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Secretary-General’s ASEAN Summit visit underlines the UN’s long history in Cambodia

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres tours Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, as part of his participation in the 12th ASEAN-UN Summit in November 2022. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

From the prison cells to the documentation centre, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres held a wreath of unbloomed magnolias throughout his tour of Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

The visit to the former Khmer Rouge prison was part of Guterres’s participation in the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh and underscored his key theme of prioritising human rights in Southeast Asia. As one of only two summit-related tours of the museum, the secretary-general’s time in Tuol Sleng also echoed the UN’s role in forming the modern state of Cambodia.

Known as Pka Malis in the Khmer language, the flowers he held throughout the prison are ceremoniously used in the Kingdom to indicate grief and loss.

“Preserving the memory of those that suffered and died at Tuol Sleng helps to ensure that such atrocities are never repeated,” said Guterres during his remarks at the museum, which was ominously known as ‘S-21’ during the regime.

The secretary-general also sat down with survivors of the genocide.

“From here, I come with the absolute need to describe what I saw to everybody I meet,” he said after hearing the personal account of a man who was tortured and imprisoned in room 22 of Tuol Sleng. “The suffering that took place within these walls is horrific and shocking. The stories of survival and resilience are moving and inspiring.”

Guterres shared with survivors that “when I was a boy, I also lived in a dictatorship and there were situations of imprisonment and torture,” referring to his upbringing in Portugal, “but nothing compared with this.”

While touring Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in November 2022 as part of the 12th ASEAN-UN Summit, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said “I am here at Tuol Sleng today to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of the atrocities and crimes committed throughout Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period.” Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

The comments at Tuol Sleng followed Guterres’s remarks at the 12th ASEAN-UN Summit. Guterres, who became the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations in 2017, was personally invited to the summit during a UN General Assembly session in September by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who passed on the rotational ASEAN chairmanship to Indonesia at the end of last week’s summit.

Guterres’s main address highlighted the economic tug-of-war between the U.S. and China, the worsening effects of climate change and the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. On the same day, Guterres took to social media to condemn the “appalling human rights situation in Myanmar,” that followed a military coup in February 2021.

The ongoing crisis in Myanmar dominated talks during the first day of the summit and has been a cornerstone concern and controversy of Hun Sen’s chairmanship.

While participating in the 12th ASEAN-UN Summit hosted in Cambodia, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres tours Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

Criticism about human rights violations has also extended to Cambodia in recent years, following the outlawing of the main opposition party in 2017 and crackdowns on civil society, environmental activists and independent media.

Most recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia spent 11 days assessing the country and found there had been human rights violations, press freedom restrictions and an overall decline in democratic and civic space in the Kingdom.

“The UN and its mechanisms do play an important role to support, monitor and assure the compliance of respective governments to their promises,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “I do hope the respective government shall fulfil its commitments to the human rights instruments they ratified.”

At the summit, Guterres directly appealed to Cambodia for “human rights defenders and climate activists to be protected,” as well as for more public space and cooperation with civil society.

“ASEAN has an essential role in advancing human rights, fundamental freedoms and inclusive political participation as elements in building true, stable and peaceful societies,” Guterres said. “The United Nations will remain your resolute partners throughout the challenges ahead.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres speaks to survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime during his visit to Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in November 2022. Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

The UN is intertwined with Cambodia’s rebuilding post-Khmer Rouge.

Nearly a quarter of the population died in the years under the regime, with between 1.5 to 3 million people perishing from execution, starvation and exhaustion. After liberation from the Khmer Rouge and a decade of Vietnamese occupation, the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements led to one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia.

The legacy of UNTAC fills books. The operation, which marked the first time the UN effectively took control of a country, facilitated mutual disarmament, a new constitution and a free-and-fair election.

The results from the UNTAC-run 1993 elections were effectively undone following a coup a few years later that paved the way for Hun Sen’s 37-year prime ministership, making him Southeast Asia’s longest-serving head of government. Though in the lead up to the 2023 general elections, Hun Sen officially announced his eldest son, Hun Manet, as his chosen successor.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) walks with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres during the ASEAN-UN summit as part of the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits in Phnom Penh on 11 November, 2022. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

In the nearly 30 years since the withdrawal of UNTAC, more than 8,300 Cambodians have served as United Nations peacekeepers, according to the Kingdom’s National Centre for Peacekeeping Forces, which also shared that there has been a “rising deployment” of peacekeepers from Cambodia year to year.

“Cambodia has transformed into a country that can contribute thousands of peacekeeping forces to assist other countries that suffered conflict,” said Malinda Kosal with the peacekeeping centre. “The visit of the UN Secretary-General also shows recognition of the deployment of Cambodia to UN peacekeeping missions.”

Guterres thanked Cambodia for its contributions to peacekeeping during his meeting with Hun Sen, the day before he spoke at Tuol Sleng.

After touring Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres speaks about preserving history so that such “atrocities are never repeated.” Photo: Anton L. Delgado for Southeast Asia Globe

“By learning to recognise the first warning signs of genocide and other atrocity crimes, and honouring the values of inclusion and dignity, we can lay the foundation for a future where such horrors can never happen again,” said Guterres, during his short address, in the shade of the museum’s courtyard.

Less than two months before Guterres arrived, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, upheld the life sentence of 91-year-old Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former head of state.

Guterres said the tribunal had demanded accountability from Khmer Rouge leaders and provided a voice for the victims and survivors, which he said “are more important than ever. At a time when hate speech, abuse, discrimination and harassment are on the rise in every corner of the world.”

The decision brought the tribunal to an end. Backed by the UN, the 16 years of the ECCC led to three convictions.

“Tuol Sleng is an essential reminder. Its blood-stained bricks and tiles are a warning to us all. This is what happens when hatred runs rampant,” Guterres said.

“I promise to tell the story that I heard from one of the survivors to my granddaughters. And I will tell them to convey that story to their grandchildren. It is essential that the memory of what happened here is never lost.”

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