Editor's Note: When warring parties in Cambodia finally signed the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 at a high-profile summit in France, Gareth Evans had already spent years working behind the scenes to make it happen. As Foreign Minister of Australia, Evans was a chief architect of what he has called “one of the most complex peace settlements ever successfully conducted.”
Now a Distinguished Honorary Professor at the Australian National University, Evans sat down with VOA Khmer on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Agreements to discuss its meaning in the context of modern-day Cambodia, which he describes as a “fully fledged autocracy,” and how Cambodians can keep up their morale to continue working to secure the high-minded promises it was meant to achieve.
VOA Khmer: Thirty years after the signing of this historical document, which aimed to end the civil wars in Cambodia and put in place democracy and human rights, what should be celebrated on this day?
Gareth Evans: What should be celebrated is obviously the bringing of peace to Cambodia after years of terrible war, invasion, genocide, civil war, again in which, as we know, nearly two million people died, either through executed outright by the Khmer Rouge or died of malnutrition or died of disease. After years of sufferings and displacement, the peace process and the Paris agreements did bring peace to Cambodia, lasting peace. It has meant the return of hundreds of thousands, maybe 400,000 displaced people from the Thai border. It has meant the disappearance of the Khmer Rouge. It took some time, but it happened. It has meant the capacity of this issue, which was a running sore in regional diplomacy and, indeed, global diplomacy. to disappear as an issue of that kind. And it did create the conditions in which Cambodia could build a flourishing country and an economically stable country as well as a peaceful country for the future.
All of that is to be celebrated. That is wonderful and that's still durable. But there's a very big but on the democracy and human rights side of the equation, where our hopes were also very high indeed, that the future would be a bright one for Cambodia. We have been profoundly disappointed. It's been a terrible record, starting with the 1993 election and Hun Sen's refusal to accept the outcome which the international community, unfortunately, did not push back hard enough against. The rest of the story we can talk about, but it's a very sad one. So it's a challenge, looking back 30 years to build on those foundations that were laid, but there's a big job ahead of us because the record has been very, very sad on those fronts.
VOA Khmer: In a presentation you gave in 2012 you said that “the glass is still only at best half full. In democracy and human rights terms, Cambodia still has a long way to go before it can stand proudly in the ranks of those nations who can credibly claim to fully respect both.” Right now, some human rights defenders and democracy promoters have expressed their disappointments over the progress of the state of democracy and the respect for human rights in Cambodia. The trend has been backsliding in the last four years. In your opinion, what went wrong?
Gareth Evans: Well, as I said in 1991 at the Paris Peace Conference, when as Australian foreign minister I was signing so proudly those accords, “peace and freedom are not prizes which once won can never be lost. They have to be won again each day and you have to lay the foundations with a strong society, strong economy, strong democracy, and above all respect for human rights.” That's what I said in 1991, and what went wrong is that that simply was not respected. The international community basically lost interest in Cambodia, believing that peace had been won; and Hun Sen steadily over time built what was an unstable democratic foundation at the beginning into a fully-fledged autocracy. Let's face it, that's what we now have, with the banning of political parties, the repression of opposition leaders, even violence, periodically, murderous violence.
I mean human rights defenders have fought very very hard right from the beginning and it's a wonderful story; the story of their contribution has been wonderfully told in a book by Sue Coffey, now available in Khmer. The truth of the matter is we do have some very brave people within the country as well as in the diaspora who are continuing to work to expose what has gone wrong to get it out to a wider international audience and to keep the morale of Cambodians up, which is crucial for the longer term.
You've got to stay optimistic about these things. So wheels do turn. Prime ministers go away and the wheels turn. But, you know, it can be very grueling to live with these situations and while they're happening, and it's not a happy situation at the moment.
VOA Khmer: Cambodians overseas have been petitioning their governments who were signatories of the agreement, but there seems to be less action from their leaders. What advice do you have for them to help them get their voices heard louder? What should be done to address the remaining issues of human rights and democracy?
Gareth Evans: Well, I don't think there is much chance of re-convening the Paris conference, which some of the activists have been arguing for for some time now. It's been 30 years since that conference was held. The circumstances have changed, people have other preoccupations. And moreover even if it was reconvened, the powers of such a conference would really only be to refer concerns back to the UN system and the UN system is already in a sense addressing these concerns through the Human Rights Council, through the special rapporteurs, which were established right at the beginning and still have a role.
I think that the critical thing is just to keep drawing attention to what is happening within the country and how much of it is so unprincipled, so undemocratic, so unrespectable of human rights: to draw that attention to the international community to constantly use every forum that's available — bilateral, regional, global, through the NGO organizations and through the activists — to just bring to the attention of governments, sympathetic governments, those signatories of Paris, what is going wrong. I think it's very important that governments pass Magnitsky Acts, those laws which make it possible to impose sanctions, targeted sanctions, financial sanctions, travel sanctions, stopping the education in our countries of the children of the leadership. All those things can be very important. Australia has dragged its feet on that. It’s a subject of discussion in the national parliament at the moment. Other countries have those laws on the books. They need to be enforced. They need to be enacted and enforced and I think if activists continue to add pressure, it will over time have its effect.
