CAMBODIA: Signatories of Paris peace accords cannot change Cambodia, Cambodians can

September 15, 2011

An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

CAMBODIA: Signatories of Paris peace accords cannot change Cambodia, Cambodians can

We live in interesting times – times of great challenges, opportunities, and of creativity and hopeful changes.

This year, the 20th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords falls on October 23. Some people celebrate and commemorate its achievement. Others reflect on its meaning. Some others still, want the Accords to do something for them.

The Final Act of the Accords, signed by 18 governments (Australia, Brunei, Cambodia – the four warring Cambodian factions – Canada, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, United States, Vietnam), with the participation of officials of Zimbabwe and Yugoslavia representing the non-aligned movement and of the UN Secretary-General and his special representative, sought to “restore peace” and endow “a system of liberal democracy” to Cambodia.

It was no small achievement that the Accords were signed.

It was miraculous that the four Khmer warring factions, whose members harbored mistrust and hatred for one another in a traditional culture that memorializes offenses not just for “muoy ayouk” (one’s life or a generation) but for “muoy cheat” (covering seven generations of “chi tuot,” “chi luot,” “chi leah,” “chi ta,” “ov pouk,” “kaun,” “chao”), came to the table to conclude the Accords.

Yet, maybe they had no other choice but to accept the inevitable if they were to remain relevant.

Certainly, the imminent dissolution of the Soviet Union and the uncertainty of the looming power vacuum as the Cold War came to an end were catalysts to bring this small regional war to an end. Asian backers of each Khmer faction did not hesitate to discard their respective client’s wishes and even pressure them to accept a negotiated settlement. The major powers in the Cold War made deals – the US ceased recognition of the Non-Communist Resistance, China dropped the Khmer Rouge – at the expense of their Cambodian allies. A change in the status quo ante was inevitable.

So, the signatories sought to end Cambodia’s “tragic conflict and continuing bloodshed” – from 1970, when Cambodia was engulfed by the Vietnam War, through 1975-1979, under the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge, and from 1979-1989 when Vietnamese troops invaded and occupied Cambodia.

A “liberal democracy” in Cambodia reflected the world’s intention to provide that country with a government that mirrored the democratic changes also occurring in Eastern Europe. In practice, ending the conflict and bloodshed meant the different factions must be denied the means to continue fighting. Foreign backers unplugged the Khmers’ military supply chain.

Cambodian conflict in the world context
As a result of their regular contacts at the Khmer-Thai border with foreign representatives, the high command of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces was acutely conscious of impending changes in the world order that would inevitably affect those waging the war for Cambodia. Notably, the rise in March 1985 of Mikhail S. Gorbachev to the position of Secretary General of the Soviet Community Party seemed to presage change in international relationships.

As Special Assistant to Commander-in-Chief, I read and researched to keep him abreast of changes that might affect the Front. We discussed a correlation between Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1978 and the reports of Soviet troops in Afghanistan on December 24, 1979 under Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. By 1988, I reported on the significance of Gorbachev’s social, economic, political, and foreign policy reforms; his abolition of the Brezhnev doctrine that allowed Moscow to intervene in any socialist country; and his policy allowing the Kremlin’s Eastern European allies to pursue independent domestic and foreign policies.

News of Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan in May 1988 (completed in February 1989) was echoed by Hanoi’s public announcement in January 1989 of Vietnamese troop withdrawals from Cambodia – withdrawals recorded by reporters in the summer of 1989.

Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front Jakarta Informal Meetings (JIMs) of the Khmer warring factions were held in July 1988 and in February 1989, followed by France’s push for an international conference on Cambodia in July-August.

In Eastern Europe, six governments of the Kremlin’s allies – Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, East Germany, Romania – collapsed in 1989, and the Berlin Wall came down in November of that year.

Heaven seemed to conspire to bring change. To say that change causes anxiety is an understatement.

Having served actively with the KPLNF since 1981, I was a direct participant in the KPNLAF’s general staff and high command beginning in 1985-1986. My theory: The KPNLAF was racing against time to achieve its goals. Unless the army accepted risks, its future would be dictated by others.

“Overreacting,” I was told.

