Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday said the 1991 Paris Peace Accords – often held up as the founding document that brought peace, democracy and human rights to modern Cambodia – was dead in the water.
Speaking to some 20,000 factory workers in Phnom Penh yesterday against the backdrop of the most aggressive crackdown on the opposition in years, the premier told the beleaguered Cambodia National Rescue Party and the international community to stop “dreaming” and harking back to the ideals enshrined in the agreement.
The current situation, he admonished, will not be solved by talking.
“Don’t imagine you can hold a meeting like the Paris Peace conference again because the Paris Peace agreement is like a ghost,” he said.
The agreement, which was painstakingly put together in a bid to end the country’s civil war and extract foreign influence from the Kingdom in a waning era of Cold War realpolitik, pushed for a government to be elected through democratic polls and espoused the ideals of human rights.
Hun Sen, however, said the agreement held little relevance 25 years on, in part because the Soviet Union – one of more than a dozen signatories to the treaty – had disbanded.
The Khmer Rouge – which was still a formidable armed force in the 1990s – was also out of the picture now, so the agreement was useless “unless the Khmer Rouge returns”, he added.
The premier then went on to take a swipe at the apparent hypocrisy of the United States and the United Nations, calling “shame” on the latter for continuing to recognise the murderous Khmer Rouge – rather than his own band of Vietnamese-backed Khmer Rouge defectors – as the legitimate government of Cambodia throughout the 1980s.
“Now we just use the law to protect the . . . security and peace of our country, but they said that we violate human rights. But [the US] shot, killed and dropped bombs on our people,” Hun Sen said, echoing a familiar refrain of his often discursive speeches over the past 12 months.
He maintained the government had followed the agreement and “all the elements have been merged in the constitution of Cambodia already”, but it was his symbolic attack on the landmark accord that concerned the opposition and analysts yesterday.
Cambodia National Rescue Party Deputy President Mu Sochua, speaking from Berlin yesterday after fleeing Cambodia last week to avoid imminent arrest, said the peace and principles enshrined in the agreement were not dead but were under threat.
“We don’t want to go back to the Khmer Rouge years – that is why we continue to use the Paris Peace agreement. As long as there aren’t free and fair elections the constitution is violated,” she said, referring to draft amendments leaked yesterday that would redistribute her party’s seats to smaller parties that collectively won little more than 6 percent of the popular vote at the last national election.
“This is such a blatant, blatant robbing of the constitution,” she said.
“[For] the people of Cambodia right now, the silencing, the fear, the intimidation – that is reminiscent of years past.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the agreement still held relevance, and suggested that the powers that be in Cambodia had done the opposite of implementing human rights and multiparty democracy by rewriting laws to legitimise political purges.
“In this agreement, first, it determines to [adopt] multiparty democracy. Second, the regime needs to respect the human rights and rule of law – the rule of law in the democratic society, not the communist one, [which] is wrong,” he said, likening the current situation to “the rule of law in a communist state”.
Paris was contentious from the outset – particularly the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge, who oversaw the death of at least 1.7 million people – and its impact has been questioned repeatedly over the past quarter century.
Australian scholar Lee Morgenbesser claims the deal was dead in 1997, when Hun Sen – then Second Prime Minister to Funcinpec’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh – launched a bloody coup to seize control of the country. The violence 20 years ago, observers argue, left the 1991 Paris Peace Accords in tatters.
Just last year, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams opined that the 25th anniversary of the agreement required a requiem, not a celebration.
In an article for the now-shuttered Cambodia Daily, he wrote “the leader of the opposition is in exile, politicians and human rights activists are in prison, and dissidents continue to be killed . . .Why did Paris fail to deliver democracy and human rights?
“Hun Sen has consistently broken the fundamental promise of Paris: that the country’s future would be decided by ballots instead of bullets.”
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, pointed out the armed Cambodian factions were “pressed to the table” to sign on the dotted line.
“The CPP played along with Paris, they played along with the system of democracy, but now that they are no longer reliant on Western aid, they are starting to be much more open about their distaste for this settlement and their desire to unpick what remains of its legacy,” he said.
“The government made this argument before, and tended to make it in a more subtle way . . . but he’s coming out and giving vent to a deeply rooted anger about perceived Western double standards and treatment of Cambodia in the 1980s.”
He added what made Hun Sen and the ruling party’s latest crackdown on the opposition different to their pre-election strategy in the past – after the 1997 fighting, for instance, Ranariddh was coaxed back to join the 1998 elections, and the flow of foreign funds resumed – was a “sense of permanence”.
“It symbolises a full repudiation of the Paris agreement and the principles they espouse. It really is an exclamation mark on the political crackdown that has escalated significantly over the past two or three months.
“The government is continuing to tighten the screws on the opposition, which at a certain point they’ll relax, but over time with this cycle of repression, we have seen a steady shift to more open forms of authoritarianism.”