In Paris, the framework for Cambodia’s democracy was a much debated element of the peace accords. That debate led to Cambodia’s Constitution and its guarantee of freedom of association and speech. The proposed law on civil society would deprive these independent Cambodian groups of those rights and undermine much of their work representing the country’s most vulnerable citizens — advocating for their rights and dispensing aid, largely paid for with foreign donations. Most recently, these civil society groups exposed the government’s eviction of the poor from valuable land in Phnom Penh. As a result, the World Bank is suspending all new loans to Cambodia until those made homeless receive proper housing.
I.H.T. Op-Ed Contributor
Published: August 17, 2011
WASHINGTON — This year is the 20th anniversary of the Paris peace accords that ended the Cambodian war and any further threat from the murderous Khmer Rouge. It required all the major powers — the United States, leading European countries, the former Soviet Union and China — as well as most Asian nations to come up with an accord, a rare achievement. In a speech last week, Gareth Evans said that during his eight years as the Australian foreign minister “nothing has given me more pleasure and pride than the Paris peace agreement concluded in 1991.”
I reported from Paris on the negotiations, which took several years of convoluted diplomacy since few countries or political parties had clean hands in the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge. When the deal was finally signed in October of 1991 there were self-congratulations all around, champagne and a huge sigh of relief that Cambodia could move on to peace and democracy.
It didn’t turn out that way. Cambodia today is essentially ruled by a single political party with little room for an opposition, has a weak and corrupt judiciary, and the country’s most effective union leaders have been murdered.
That wasn’t the scenario envisioned in Paris. Now, just as 20th anniversary commemorations are approaching, one of the few groups still enjoying the freedoms created under the peace accords are about to be silenced. The government of Cambodia is poised to enact a law that will effectively hamstring the country’s lively civil society and NGOs, among the last independent voices in Cambodia.