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Cambodia Past and Present

Keynote Remarks by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of The Australian National University and Former Foreign Minister of Australia, to ISEAS International Conference on Cambodia: Progress and Challenges Since 1991, Singapore, 29 March 2012

Cambodia first made its claim on my heart and mind in 1968. I was travelling across Asia, as so many young Australians have, to study in the UK, and spent a few fantastic days there, staying in a very down-market hotel near the Central Market, drinking beer and eating noodles in student hangouts, and taking a wild ride in a share taxi up to Siem Riep – scattering pigs, chickens and children in villages along the way– to confront the majesty of Angkor Wat.

I had similar experiences in a number of other Asian countries, but there was something very distinctive about Cambodia. In later life I kept on running into a number of those young men and women I had met in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Nepal or Afghanistan – or people exactly like them. But I never again met any of the young Cambodians I had spent time with, or any of their contemporaries. The sad and horrible truth is that they all died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge – executed outright as middle class enemies of the state, or worked to death through malnutrition or disease out in the fields.

As the horror of the genocide unfolded, and then the protracted misery of the civil war which followed it, I made a pledge to myself that if I could ever do anything for the wonderfully kind people of this country to relieve some of that misery then I would certainly try hard to make a difference. The opportunity to do so came after I became Australian foreign minister in 1988. And of the various things I managed to achieve in the nearly eight years I held the position, nothing has given me more pleasure and pride than the contribution it is generally acknowledged that Australia made to the Paris peace agreement concluded in 1991.


Nobody should forget the extent to which Cambodia was on its knees by the late 1980s. Since 1970 the country had been ravaged successively by massive US bombing, by civil war, by a genocidal reign of terror exceeded only by the Nazis, by invasion and by civil war again, resulting overall in the deaths of some two million Cambodians and the destruction of the lives of many more. The Vietnamese invasion in November 1978 brought to an end the worst of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, but it triggered a new civil war. Recurring bloody military engagements, guerilla assaults and ambushes, the further displacement of large numbers of civilians, and the inability of life generally to return to any kind of pre-1970 normality, all took their further toll of an exhausted and suffering people.

Nor should anyone forget how complex and intractable the continuing conflict was, being played out as it was at three distinct levels. The first level was that of the warring internal factions – with Hun Sen's Government waged against a fragile coalition of the non-communist Sihanoukists and KPNLF (Son Sann) and communist Khmer Rouge, and each group was immensely distrustful of all the others. The second level was regional, with Vietnam supporting Hun Sen and ASEAN supporting his opponents. And the third level involved the great power patrons of the warring factions – with China supporting the Khmer Rouge and Prince Sihanouk; the Soviet Union supporting Hun Sen; and the United States supporting the two non-communist resistance groups.

To unravel all this, and produce out of it something resembling a durable peace - even if, as we’ll come back to later, we have not yet seen a durable, human-rights respecting democracy - was a formidable achievement indeed for the international community.

Australia's involvement in this achievement dates back to 1983, when the Hawke Government came to office in 1983 with a commitment to play a more active role in a Cambodian settlement, and from the outset the Government's Indo-China policy, under Foreign Minister Bill Hayden from 1983-88, focused on exploring the various options for a Cambodian settlement. In the late 1980s other regional countries, and in particular Indonesia, gradually sought to play a more active diplomatic role in pursuit of a solution to the Cambodian problem. The resulting Jakarta Informal Meetings (JIMs) in July 1988 and February 1989 were inconclusive: although they did result in some clearer definitions of the issues involved, there was no significant lessening of the differences among the four Cambodian factions.

But hopes for a major move forward had arisen with the announcement by Vietnam in January 1989 that it was prepared to withdraw all its troops from Cambodia by September that year. Seeking to force a breakthrough, France - the former colonial power and still a significant influence in the region – judged in mid-1989 that the time was ripe for a full international conference on Cambodia. The Paris Conference on Cambodia (PICC) was accordingly convened, with joint Indonesian-French chairmanship, in Paris in July-August 1989. This brought together all four Cambodian factions, the six ASEAN countries, the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Vietnam, Laos, Australia, Canada and India as well as Zimbabwe (representing the Non-Aligned Movement) and a representative of the UN Secretary-General.

