Cambodia: Candlelight Election Ban Shows Paris Peace Agreements More Important Than Ever

The Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia were signed on October 23, 1991, just weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union which could no longer support Vietnam’s military effort in the occupation of Cambodia.

Two essential parts of this international treaty still need to be effectively implemented: the creation of a pluralist democratic system through free and fair elections, and the adoption by Cambodia of a foreign policy based on independence and neutrality, guaranteed by the international community.  These two aspects have become intimately connected in the current regional context, and have been blithely violated with potentially far-reaching consequences.

Relapse to pre-1991 dictatorship

Moves by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to prevent the opposition Candelight Party from taking part in national elections in July show that the 1991 agreements are more crucial than ever for the country’s future.

The agreements brought a decade of civil war in Cambodia, triggered by the Vietnamese invasion which ousted Pol Pot in 1979, to a close. Signed by all the world’s major powers, the agreements sought to create a system of regular, multi-party elections in Cambodia. The first election, held under the supervision of the United Nations in 1993, saw the defeat of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party by the royalist Funcinpec party.

I was part of Funcinpec and became finance minister in 1993 under prime minister Norodom Ranariddh. There was, however, no clear method to oblige Hun Sen and his extensive military and security apparatus to accept the election results. This was reflected in the strange set-up in which Norodom Ranariddh became prime minister “number one”, while Hun Sen was prime minister “number two”. This arrangement continued until 1997, when Hun Sen carried out a brutal, murderous coup which left him in sole charge. Cambodia has never since had a free and fair election.

While our country has not returned to war since the agreements, the attempt to create a functional multi-party democracy has been a complete failure. Cambodia today is a one-party state which is smarter at winning international acceptance than under the Khmer Rouge in which Hun Sen was a commander. But Cambodia under Hun Sen remains willing to resort to violence when needed, and is no more democratic than under Pol Pot.

Candelight, of which I am the founder, has been officially banned from taking part in the elections scheduled for July 23 because it cannot produce a notarized copy of its original registration document dating back to 1998. This document was seized by the government when it raided the headquarters of the former opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017. Candelight was allowed to contest local commune elections in June 2022 without being asked for such a document.

The real reason for banning Candlelight is simple. The party would have a real chance of winning a free and fair election. It has been barred from contesting the election just like the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by the supreme court in 2017 to prevent it contesting the 2018 national election. The US and the EU have already said that they won’t send observers to the July 2023 elections, and all countries of the free world should take the same position.

Chinese military satellite 

China is Cambodia’s largest lender, and its largest foreign investor. But the relationship between the two countries goes much further than that. China has not just invested in Cambodia, but it has penetrated the country in a deep and irreversible way, with far-reaching consequences. China needs Cambodia to turn it into a military bastion, as part of its wider expansionary strategy, and there is no way that China will release the country from its grip.

For Hun Sen, the relationship with China is not simply a matter of geopolitics or geostrategy. Hun Sen can’t survive without the Chinese model of society and government. It’s a fundamental choice on his part which the West has not fully understood. The West has labored under the illusion that it’s possible to detach Cambodia from China’s orbit. But the existential nature of the relationship means that financial or political commitments from the West won’t be able to alter it. The relationship with China is a matter of survival for the Hun Sen regime.

China needs continuity for Cambodia because the choice that Hun Sen has made to ally with Beijing is very open to being contested. China wants the political status quo, and a strong Hun Sen who relies on China to survive. But the relationship goes much further and is more complex than that. There is a close relationship with the Chinese mafia, which is not independent of the Chinese system. The mafia is a pillar of the Hun Sen regime. It resembles North Korea, where the regime survives thanks to terrorist and trafficking activity by a state-sponsored mafia. Hun Sen survives through direct Chinese aid as well as indirect aid via the Chinese mafia. Extortion and blackmail carried out online, backed up by the torture of relatives being held captive in mafia-controlled compounds, are highly profitable activities of Chinese criminals.

The will of the Cambodian people

The failure of the Paris agreements has not been due to apathy among Cambodians. This is shown by the exceptionally high turnouts in every local and national election since 1993 in which there has been even a semblance of a choice. The failure does owe something to the fact that the international community has chosen at every critical moment to continue to provide Hun Sen with international acceptance which he uses to bolster his standing at home.

Western leaders have often concluded that engaging with rogue dictators is the lesser of two evils. It is far from clear that they have understood the invisible implications within Cambodia of such a course. Dictators such as Hun Sen broadcast their international acceptance to the domestic audience and use it to underwrite their repression. The underlying message is that there is no point arguing with Hun Sen and anyone who disagrees will be imprisoned, beaten up or killed.

The reference for the implementation of the Paris Agreements should be the will of the Cambodian people. Professor Surya Subedi, then Special Rapporteur for the United Nations on the human rights situation in Cambodia, said in 2011 that the agreements “will remain relevant until their vision (for a free and democratic Cambodia) is a reality for all Cambodians.

France acknowledges Paris Agreements’ importance

There has now been an overdue change of emphasis in the French approach to Cambodia. A foreign ministry statement on May 16 called on Cambodia’s government to allow Candlelight to contest the election. The statement says that France will “continue to call for the holding of free, transparent, pluralistic elections in accordance with the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and the Cambodian Constitution.”

This is a change of emphasis since French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed Hun Sen to the Elysée in December 2022. Macron presumably thought he could wield some influence over Hun Sen by a show of acceptance. But Hun Sen repeated the pattern of behavior which he has consistently pursued over the decades by using the international set-piece to intensify his repression at home. This year he has withdrawn the license for Voice of Democracy, one of the latest independent media outlets in Cambodia and has openly threatened Candlelight members with violence. These are not empty words: Candlelight supporters have been subject to the old pattern of beatings handed out by men on motorbikes who hide their identities with helmets.

It’s unlikely that Hun Sen will be invited back to the Elysée. The French mention of the Paris Peace Agreements has much wider significance. It is the first time that a Western government has publicly referenced the agreements in at least 20 years. This may represent a sea change as the countries of the free world recognize that engaging with the Hun Sen regime is counter-productive. The softly-softly approach works no better now than it did in 1998 or 2013 or 2018. Hun Sen’s plan is to hand over power to his son Hun Manet after the pretend election in July, in flagrant disregard of the wishes of the Cambodian people. It’s time for the international community to withdraw all recognition from a regime which patently does not deserve it. 

[Photo by Facebook/ Candlelight Party]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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