1.5 millions Cambodians died, 4 missions, 4 personalities, 5 awaiting trials and 3 political outcomes. How many achievements?
At the wake of the 17th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accord (signed on 23 October 1991, to mark the start of a transitional period in Cambodia in an attempt to restore political stability and peace), I take this opportunity to assess how far Cambodia has moved on since then.
Considering how long it took for the international community represented by the United Nations to finally assert a political solution in a nation ravaged by four years of cruel and inhumane communist regime in 1975, the achievements I feel are far less than desirable.
One of the biggest failures which will overshadow the rest is the fact that 1.5 million Cambodians (1/5 of its population) died as a result of systematic execution, torture, starvation and forced labour carried out by the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, and yet since 1979 when the regime ended, no one has yet being held accountable for the magnitude of such atrocities.
There are possibly three major political outcomes with most of its scenario dominated mainly by four personalities; former King Norodom Sihanouk, Hun Sen (leader of the CPP party), Prince Ranariddh (former leader of the FUNCIPEC party) and the UN since the signing of the Accord.
The Paris Peace Accord calls for four missions; to take necessary steps for an internationally supervised election, to repatriate Cambodian refugees and displaced persons, to rehabilitate and reconstruct Cambodia and to promote the respect for human rights.
The first political outcome was the creation of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to implement the Paris Peace Accord. Its first few tasks were to hold a free and fair elections leading to a new constitution, disarmament and demobilization of anti-governmental military factions and repatriate and resettle refugees and displaced persons. In a way, this was possibly one of the biggest UN operations at that time and as usual, the results were minimal compared to the amount of money poured into it.
Prime Minister Hun Sen made a statement which I read on the Cambodia Daily a few weeks ago. He called on the international community not to allow the United Nations to carry out elections in their own respective countries. He accused the United Nations of tempering with electoral votes and exercising its power to determine who will win in the election.
As some of you might already know, I used to work for the UN electoral missions in Timor Leste and Afghanistan. I have been highly critical of the UN myself but what I read displeased me immensely. The UN may be known for many mistakes it has done but playing a huge role in corrupting electoral results is not one of them, as far as I know. But then again, Prime Minister Hun Sen has many reasons not to support this international institution.
One of the main reasons is his failure to garner majority votes in the first election carried out in 1993. Instead Prince Ranariddh won by a huge majority of 45% to Hun Sen’s 38%. While it was a failure for Hun Sen, it was a huge achievement for the people since 4 million (90% of the population) Cambodians turned up to vote in the election. Such was their resolve in playing a part in this crucial transitional period.
This achievement was shortlived when former King Sihanouk, who was then reinstated as the king, decided to appoint Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen as first and second prime minister respectively. It was probably a calculated move taken to prevent another period of political uprising and instability leading to a lot of bloodshed and violence. I do personally believe that the King had in a way succeeded in doing so despite continuous rivalry and hostility between the two co-prime ministers.
Since then, the political landscape of Cambodia has be dominated by Hun Sen but not without strong challenges by other opposition parties. Subsequent elections, although in his favour, were carried out in an atmosphere of intimidation and violence.
While in the end, Hun Sen will always remain as one of the political legacies in Cambodia despite his draconian method of governance (but then again, he cannot be as bad as Pol Pot), the UN left with another legacy, only deadlier; AIDS.
Thanks to the then UNTAC Special Representative of the Secretary General, Yasushi Akashi’s cavalier management style, UN peacekeepers had contributed to the rate of HIV/AIDS in Phnom Penh to rocket 150% within one year. They have been the prime culprits to spread and bring the disease home or to another UN mission.
We all know what the peacekeepers do in their free time, don’t we? When alarmed by this, Akashi’s response was “boys will be boys”. The failure to conduct mandatory blood testing and disciplinary actions against those who frequented brothels and sexually harassed local women would ultimately be the result of a second killing field since the Khmer Rouge regime.
The second political outcome is the much delayed establishment of a joint Cambodian and UN Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCC), commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 1997. More than a decade has passed since the formation of this tribunal and yet, the five main alleged perpetrators; “Duch”, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan are still under detention and awaiting trials. Ieng Sary was convicted and sentence to death in 1979 by the local court but subsequently granted amnesty by King Norodom Sihanouk.
Despite tonnes of eye witness accounts of the alleged atrocities commanded and committed by them, today’s paper said that the court is unable to find substantial evidence to incriminate Nuon Chea. Time is running out for those few remaining survivors and their family members, who have been living in this nightmare for years, to seek justice and to find closure as the perpetrators are now slowly ravaged by age and failure of health.
Now, the tribunal itself is facing corruption charges and the international community has begun to question its effectiveness and integrity by stopping funding.
The third and final political outcome is the mushrooming of human rights NGOs and civil societies in Cambodia. While Cambodia is still one of the biggest human rights violators in the world, at least there is a will amongst the people to defend and promote human rights. This has not been easy, particularly when the government itself is opposing foreign intervention and rejecting the notion of international human rights standard.
Recently, the UN Human Rights Special Representative to Cambodia, Professor Yash Ghai, resigned from his post after three years of contentious relationship with the government. Prime Minister Hun Sen celebrated his departure by issuing public statements filled with insults against the UN Representative.
So, after all this, I still think there is a cause for Cambodians to celebrate the 17th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accord. Against all adversity and repeated failures by local institutions and international community to protect their rights, Cambodians still display strong will, tenacity and hope for a better future. They are ultimately the only post-Accord achievement in this new Cambodia.
When you walk on the streets of Phnom Penh, it is obvious that Cambodians are industrious, kind and polite people. Shops are opened as early as 6:30am and closed as late as midnight. Many turn their backs against what is happening politically because they are tired and they have lost trust in whatever political party is in power. As long as their lives are not being subjected to the policy of “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss”, all they want is to simply move on with their lives.
Despite what they have gone through, many of them possess the ability to forgive. When one of the survivors of the S-21 or Tuol Sleng massacre was asked whether he thought that a museum dedicated to remember the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime would help the reconciliation process, he answered “no”. When asked why? He said that the museum would serve as a reminder to the younger generation of what had happened and this would incite revenge.
Peter Maguire, the author of "Facing Death in Cambodia", which much of my research depended on, asked the survivor how he would feel if confronted by those who had carried out his torture. The latter answered, “Some of them have come back, and I would not like to meet them because I would really like to kill them. I would like to see them punished. But truly, I cannot do like that because I am Buddhist – no revenge.”
That is how committed the people are towards peace and reconciliation, which is one hell of a good reason worth celebrating on the 23 October.
Written on 21 October 2008