After 30 years, a promise of democracy still broken

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

The deal has also been touted as the official end of Cambodia’s long civil war, although some have disputed the idea.

On the eve of the anniversary, twenty women married to imprisoned politicians demonstrated in front of the French embassy in Phnom Penh. As they called on the authorities to respect the agreement, the police responded harshly.

At another rally outside Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, some 200 attendees called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to respect the peace agreement. These protesters also called on the US Congress to sanction Hun Sen’s government.

Still, some in Cambodia say the deal’s commitments have been honored, including the pro-government Khmer Times newspaper.

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

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

“In other words, we have empowered the people, but not in a way that encourages people to protest and curse the government on the streets,” Phay Siphan said.

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

To be sure, the agreement largely marked the end of decades of conflict. But under Hun Sen, human rights commitments in the PPA languished.

The Paris peace accords concerned both the content of the Cambodian constitution and the way it would be drafted. Annex Five, “Principles for a New Constitution for Cambodia,” says:

“The constitution will stipulate that Cambodia will follow a system of liberal democracy, based on pluralism. It will provide for periodic and fair 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 the requirement that electoral procedures provide a full and fair possibility of organizing and participating in the electoral process.

General elections conducted under the auspices of the United Nations were held in 1993. The period leading up to this vote was fraught with political pitfalls.

Yet 20 political parties participated, the elections were held in accordance with the constitution, and the United Nations approved the results.

In an 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 “find their way into a coalition government, using the pretext for a secessionist movement in the east of the country.

After the formation of a fragile coalition government, Hun Sen ousted his coalition partner in what is sometimes described as the Cambodian coup of 1997.

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

In the 2017 local elections, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won around 44% of the vote, despite conditions deemed “hostile to freedom of expression and genuine political participation” by Human Rights Watch, based in New York.

Shortly after, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested for treason, while the Supreme Court of Cambodia ruled to dissolve the CNRP in November 2017, leaving Cambodia to a one-party state in conflict with the PPA.

“The dissolution of the CNRP is contrary to the democratic pillar of the Peace Agreement, which is more or less an international peace treaty,” Sorpong Peou, professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University, told Al Jazeera. from Toronto.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said that the prosecution of Kem Sokha had “clearly resulted from the exercise of his right to participate in the government of his country” and of his right to “freedom of expression and opinion ”, in violation of the Universal Declaration. human rights, which the PPA called on Cambodia to respect.

Charles Santiago, president of parliamentarians for human rights of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, called the dissolution of the CNRP “the last nail in the coffin of Cambodian democracy”.

Mass arrests and violence against CNRP members followed. And with virtually no opposition, the CCP won a landslide victory in the legislative 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 British Guardian newspaper.

A 2020 US State Department report echoed the theme, stating that “the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government has failed to respect judicial independence, exercising extensive control over the courts.”

Regarding the courts and their role as a place of protection for ordinary Cambodians, the State Department found that “government officials and members of their families enjoy impunity for human rights violations.”

Regular attacks against people affiliated with the CNRP go unpunished – the same goes for environmental and union activists, who are regularly persecuted.

Earlier this month, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressed deep concern over “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 new COVID-19 law “resulting in restriction of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

Local and international rights groups have regularly reported abuses, including a series of measures aimed at restricting freedom of expression online and offline.

In September, the US House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act 2021, which “orders the President (Joe Biden) to impose sanctions on those responsible for acts undermining democracy in Cambodia. , including acts constituting serious human rights violations ”.

US Congressman Alan Lowenthal has linked this bill to Cambodia’s failure to meet its commitments under the PPA.

“Despite repeated actions by the United States and the international community, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarian regime continues to reject the promises and democratic processes to which it subscribed in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords,” Lowenthal said. .

“Whether it is shutting down or co-opting the free press, banning political opponents, eliminating free and fair elections, and then repeatedly declaring itself the choice of the people, the Hun Sen regime continues to do everything in their power to destroy any hope for democracy in Cambodia. ,” he said.