Nothing's going to happen quickly. Nothing's gonna happen urgently. That's the unhappy reality, but I think you can be very confident about the future of the country because there is such a large cohort of young people in the country. It's one of the youngest countries in Southeast Asia in terms of the average age of the population. I think mid-20s, and you do have a really vibrant community as well as a vibrant diaspora around the world and it is that resource which you have to take advantage of. Ultimately, the solution for Cambodia's problems, I'm afraid, is going to have to come from within Cambodia itself. There's only so much that outsiders can do with so many other preoccupations in this rather volatile world at the moment, but I'm confident about the longer term. But the short term, it's going to be hard.
VOA Khmer: The EU and US have applied sanctions targeting individuals close to Prime Minister Hun Sen and a partial withdrawal of the trade preferences over human and political rights violations. But PM Hun Sen hasn’t seemed to slow down his crackdown on human rights defenders because of a strong backing from China. What else should be done?
Gareth Evans: The China factor is obviously very important. It's been giving such strong financial support and political support to the Hun Sen regime. I think I've said quite often in my speeches and writing that unhappily, Cambodia today seems like a wholly owned subsidiary of China. It's jumping to the Chinese tune. It's completely in the pocket of China because of a huge indebtedness and huge body of investment and economic commitment by China in Cambodia. So, that's the reality we have to live with. That's working itself out in terms of divisions within ASEAN, which are not helpful in maintaining solidarity and it's a difficult story.
But, that said, I think you know there are ways of building alternative forms of pressure. Because Hun Sen has that backstop of China, it's not going to be easy for economic sanctions or anything like that of the general kind to have an effect. But personally targeted sanctions on assets, on travel and so on, they can make a difference. They find that painful and hurtful over time and some pain is capable of being inflicted by other countries in the international community and I don't think we should stop short of applying that pain. It's going to take time. It's gonna take time and maybe it's going to have to wait until Hun Sen moves on. But you know that will happen eventually and that will be a big occasion for change within the country because I don't think anyone wants to see a family dynasty now being established there.
VOA Khmer: Is there a positive future for Cambodia as it has moved closer and closer to China? Past experiences have shown that it didn’t do well for Cambodia. What makes it different this time around?
Gareth Evans: Well, obviously the pressure is going to continue to be there for Cambodia to maintain that very close relationship with China because it has a very high level of indebtedness, has a very high level of economic dependence and China has been very supportive of Cambodia politically. That dynamic is not going to change. What you have to do is establish another dynamic working alongside that and pushing in the other direction. What you have to push for is ASEAN solidarity for the other countries to call out human rights violations. Unfortunately, that has not been happening in recent years and other ASEAN countries have been going backwards in human rights and democracy terms — Thailand, Philippines, obviously Myanmar. So, it's going to be difficult to counter that balance, that present reality that you described. It’s going to be difficult but it's not impossible.
You just have to continue working at it to stay optimistic, to keep the information coming out as to what is going on so that nobody can pretend they don't know about these violations — the land rights violations, the freedom of assembly violations, the freedom of speech violations, the freedom of political party establishment violations and just the personal integrity, people being able to protest without fear of being killed. All of that stuff has to keep on coming out because people's attention waivers, dissipates over time. It's very hard to keep people focused with so many other things going on in the region and the world, but if that core group of unhappy people within the country and the core group within the diaspora continue to articulate the nature of the problems, the nature of the political environment, the unacceptability of it and continue to work to bring those concerns to the attention of sympathetic governments, then over time it will, I believe, have an effect. You can't stop because of frustration. Frustration has been building up now for 30 years and I understand it but there's no quick fixes. You just have to keep working away.
VOA Khmer: In 2012, Cambodia chaired the regional group, ASEAN, but it didn’t do really well. Next year Cambodia will resume chairmanship of ASEAN. Do you think ASEAN will be united or divided?
Gareth Evans: Well, ASEAN is already very very divided. You see that over the South China Sea issue. You see it over the degree of willingness to take action of any useful kind in relation to Myanmar. There are real divisions and ASEAN is in danger of becoming irrelevant. ASEAN will continue to be very important as the kind of glue that’s stopping countries of the organization from resolving disagreement violently. ASEAN continues to be an extremely important peace organization from that point of view, but that's a very limited point of view. ASEAN is also important from an economic cooperation point of view and other things that have happened to build ASEAN strength internally. But in terms of dealing with difficult human rights issues, dealing with the need to maintain solidarity in the face of external pressures that are building up, China's overreach in particular in the South China Sea, what I say about Australia's activity in the region is that as much as I love ASEAN and have worked with it so effectively including at the time of the peace accords, the reality is that the future for Australia, I think, lies in working with individual countries, Indonesia, Vietnam, you know, strong countries — Singapore in its own way — that do have competence and credibility and are capable of decent policy initiatives.
