UN’s Unfinished Work in Cambodia Leaves Regional Security in Danger

Flag map of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia
Credit: Дмитрий-5-Аверин / CC BY-SA

The 75th anniversary of the United Nations on Sep. 21 invites a renewed commitment to one of the organisation’s great unfinished projects, the post-war reconstruction of Cambodia.

In the twenty-first century, the UN’s website on Cambodia tells us, UN efforts there have focused on “post-conflict reconstruction, national capacity building and strengthening democracy.” These endeavours are unfinished to say the least.

The Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia in 1991 defined a system of liberal, pluralist democracy for the country. The UN took responsibility for organising an election for the first time in its history in Cambodia in 1993. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) had the job of providing a neutral political environment for the election. The signatories to the Paris agreements agreed to respect the results.

The agreements laid down detailed provisions for the conduct of the election. These included the use of the secret ballot, freedom of speech and assembly and equal party access to the media. Despite an election campaign which saw widespread violence and intimidation carried out by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), a voter turnout of more than 90 percent disproved the notion that democracy in Cambodia was a foreign invention.

The election was won by the royalist Funcinpec party led by Prince Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Ranariddh. The CPP rejected the result and Hun Sen was able to force his way into government as Cambodia’s “second” prime minister. Ranariddh, the “first” prime minister, was ousted by Hun Sen in a violent coup in 1997.

Having served in Ranariddh’s government as finance minister, I was pushed out in 1994. The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) which I founded grew in support at each  subsequent election. In 2012, the SRP merged with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to create Cambodia’s first united democratic opposition to Hun Sen’s illegitimate government, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The CNRP won 44 percent of the vote in both the national elections in 2013, and local elections in 2017. The threat that it posed to Hun Sen was clear, and led to the party being abolished by a politically subservient supreme court in November 2017.

‘Resistance Is Futile”

UNTAC’s mandate ended in September 1993 and a new Cambodian constitution was promulgated. So the anniversary of the founding of the UN is also the anniversary of a constitution that has been more honoured in the breach rather than the observance.

The first article of the constitution states that Cambodia shall be an “independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned country.” This provision has in recent years been undermined by Hun Sen in a way that damages not just Cambodia, but the wider security of the region.

Hun Sen needs foreign support to stay in power and will seek it wherever it can be found. At present, this support comes from China, which in return demands Cambodia’s support for its expansionist policies, for example in the South China Sea.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in July 2019, Cambodia and China have signed a secret deal allowing China to station armed forces at a Cambodian navy base near Sihanoukville. Military mapping experts from China made a secret visit to Cambodia in December 2019, according to ABC News in Australia. A Chinese surveillance drone that subsequently crashed in Cambodia’s southern Koh Kong province had Chinese characters written on the side, showing that it was produced by the China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation.

In June this year, Cambodia purchased 290 military trucks from China, with Hun Sen’s son and heir presumptive Hun Manet saying that the purchase did not cost Cambodia a single riel.

A report this month by the Asia Society Policy Institute called “Weaponizing the Belt and Road Initiative” highlights the extent of China’s military expansionism in Cambodia and elsewhere. The report estimates that Cambodia is in debt to China to the tune of 20 percent of its GDP, which is more than double the ratios for Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The report’s authors Daniel R. Russel and Blake H. Berger say that the Koh Kong port development has the potential to be used by China as a signal to Southeast Asia that “resistance is futile.” The U.S., the report says, may find that the ability of its navy to operate in the Gulf of Thailand, the Malacca Straits, and the Bay of Bengal is threatened.

The pattern is too clear to ignore. Basing armed forces in Cambodia would enable China to harass U.S. vessels and threaten their access to regional allies. Along with its military presence in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, China’s military presence in Cambodia sets up a potential perimeter controlling maritime access to Southeast Asia.

Ultimately, the UN can only be as strong as the commitment of its member states. The initial UN role in Cambodia was prompted by the interests of powerful national governments. Today, restraining Chinese expansionism is in the interests of all powers who aspire to peace and security in Asia. Reactivating Cambodia’s much-abused peace agreement is part of that solution.

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