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Cambodia: After 30 Years, a Promise of Democracy Still Broken

Cambodia: After 30 Years, a Promise of Democracy Still Broken
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Video production: Nik Yarst

Moeun Chhean Nariddh and Son Minea

Moeun Chhean Nariddh and Son Minea

Reporters, Khmer Times

“[G]overnment officials, scholars and ordinary Cambodians have looked back and expressed their views about how the spirit of the (agreement) has been fulfilled and translated into actions to ensure peace and democracy in Cambodia.”


On October 23, Cambodia commemorated the 30-year anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords (PPA), which marked the official conclusion of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.

The agreement was also heralded as bringing about the official end of Cambodia’s long civil war, though some have disputed that idea.

On the eve of the anniversary, about 20 women married to jailed politicians protested outside the French Embassy in Phnom Penh. As they called on authorities to respect the agreement, police responded harshly.

At another rally outside Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., some 200 participants called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to respect the peace agreement. Those demonstrators also asked the U.S. Congress to sanction Hun Sen’s government.

Still, some within Cambodia claim the commitments of the agreement have been realized — that includes the pro-government Khmer Times newspaper.

“Some 30 years later, government officials, scholars and ordinary Cambodians have looked back and expressed their views about how the spirit of the PPA has been fulfilled and translated into actions to ensure peace and democracy in Cambodia,” the newspaper claimed.

It cited government spokesman Phay Siphan, who asserted that peace has been maintained “under the wise leadership of (Prime Minister Hun Sen).”

“In other words, we have given power to the people, but not in a way to encourage people to demonstrate and curse the government on the streets,” Phay Siphan said.

That leaves a false impression, however, because the agreement’s promises of pluralism and true democracy are not the reality in Cambodia today.

True, the agreement largely marked the end to decades of conflict. But under Hun Sen, human rights commitments in the PPA have languished.

The Paris Peace Agreements addressed both the content of Cambodia’s constitution and how it would be drafted. Annex Five, “Principles for a New Constitution for Cambodia,” says:

“The constitution will state that Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism. It will provide for periodic and genuine elections.

“It will provide for the right to vote and to be elected by universal and equal suffrage. It will provide for voting by secret ballot, with a requirement that electoral procedures provide a full and fair opportunity to organize and participate in the electoral process.”

General elections conducted under the auspices of the United Nations were carried out in 1993. The run-up to that vote was fraught with political violence.

Still, 20 political parties participated, the elections were held in line with the constitution and the United Nations endorsed the results.

In analysis for the BBC in 2018, Kevin Ponniah wrote that after rejecting the election results, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) would manage “to strong-arm their way into a coalition government, using the pretext of a secessionist movement in the east of the country.”

After a shaky coalition government formed, Hun Sen ousted his coalition partner in what is sometimes described as the 1997 Cambodian coup d’état.

His CPP would win elections the following year and never lose an election again.

In 2017 local elections, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) captured approximately 44% of the vote, despite conditions deemed “hostile to free speech and genuine political participation” by New-York based Human Rights Watch.

Soon thereafter, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested on treason charges, while the Supreme Court of Cambodia ruled to dissolve the CNRP in November 2017, effectively leaving Cambodia a one-party state and in conflict with the PPA.

"Dissolving the CNRP is against the Peace Accord’s democracy pillar, which is more or less an international peace treaty,” Sorpong Peou, a professor in the politics and public administration at Toronto’s Ryerson University, told Al Jazeera.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said Kem Sokha’s prosecution had “clearly resulted from the exercise of his right to take part in the government of his country” and his right to “freedom of expression and opinion,” in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the PPA called on Cambodia to uphold.

Charles Santiago, chairperson of the Parliamentarians for Human Rights at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, called the dissolution of the CNRP “the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy.”

Mass arrests and violence against CNRP members followed. And with virtually no opposition, the CCP won a landslide in parliamentary elections of July 2018.

The country’s high court has become a rubber stamp, “widely known to be under the control of Hun Sen,” according to the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper.

A 2020 U.S. State Department report echoed the theme, stating that the “constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence, exerting extensive control over the courts.”

Regarding the courts and their role as a venue to protect ordinary Cambodians, the State Department found “there was impunity for government officials and family members for human rights abuses.”

Regular assaults on those affiliated with the CNRP go unpunished — the same for environmental and labor activists, who face regular persecution.

Earlier this month, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressed deep concern over “the impunity for attacks against political activists and human rights defenders” in Cambodia.

She noted a deterioration of civil and democratic space in the country, with a newly enacted COVID-19 law “leading to the curtailment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Local and international rights groups have routinely reported on abuses, including a raft of measures to curtail free speech online and off.

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021, which “directs the President (Joe Biden) to impose sanctions on individuals responsible for acts to undermine democracy in Cambodia, including acts that constituted serious human rights violations.”

U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal tied that bill to Cambodia’s failures to live up to its commitments under the PPA.

“Despite repeated actions taken by both the United States and the international community, the authoritarian regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to reject the democratic promises and processes he agreed to in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords,” Lowenthal said.

“From shuttering or co-opting the free press, to banishing political opponents, to eliminating free and fair elections and then repeatedly declaring himself the people’s choice, the Hun Sen regime continues to do everything in its power to destroy any hope of democracy in Cambodia,” he said.