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Peace, Democracy and Human Rights in Cambodia: Keeping the flame alive

Address to Australian South East Asian Network Cambodia Legacy Event, Parliament House, Canberra, 28 November 2022

I am honoured to have been invited by Sawathey Ek and his colleagues from the Australian South East Asian Network to participate in this event commemorating the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, and recognising the contribution of so many political and other colleagues in keeping alive not only the flame of peace, but of democracy and human rights, that was lit three decades ago.

Australia can remain proud of the role we played in bringing peace to Cambodia. No people in the world then cried out more for peace, or more deserved it, with the country ravaged for years before by massive US bombing during the Vietnam War, by civil war, by the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, and then by civil war again following the invasion and installation of Hun Sen’s government by Vietnam. These onslaughts – above all the horrific Khmer Rouge genocide – caused the deaths of some two million Cambodians and effectively destroyed the lives of a great many more.

Every attempt through the 1980s to bring this suffering and misery to an end failed, essentially as a result of the labyrinth of intractable differences which existed between Cambodia’s warring internal parties, their respective regional backers, and the big powers. The US supported ASEAN and the royalists, Russia supported Vietnam (not then a member of ASEAN) and Hun Sen, and China supported the communist Khmer Rouge. Nobody would compromise. Nobody could agree on anything.

Australia initiated in 1989 the diplomatic strategy that finally worked - essentially by designing an unprecedentedly hands-on role for the United Nations in the governing of the country through a transitional period, which gave China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support for the Khmer Rouge, without having to directly yield power to Hun Sen or the royalists and their respective backers.

  • We did the diplomatic hard yards in translating what at the beginning was just an idea into a workable strategy – particularly with the extraordinary odyssey conducted by then DFAT Deputy Secretary Michael Costello, testing the viability of our idea in thirty major meetings with key players in thirteen countries over a period of just twenty-one days.
  • We did the hard yards in turning broad concepts into detailed operational plans in the ‘Red Book’, still widely remembered by Cambodians, which we prepared for the crucial Jakarta Informal Meeting of February 1990 chaired by my friend and colleague Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, with whom we worked hand in glove throughout.
  • And General John Sanderson’s leadership of the UNTAC military mission during the critical 1991-93 transition period, was crucial to its success.

The UN peace plan did achieve its principal peacemaking aims. External patrons, above all China with the Khmer Rouge, did withdraw material support for the various political groupings, sucking away the oxygen that had sustained civil war for so long. The more than 365, 000 displaced Cambodians were successfully repatriated from the Thai border. The Cambodian conflict was removed as a source of regional tension. It became possible for Vietnam to enter into much more productive relations regionally and internationally. Cambodia’s reconstruction could at last begin, and the path was cleared for it to assume its own rightful place in the community of nations.

But, as I said when representing Australia as our Foreign Minister at the signing of the Paris Peace Accords 1991, 'Peace and Freedom are not prizes, which, once gained, can never be lost. They must be won again each day. Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all, the observance of human rights.'

Sadly, the truth of that observation has been borne out repeatedly over the last three decades. We brought peace to Cambodia, and with it some overdue national economic development. But as to democracy and human rights – the other two core elements of the Paris Agreements – the record has been one of dismal failure.

The rot set in early. The 1993 election was a brilliant success, with 90 per cent turnout. It was an incredibly moving experience to watch those voters in family groups – everyone from grannies to new babies – lined up for hours at polling stations across the country knowing the high risk of bomb attacks, but with so much joyful confidence in the future. But it did not result in the expected win for Hun Sen and his governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). He refused to accept the result, and the international community – far too meekly, I have to say with the wisdom of hindsight– allowed him to become joint prime minister. It was the last fully free and fair election Cambodia was to hold.

Hun Sen has been clever and utterly ruthless. Within a short time he had vanquished his opponents and taken steps to ensure no opposition party could meaningfully contest his leadership. And over the years that have passed, the CPP has become synonymous with corruption, land evictions, control of the judiciary and army, political repression, wide scale arrests and imprisonment, physical threats to those protesting the loss of human rights – and, on occasion, outright murder, including the brazen daylight shooting of Kem Lay in 2016.

Any pretence of commitment to genuine democracy vanished with the arrest and banning of Kem Sokha in 2017, the following puppet-court banning of the main opposition party CNRP and the reassignment of its assembly seats to government supporters, the continued persecution of Sam Rainsy and the imminent likely banning now -- repeating history before the 2023 election – of the Candlelight Party he founded.

If Cambodia is to have the democratic, rights- respecting future it so obviously needs and deserves, I believe the greatest hope lies with its own people, backed up with support and pressure not so much from the UN and other multilateral organisations, which have largely gone missing since the early 1990s, but individual countries with political leaders genuinely committed to human rights and democracy and who are capable of exercising some influence.

Cambodia’s people both at home and abroad, including the diaspora here in Australia, have shown extraordinary courage and resilience in the face of adversity, and – whenever they have had the chance – that they want above all the restoration of decent governance. With a median age of twenty-five, its population the youngest of any South East Asian country, the country has wonderful potential. And younger generation leaders have continued to struggle, against almost impossible odds, to keep the flames of justice alight. The story of Cambodia’s many brave human rights defenders is superbly told in Sue Coffey’s book, Seeking Justice in Cambodia: it is really important that this story continue to be told, and that its message of hope gets through to the next generation.

Beyond their own resources and commitment, what the Cambodian people really need is external support, not just in the form of sympathetic resolutions from multilateral forums, and not just moral support of the other regional diaspora communities hosting this evening’s event. They need hard practical measures from individual countries that can put real pressure on Hun Sen and those around him to modify their behaviour. This means in particular, in the context of the next general election in 2023, pressure to reverse the ban on the CNRP and its leaders, to not touch the Candlelight Party, and to enable the genuine exercise of universal civil and political rights across the whole community.

Targeted individual sanctions against key regime members and their families – basically asset freezes and other financial restrictions, and visa bans – are the most useful forms of such pressure. After dragging its feet for years, Australia with the passage of our own ‘Magnitsky Act’ has made easier the application of such sanctions in human rights cases.

We have been a world-leader in the past in supporting the Cambodian people in their yearning for life and liberty. With their basic rights and freedoms now more imperilled than they have been since the end of the Khmer Rouge genocide, it is time for our voice, along voices from many other countries, to be once again strongly heard. I have great confidence that with the presence among us of so many political leaders committed to this cause, that voice will be heard and that it will matter.

But at the end of the day it is the voice of the Cambodian people, both at home and abroad, that will matter most. I also have enormous confidence that, with the continuing commitment of so many Cambodians, including those participating in this event, there will prevail that strong majority will for decency and dignity, for genuine democracy and genuine respect for human rights that so obviously exists, and that Cambodia will in fact at last become the country we all wanted it to be when we finally put to rest the ravages of genocide and civil war thirty years ago.