I asked what price we would pay for “peace,” and came to a personal conclusion that we were going to pay far too dearly for a poor result. In November 1989, I left the KPNLAF – ironically, after a visit to a KPNLAF zone by a United Nations military delegation. I had reached a fork in the road with members of the KPNLAF leadership. My views would have been an obstacle to the course they had determined they must follow. In vogue was hopeful talk of turning “battlefields into free markets” and “bullets into ballots.” They turned their attention to creating a political party in anticipation of Cambodia’s forthcoming national elections. I believed these could be neither free nor fair, as Hun Sen and the CPP had been in complete control of Cambodia for a decade. My colleagues embraced a “procedural democracy.” Our shared dream of establishing a “substantive democracy” that comprises fundamental rights and freedom was no longer acknowledged.

In an article in the China Morning Post in 1992, I questioned Cambodian democrats’ participation in a national election that would not be free and fair as Hun Sen would use this priceless democratic process to legitimize his Cambodian People’s Party’s dictatorship.

But, I was pleasantly surprised – embarrassed, but elated – as a nearly 90 percent voter turnout at the 1993 UN-supervised general elections gave victory to Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the royalist FUNCINPEC party. Maybe I was “overreacting”?

The pleasant surprise soon turned sour. Hun Sen, who lost the election, refused to accept Ranariddh’s victory, and threatened war. Then Prince Ranariddh’s father, now King Father Sihanouk, came up with his “co-premiership” formula: The election winner should be First Prime Minister, the election loser, Second Prime Minister. A two-headed government was created. Each prime minister had separate ministries and armies.

Ironically, in an interview on Guam with a reporter of Bangkok’s The Nation, I warned of a coup. In July 1997, Hun Sen pulled a coup d’etat against Ranariddh, ahead of the next general elections.

And so the dream of “national reconciliation” vanished, perhaps to be revived when it is politically expedient?

Now, as celebrations and commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the Paris Accords begin, I find myself an odd man out.

Each to his/her own drumbeat
Last month, on August 6, in a keynote speech to Sydney’s University of New South Wales Law School, Australia’s former foreign minister (1988) Gareth Evans described the pre-1991 “complex and intractable” Cambodian conflict and admitted, “We have not yet seen a durable, human-rights respecting democracy,” but dubbed the Accords “a formidable achievement indeed for the international community, and one in which … Australia played a quite central part.”

For Professor Evans, “nothing has given me more pleasure and pride than the Paris peace agreement concluded in 1991,” though Cambodia’s “glass is still half full. In democracy and human rights terms, Cambodia still has a long way to go,” he said.

Evans’s remarks at the signing of the 1991 Accords should be recalled: “Peace and freedom are not prizes which, once gained, can never be lost. They must be won again each day. Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all else, the observance of human rights.”

Indeed, political stability and economic prosperity must not eclipse “observance of human rights.”

Also in August, in “Silencing Cambodia’s Honest Brokers,” former New York Times reporter Elizabeth Becker wrote of “champagne and a huge sigh of relief” as the 1991 Accords were signed; except Cambodia was not moving on to peace and democracy. “It didn’t turn out that way. Cambodia today is essentially ruled by a single party with little room for an opposition, has a weak and corrupt judiciary, and the country’s most effective union leaders have been murdered.” To Becker, Hun Sen’s proposed law on civil society would silence Cambodia’s “lively civil society and NGOs.”

She suggested, as commemorations of the Paris Accords begin, “instead of looking backward to the past glory, it might be better to focus on today and reinforce the accords.” Hun Sen wants a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council, she wrote. Cambodia’s “price for greater influence and prestige in the world should be reinforcing democracy, not diminishing it.”

I like Becker’s column. But, it drew some critics.

While foreign government and United Nations officials commemorate the Paris Accords, Cambodian opponents of the Hun Sen regime recognized by the United Nations are using the anniversary as an opportunity to draw attention to the Accords’ successes and failures through conferences and rallies.

In general, Cambodian expatriates around the world are convening conferences and rallies to petition the UN and the signatory governments “to reconvene and re-enforce” the stipulations in the Paris Accords, because Cambodia’s neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as the Hun Sen government, have violated Cambodia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, and the Hun Sen regime is violating the Khmer people’s rights and freedom. Many expatriates repeat the goal of their conferences and rallies to seek to “safeguard” Cambodia’s survival.

Cambodians have reason to be dissatisfied with the implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. When the election results of 1993 went awry and then were overturned through a coup, signatory nations were occupied elsewhere. Today, denouncing the Thais and the Vietnamese may make some people feel better, but bashing them endlessly brings no change to the situation, only fossilizes the “we-they” enmity. The UN and the 18 signatory governments of the Paris Accords have no interest in reconvening to “re-enforce” the Accords’ stipulations. The world has moved on; signatory nations find their self-interest currently involves productive engagement with the government in place.

