them (on paper) to a transformation of Cambodian politics that could only be brought about (if at all) by sustained involvement in the country’s domestic political affairs,” he added.
A reference point in international politics
Yet, observers said, the Accords—and the roughly two decades of relative political openness and democratic freedom that followed it until 2017, when the ongoing crackdown began —are likely to remain an important marker for Cambodian politics in the future. Some governments, like the U.S., continue to use the treaty as a reference point for their involvement in the country.
Astrid Norén Nilsson, a scholar of Cambodian politics, said, “For the signatories, the Accords serve as a convenient frame for their legitimate involvement, monitoring current political developments. This has been evident throughout the period since 2017 when foreign embassies have kept reaffirming their commitment to the [Accords]. But the [Accords] are unlikely to take on significance beyond that level.”
Added Strangio, “The Paris Agreements are sometimes referenced by Western governments in their criticisms of the CPP government’s repressive behavior, but most outside governments have little interest in becoming deeply involved in a project to democratize Cambodia.”
Following the Accords, Western governments had offered generous donor support for Cambodia’s economic development, recovery from conflict and the promotion of liberal values, often through funding a large civil society sector. The United States said it has provided $3 billion to Cambodia since 1991.
However, the political rise of China in past decade has offered Cambodia an alternative source of economic and diplomatic support, on which the CPP government has relied after it did away with democratic pretense.
Contentious in national politics
In contemporary national politics, the role of the Accords in Cambodia’s history and future remains contentious. It is viewed by the CPP as a tool for the opposition that needs removing.
This is evident, according to Norén Nilsson, from Hun Sen’s insistence that the 1993 constitution has superseded the Agreement, his government’s 2020 decision to end a national holiday commemorating the Accords, and Hun Sen’s repeated claims that his 1990s “win-win policy” was responsible for defeating the Khmer Rouge.
“For the CNRP on the other hand, the [Accords] serve as a benchmark against which current political developments are to be measured, so as to hold the government accountable. The [Agreements] are for them a legal tool which they seek to use to keep the international community… closely involved in current politics,” said Norén Nilsson, who is a scholar at Lund University, Sweden.
It will remain an indelible part of Cambodia’s political game. As such, the principles contained in the treaty will always be there to be taken up by future generations of politicians and activists.”
During last year’s anniversary of the 1991 agreement, Hun Sen remarked, “Were there no commencement of [Prince] Sihanouk-Hun Sen negotiation, there would not be [the] outcome of the Paris Peace Agreement. Secondly, were there no win-win policy that I formulated, issued and lead with participations [sic] from every stakeholder and the Cambodian people, there would not be peace as it is now.”
In October 2017, the premier told the opposition to stop “dreaming” about the agreement’s political principles, adding that the agreement “is like a ghost.”
Eng Chhai Eang, the exiled former deputy president of the CNRP, said, “Cambodians who want Cambodia to have genuine democracy and freedoms, they will still remember. Only Hun Sen and his clan want to forget [it] because the Paris Peace Agreements [would] make him lose power and unable to control any people as he wants,” he told VOA Khmer.
Eng Chhai Eang said the opposition, international community and many in Cambodian society consider the spirit of the Accords a foundational agreement for Cambodia’s political system, and they hold the CPP accountable for violating it.
CPP senator and party spokesman Sok Eysan said, “We don’t care about [such] criticism. But we are on the right track of maintaining democratic principles and rule of law in accordance with the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements, whose meaning has been included in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia.’’
Sok Eysan added, “The Paris Agreements didn’t bring complete peace… It is the achievement of the Cambodian People’s Party, who completed the peace.”
Observers noted that the Accord’s principles and the period of relative democratic freedom that followed it will remain important for Cambodian politics and society.
“The current crackdown is Hun Sen’s way of abrogating the Paris settlement once and for all,” said Strangio.
“However, I doubt very much that the CPP will succeed in erasing the treaty entirely. It will remain an indelible part of Cambodia’s political game. As such, the principles contained in the treaty will always be there to be taken up by future generations of politicians and activists.”
Added Ear Sophal, “I think the [Paris Peace Accords] can remain relevant as a document that anchored a people’s expectations for their country and of the international community.”