In the event, the 1989 Paris Conference failed, but not without coming close to succeeding. A comprehensive settlement strategy was mapped out which broke down for a number of reasons, but only one of which was really crucial. One side of the conflict, the combined resistance forces of Prince Sihanouk, Son Sann and the Khmer Rouge, together with their international backers, demanded a place for each of the four internal parties, including the Khmer Rouge, in the transitional administration, but to this demand the SOC Government of Hun Sen, and its international backers, were simply not prepared to concede.

It was to break this impasse that the Australian peace proposal, which I announced in outline in the Australian Senate on 24 November 1989, was put forward. So as to side-step the power-sharing issue which had bedevilled the Paris Conference, and constrain the role of the Khmer Rouge in the transitional arrangements, we proposed that the United Nations be directly involved in the civil administration of Cambodia during the transitional period. There should be, we said, a UN military presence to monitor the cease-fire and cessation of external military assistance; a UN role in organising and conducting elections; and UN involvement in the transitional administrative arrangements to ensure a neutral political environment conducive to fair and free general elections. At the heart of the idea of giving an unprecedentedly central role to the United Nations, not just in peacekeeping or electoral monitoring, but in the actual governance of the country during the transitional period, was that this would give China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support from the Khmer Rouge, which would then wither on the vine. And it was essentially this solution – although there was a long diplomatic road ahead with many twists and turns - which unlocked the conflict and brought long-awaited and desperately needed peace to the country.

Where did the idea of major United Nations involvement in a transitional administration come from? It was not in itself completely new – Prince Sihanouk had for example as early as March 1981, and occasionally subsequently, raised the idea of some form of United Nations trusteeship – but the degree of detail with which the concept was subsequently developed, and the effort with which it was pursued, certainly was new. The crucial figure in late 1989 was my old friend, the US Congressman Stephen Solarz (who sadly died of cancer in two years ago), who had developed the idea in broad outline, but had been unable until then to get anyone in Washington to take it seriously, and suggested it to me in a meeting we had in the living room of the Australian permanent representative to the UN.  I remember the senior diplomat sitting in on that meeting being a little less impressed than I was by the Solarz idea, saying as we left the building: “I have to say, Minister, that that is the greatest load of poppycock I have ever heard”. But, not being the world’s most docile receive of bureaucratic advice, I decided to test the idea out anyway, and in the process we seem to have made some of the history that brings us to this conference today.

In advocating a very substantially enhanced UN role in the settlement, we knew we were being ambitious. The United Nations was well enough experienced in peace-keeping operations and monitoring elections, but had not up to that time had a role in the civil administration of one of its member states, nor primary responsibility for organising and conducting elections as distinct from monitoring them. Moreover, conditions within Cambodia – including the potentially fragile character of any cease-fire, the difficulty of monitoring guerrilla forces, and the lack of developed transport and communications infrastructure – meant that the overall UN operation would be much more difficult than had been experienced in most other situations.

There could be no absolute guarantee that, if it accepted the peace plan, the Khmer Rouge would not simply resume fighting after the transitional period (and indeed, as we now know, the Khmer Rouge did in fact walk away from the agreement, making the period leading up to the 1993 incredibly tense). But there were two crucial new factors that would minimize this risk. First, China would give an international legal undertaking to cease arms supply to the Khmer Rouge, would be under close international scrutiny to uphold that undertaking, and could be reasonably expected to honour it. The second consideration was that the new Cambodian administration would be accepted by the international community as the government of the country and was likely to receive substantial economic, social and technical assistance during the rehabilitation and reconstruction process envisaged under the comprehensive settlement. Taken together, these factors would mean that the newly elected Cambodian government would be in a much better position than its predecessor to withstand any renewed challenge from the Khmer Rouge.