Time, energy, and resources would be better employed building the foundation for the Cambodia enlightened citizens hope to develop. Teach people to think. As Lord Buddha taught 2,500 years ago: “We are what we think … With our thoughts we make the world.” Bashing others makes an ugly world.

Some Khmer weaknesses
I am not seeking personal popularity. I write to encourage change through constructive processes, critical reasoning, informed decision-making. Generally, Cambodians have a tendency to personalize and see things in black or white; hence, many have trouble thinking “outside the box.”

Centuries of a Khmer culture of “smoh trang” (fidelity, loyalty) that reinforces the teaching to “korup” (respect), “bamroeur” (serve), “kar pier” (defend) the god-king or leader until the end of one’s life, boxes people into servitude to the god-king or leader, their minds forbidden to stray. Human beings are creatures of habit. Centuries of doing and thinking the same thing over and over results in too many who act thoughtlessly. Improvement, change, is hard to accomplish when views are immoveable.

This culture has to be “unlearned.” If learning consists of repeating the same process, unlearning means to terminate the old and start new process over and over. Unlearning means change, and change begins with the one who looks into the mirror: You and me.

While Cambodian children were taught the “virtue” of the traditional culture to be loyal and fight to the death for a god-king or leader, American children are taught to believe in the “self-evident truths” and regardless of their party affiliation, they fight when “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness” are threatened. Cambodia, with a history that dates back more than 2,000 years, is in decline. The United States, born in 1776, still holds world leadership.

There is a German proverb that goes, “Necessity unites.” John F. Kennedy famously said: “The unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion.”

Yet, the necessity to oppose Hun Sen’s autocracy has not united Cambodian democrats, many of whom inflexibly view uniting as being with “me,” with “my party,” under “my leadership,” – a uniformity of opinion that “I” or “my party” defines. What’s the difference between them and autocratic Hun Sen and the CPP? Too many in the democratic opposition colorfully denigrate one another and encourage their followers to engage in personal invective, to the pleasure of Hun Sen and the CPP.

Remember Lord Buddha’s preaching, “Words have the power to both destroy and heal”?

“Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or undone,” Buddha taught.

In other words, think only of what have we ourselves have done or not done.

Last week, I had the fortune to speak with a respected Khmer elder with experience in Khmer affairs since the 1950s. I spoke my thought: “If for any reason, Khmer democrats have problems ‘uniting’ against an autocratic opponent, can they at least refrain from ‘disunity’ and be humble enough and not paint one another black?”

Khmer Revolutionists
Regular readers know I am no fan of bashing anyone – though I am not shy about offering critical analysis, which means assessing and evaluating whether an action leads to a desired goal. Criticism is not a denunciation or denigration. Nor do I stand in the way of others who fight for rights and freedom. To the contrary, I give a hand when and if possible to help opponents of autocracy. I don’t remain “neutral” in the face of injustice and violations of rights and freedom. I like the words of human rights icon, Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Thus, I offer no objection to the Khmer People Power Movement of Sourn Serey Ratha, albeit some listeners in Phnom Penh of KPPM radio station tell me they are unhappy with the radio’s “strong” language. Nor do I challenge those in the Lotus Revolution of Ou Chal in France, though I am in agreement with Dr. Tith Naranhkiri, formerly with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who suggested the Lotus Revolutionists “shift emphasis” from first “liberating” Cambodia from the Vietnamese, to first liberating the Cambodian people from Hun Sen/Sihanouk, and not to count on the Paris Accords to do the liberation for Cambodians. As Tith says, “It is too late. That change was wrecked by Sihanouk when he joined Hun Sen after the 1987 meeting in France.”

What concerns me about “revolution” in Cambodia a la Arab Spring is not whether a popular uprising is possible – I think it can be made to happen, and opposition leader Sam Rainsy needed not consult Arab Spring revolutionists – but, as I said to the Khmer elder last week, after a Khmer uprising, “then what?”

As a movie character said, It’s not so much time but so little to do, but there’s so much to do and so little time!

In the final analysis, the UN and the signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords cannot change Cambodia. It’s Cambodians who will have to bring about the change that they want to see.

Here is the test for Cambodians: Can they be masters of themselves or, put another way by some disdainful commentators, can Cambodians rid themselves of their “dependency syndrome”?


The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

About the Author:
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.