Hoping for solidarity, so long as ASEAN maintains this unanimity rule, where everybody has to agree before anything is agreed, that's just hopeless. ASEAN isn’t going to do anything useful at all when it comes to these difficult problems. It is going to have to adopt a majority voting rule and stop making it possible for spoiler countries, and Cambodia has become a big spoiler country, to stop that unanimity, that effective response, when difficult issues arise.
VOA Khmer: Now on the Paris Peace Agreement: Looking back what could have been done to make things right from the start?
Gareth Evans: Look, I think the Paris Peace Agreement is still a very good map for the future of the country. It did everything right in terms of bedding down the peace process, in terms of bringing the civil war to an end, and getting everybody signed up to the necessary things that had to happen. It was perfectly good in what it said about democracy, perfectly good in what it said about human rights, about the principles that were relevant and about the steps that needed to be taken and, of course, all those elements of the Paris Peace Agreements were in fact the key elements that were embodied in the Cambodian Constitution that was enacted after the 1993 election. So I think the road map was there. I don't think you should go back and say the problem lies with the Paris Peace Accords not doing this or not doing that. I think the Paris Peace Accords were fine. They touched every base. They drew the map for the future.
What's happened of course is that internally that map has not been followed and there has been not enough international pressure. I think if you want to be critical of the Paris Peace players the real criticism needs to be directed against all of us for not reacting more strongly in the aftermath of that 1993 election. It was a brilliantly successful election. I've never been more personally moved in my life than watching those long long queues or grannies and little children and people even though they feared there would be Khmer Rouge bomb attacks and so on they lined up and there was something like 99% I think voting turnout. It was fantastic.
But, what happened, of course, is Hun Sen, who expected to win the election, clearly did not. He kicked up a huge fuss, and the international community accommodated it. It allowed him to become equal Prime Minister and that gave him confidence to tear up so many of the other principles as he has done over the years ahead. So yes, we failed in that respect. It was not a problem with the language of the Peace Agreements themselves. So the language was fine, the map is still there.
VOA Khmer: In your view, what should political parties and civil society organizations do to prepare a new generation of leaders to carry this task going forward?
Gareth Evans: Well, obviously education is absolutely critical. The younger generation has to be made aware of the country's history, the terrible traumas that were there in the past and the way in which they were overcome through international cooperation and internal commitment to getting things right. That story has to get into their heads and they have to understand just the significance, obviously of democracy and human rights for their own future. How you do that inside the country at the moment with an education system that is dominated by a government that's very unsympathetic to human rights and democracy, is very hard. Social media is a vehicle obviously from the diaspora from outside getting in those messages, getting around to the younger generation as to what the issues are, and what the problems are and what the potential solutions are, but it's difficult and nobody pretends otherwise. But somehow, you’ve just got to keep on working away at educating the younger generation because the mood is there, the competence is there, the commitment is there.
Cambodians have shown themselves to be an incredibly resilient people and incredibly courageous people and I just don't think they're going to tolerate indefinitely being denied their rights and it's just intolerable and the younger generation I think instinctively will get that, provided we can find the external community, the diaspora, provided civil society organizations, provided you can all find ways of just getting those messages through. So I mean people in my generation didn’t really get social media and all the channels and so on that are available but your generation does and I think they're the messages that have to get through.
VOA Khmer: If I may ask you a personal question, sir. What do you think of Prime Minister Hun Sen? He respected you so much at one point in the past?
Gareth Evans: Well, I respected Hun Sen at one point. We were brothers. We called each other brothers. We went through a very difficult negotiation period when Australia initiated the whole peace process with Indonesia. We took it forward. I had many, many discussions with Hun Sen. He was a tough guy then, as he's remained, but then he saw the utility of working with countries like Australia and finding a solution and he was flexible and he delivered. He delivered, of course, because he was confident that in doing so he would have a permanent future as probably the leader of the country and as soon as he was disappointed with that election result, the rot started to set in.
I retained for another decade or so a degree of confidence that at the end of the day, Hun Sen, because of his sheer ability and competence, would eventually see the necessity to accept democratic principles, human rights, work fully within those constraints and deliver effective government. But, of course, nearly a decade or so ago it became obvious that he was just not going to change and when his actions started taking the form of actually murdering, I felt that it was just impossible to continue having any kind of personal support for him. So I've been very critical of him since then. He of course has been very critical of me, and we've had some famous confrontations including on stage in Phnom Penh a few years ago which disconcerted a lot of people. He's waving his fist and telling me that I was an unacceptable presence in the country but that's fine. I can cope with that.
The important thing is that the message gets through — that, you know, Hun Sen, for all his competence, for all that he contributed back, and he contributed a huge amount to bring those peace accords together, but he has turned into a complete autocrat. He has not been good for the country. He needs to go.