The initial response to my November 1989 statement laying out the proposal for a major UN role was nothing less than remarkable. It very quickly became clear that the idea, spelled out in the way I have just done, was one whose time had come. Within a matter of weeks, most of the participants at the Paris Conference had given it varying degrees of public, as well as private, endorsement. This process was considerably assisted by an extraordinary feat of diplomatically effective endurance by Michael Costello, then the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Deputy Secretary. I had tasked him early in December 1989 to pay a quick visit to Hanoi - in between talks scheduled on other matters in Hawaii and Tokyo - to take preliminary soundings. This initial detour turned into a series of thirty major meetings with key players in thirteen countries over a period of just twenty-one days. During the course of this odyssey the Australian 'idea' became a fully fledged Australian 'initiative' or 'plan' as we constantly refined and developed the detailed elements of the proposal and responded to suggestions or criticisms from our various interlocutors.

Particularly encouraging was the positive reaction of the United States Administration, which had already initiated with the Soviet Union in late 1989 a proposal to join the other three Permanent Members of the Security Council in a series of consultations on Cambodia. Representatives of the Permanent Five met in Paris in mid-January 1990 and agreed by consensus on a set of sixteen principles which would form the basis of their future discussions. Those principles included – I don’t think entirely coincidentally – strong endorsement of the concept of an enhanced United Nations role in the transitional period. The January meeting was significant in another sense. It marked the start of a two-track international approach to the Cambodia problem – the Permanent Five process and the Paris Conference process – between which a productive interaction was subsequently maintained.

By late January 1990, Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas (an absolutely central figure in the Cambodian peace story, whose death four years ago we particularly mourn on occasions like this) who as Co-Chairman of the Paris Conference had been exploring the possibility of an informal regional meeting on Cambodia, felt sufficiently encouraged to convene a meeting in Jakarta on 26-28 February involving the four Cambodian parties, Vietnam and Laos and the ASEAN countries. In recognition of the contribution we were making to the peace process, Australia was invited to attend as a resource delegation.

In preparation for the Jakarta Informal Meeting on Cambodia (IMC), an Australian technical mission visited Cambodia, Bangkok and the Thai-Cambodia border area in the first half of  February 1990 to gather further information on administrative structures and other data necessary to develop a full United Nations role in Cambodia. At the Jakarta Meeting, ten days later, a 155-page series of Working Papers, incorporating the technical mission's findings and covering in some detail all the necessary elements of a comprehensive settlement were distributed. Needless to say, we were rather busy in Canberra that month! The Papers were subsequently published as Cambodia: an Australia Peace Proposal – which became known as the "Red Book", so-called from the colour of its binding.

The Red Book papers outlined in detail the roles proposed for the United Nations in civil administration; in organising and conducting elections; and in maintaining a secure environment in which Cambodians might exercise their electoral choice free from fear, intimidation and violence. The Papers also explored a range of costings. Conventional wisdom had it that such an exercise would be beyond the resources of the United Nations, but our indicative calculations showed that such a proposal – which we estimated would cost US$1.3 billion for 18 months – was both practicable and affordable. (It is interesting to note that the actual cost of the UNTAC operation when eventually put into place, for the two year period from November 1991 to November 1993, was $US 1.7 billion – remarkably close to our original guesstimate: although a number of details of the plan had by then changed.)

The February 1990 Jakarta Meeting came very close to reaching agreement on a statement of principles providing for an enhanced role for the United Nations in a comprehensive settlement, but in the end it just failed to do so. Consensus, very frustratingly, broke down on the question of whether the agreed record should make specific reference to 'the prevention of recurrence of genocidal policies and practices'. While the outcome was disappointing in that regard – to put it gently – the meeting did begin a process of consensus-building which ultimately bore fruit in the Paris Peace Conference of the following year.

Steady diplomatic progress was made throughout the rest of 1990 in the refinement and development of the Australian-initiated plan, with the Permanent Five and the Paris Conference Co-Chairmen in close consultation with the UN Secretariat very much playing the central role, and Australia, dropping back to the sidelines (as the key US negotiator, Richard Solomon, has been reminding me ever since), though still active largely because of the close personal and professional relationship I had developed with Ali Alatas.  The Permanent Five held six major consultative meetings on the subject from January on, reaching agreement in New York in late August on a 'framework' document setting out the key elements of a comprehensive political settlement, based on an enhanced UN role, in a skillful and judicious balance of the various interests involved.

