Three decades ago, the Kingdom of Cambodia signed the Paris Peace Agreements, putting years of atrocities and turmoil behind and starting the transition from a conflict-ravaged country to an ‘Island of Peace.’
The agreements signed on 23 October 1991 marked the end of a century in Cambodia marred by colonial rule, barbaric authoritarianism, a brutal genocide, foreign occupation and internal turmoil. The combined conventions and treaties sought to not only put conflict behind, but also give Cambodia independence and ensure its right to self-determination.
Officially bringing an end to a war between Cambodia and Vietnam, the accord was widely seen and lauded as a significant achievement of the late 20th century. Yet on the occasion of the 30th anniversary, we question whether the authors’ vision of a peaceful and democratic Cambodia has truly been achieved.
The signing was meant to mark the starting point for Cambodia’s road to democracy and human rights, as the agreements created a foundation for a new political settlement rooted in fundamental rights and characterised by liberal democracy and pluralism. Yet neither democracy nor respect for human rights have been fully realised in Cambodia.
On the contrary, recent years have seen the political situation and human rights record of Cambodia take a nosedive. Political opportunism, quest for profit and power monopolisation have pushed other considerations aside, stunting progress in the implementation of the agreements.
Perhaps the most egregious example of Cambodia’s deviation from the path laid down by the agreements has been the 2017 dissolution by the Supreme Court of Cambodia’s only viable opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Cambodia became a de facto one-party state overnight, leading to a lack of political representation and the disenfranchisement of almost 50% of Cambodians who had voted for the CNRP in the 2017 elections.
The genuineness of the following elections in 2018 was immediately questioned when the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ran virtually unopposed. The elections were subsequently tainted by reports of voter intimidation and harassment and complaints of opposition figures being obstructed or hampered during their campaigns. A 48-hour media blackout, during which access to independent media outlets was blocked just before polling began, further discredited any claims the elections were free and fair.
Unsurprisingly, but nevertheless outrageously, the unopposed CPP won all seats in the National Assembly. The lack of opposition enabled the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) to pass a series of problematic laws, supplying the government with a massive toolkit of repression and neutralising any political ambitions threatening the ruling party.
If the lengths to which the RGC went in asserting its leadership in 2018 are any indication, the months leading up to the 2022 commune elections and 2023 national elections are sure to be characterised by an intensified clampdown on the opposition.
Since its dissolution, the CNRP has remained in the RGC’s crosshairs, with each instance of intimidation or judicial harassment of CNRP members deepening the gap between the democratic principles enshrined in the Paris agreements and their implementation in practice.
The most recent instance of the RGC attempting to intimidate CNRP affiliates was prime minister Hun Sen’s uninvited intrusion in a private CNRP video meeting in September. He told senior CNRP leaders that he had people “everywhere” and had previously tapped at least 20 CNRP meetings without being detected. This irruption – initially dismissed as a “digital fabrication” by the CPP spokesman but later confirmed by the prime minister – is one of many examples of the RGC’s efforts to dispirit and stifle the opposition. Needless to say, it does not augur well for Cambodian democracy.
The lack of a genuine multi-party democracy in Cambodia is sadly only one of the RGC’s shortcomings with respect to the agreements. Fundamental freedoms, which the agreements enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution, seem to exist only as theoretical concepts today.
Civic space has been consistently shrunk by the repressive and liberticidal laws the RGC has adopted to crackdown on activism, human rights work, dissent or mere criticism of the RGC. Countless individuals – journalists, human rights defenders, activists, members of the political opposition and ordinary citizens – have borne the brunt of the RGC’s tendency to lump together criticism and opposition and its misguided inclination to perceive both as crimes to be punished.
Fundamental freedoms…seem to exist only as theoretical concepts today.
Land rights and environmental matters also remain a serious issue of contention in Cambodia, as they are frequently violated and disregarded to make way for lucrative development projects. The interests of big businesses are almost consistently put above those of Cambodian citizens, who are unceremoniously evicted and uprooted from their lands, often with little to no compensation.
Environmental activists are exposed to growing intimidation and harassment for remaining outspoken about the destruction of Cambodia’s decreasing natural resources. Targeting these activists exemplifies how the RGC is removed from the concerns they raise and unbothered by hampering the country’s future generation of environmental defenders, which ultimately imperils us all.
The assault waged by the RGC against critics and dissidents in Cambodia has been made possible by the complicity of the judiciary and its subservience to the executive, in contravention to the 1991 agreements that envisaged a clear separation of powers.
Individuals arbitrarily arrested for their legitimate exercise of fundamental freedoms seldom receive justice due to the judiciary’s role in muting dissenting voices. The ill-defined crime of ‘incitement; is the RGC’s default accusation against most forms of dissent or criticism, conveniently enabling authorities to turn victims of human rights violations into perpetrators. Individuals targeted for exercising their fundamental freedoms are then doubly victimised by the judiciary that acts as a mouthpiece for the RGC instead of providing a check and balance on government actions, resulting in state-sanctioned judicial harassment of critical voices.
In parallel, the lack of independence, impartiality and transparency of the judiciary nurtures a culture of impunity for perpetrators of real human rights violations and government officials, leading to a paradoxical situation in which individuals targeted for the most basic exercise of their fundamental freedoms languish in overcrowded prisons, while those who commit gross human rights violations rarely see the inside of a courtroom.
The suspicious and irregular handling of trade unionist Chea Vichea’s 2004 murder, the botched investigation into the 2012 killing of environmental activist Chut Wutty and the farcical trial following the 2016 shooting death of political analyst Kem Ley represent a fraction of the hundreds of instances in which gross human rights violations have been improperly addressed, when they were addressed at all.
These recent developments seem to show that the spirit of the agreements, once a source of hope for millions of Cambodians, dims with each passing year as the RGC intensifies its assault on human rights and democracy, curtails the rights it has vowed to respect and undermines the democratic principles it has pledged to uphold.
Parties to the Paris agreements also have a responsibility to the Cambodian people to take seriously their role as guardians of the nation’s democracy and human rights. There remains room for more action from signatory countries to live up to their obligations under the agreements and keep the RGC accountable for its failures and shortcomings in upholding the accord.
We rightly commemorate how far we have come, but let us not forget the road that lies ahead
As we mark the anniversary of the agreements that shaped our country, the RGC would do well to remember that most of the obligations enshrined in the Paris agreements have no temporal limitation and remain as valid today as they were 30 years ago.
We rightly commemorate how far we have come, but let us not forget the road that lies ahead. A genuine and unwavering commitment to the vision of a peaceful and democratic Cambodia enshrined in the agreements is needed from everyone, now more than ever, to put Cambodia back on the path intended by the agreements and finally make this vision a reality.
Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and a peace studies graduate of the International University of Japan.