Then, at a meeting in Jakarta in early September 1990, hosted by Indonesia and France as Paris Conference Co-Chairmen, the four Cambodian parties accepted this Permanent Five framework in its entirety as a basis for settling the Cambodian conflict, and agreed to establish a Supreme National Council (SNC) – part of the original Australian proposal, and called for in the framework – which would, among other things occupy the Cambodian seat in the United Nations.

The next step was for the United Nations itself to endorse the basic elements of the peace plan, which it did in Security Council and General Assembly Resolutions in September and October 1990.  The last of the settlement building blocks to be put in place was the preparation of a detailed negotiating text. Agreement was reached on the form and structure of such a text at a Working Group Meeting in Jakarta in early November, hosted by the Paris Conference Co-Chairmen, for which Australia had prepared and circulated a full draft negotiating text. The meeting gave a mandate to its Co-Chairmen to complete the draft: their representatives, and the Secretary-General’s, met with Permanent Five officials in late November and reached consensus on a full draft comprehensive agreement. By the end of 1990, then, all the necessary foundations had been laid.

As 1991 dawned, there seemed likely to be a relatively swift and painless run home to the tape. But despite all the momentum and expectations generated over the long months since the Australian plan was first put on the table in November 1989, the process faltered and seemed –  five months into the year –  in danger of stalling completely, with Phnom Penh, supported by Hanoi, expressing a series of reservations about the Permanent Five negotiating text.

Despair, however, was as premature as celebration would have been in 1990. A rush of events in the middle of 1991 injected immense new life into the settlement process. Prince Sihanouk emerged from months of self-imposed isolation and formed an improbable liaison with Hun Sen which, being with the apparent approval of China, pushed the Khmer Rouge into something of a corner. He convened a meeting of the SNC in Pattaya, Thailand in late June (the first since its notional formation the previous September), and at that meeting brokered a series of agreements between the four Cambodian parties.

Crucially, all the Cambodian parties at Pattaya reiterated their support for the Permanent Five framework, and for a comprehensive settlement in which the United Nations would have a central role. There remained many issues of detail – not least the question of interim enforcement of the ceasefire and arms cessation agreements, and resolution of the demobilisation question which was continuing to worry Hun Sen's SOC. But there was general agreement on a course of future meetings to address these issues – involving, again, the Paris Conference Co-Chairman, the Permanent Five, and ultimately the reconvened Paris Conference.

Finally, the Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict were signed on 23 October 1991 by the four Cambodian parties and the international participants at the Paris Conference on Cambodia. The settlement committed the Cambodian parties and those supporting them to a permanent ceasefire, the holding of free and fair elections, and the adoption of a new democratic constitution – all under the supervision of the United Nations through the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).


But peacemaking is never over until it’s over, and the crucial necessity now became for the Paris Agreements to be effectively implemented. On 28 February 1992 the UN Security Council approved the overall plan for UNTAC which called for 15 900 military personnel, 3600 civilian police and 1020 administrative personnel: 34 nations contributed to the military operation and 45 to the peace keeping exercise overall, a breathtakingly large commitment from the international community in terms of anything that had gone before.

The first UNTAC units arrived in Cambodia in mid-March 1992, accompanied by the Secretary-General's Special Representative, Yasushi Akashi, and the Australian commander of the military component, Lieutenant General John Sanderson, whose outstandingly professional leadership was, in the judgement of many observers more objective than me, absolutely crucial to the success of the UNTAC operation.

Trouble was not long in coming. By June 1992 it became apparent that one of the central elements of the comprehensive settlement would not be fully implemented due to the refusal of the Khmer Rouge to canton and disarm their troops. Breaches of the ceasefire also occurred, though on a relatively small scale. More troubling were attacks directed at UNTAC civilian and military personnel. A reason cited by the Khmer Rouge for their intransigence was that Hun Sen's SOC retained control of their administrative structures: certainly it was the case that the UN Civil Administration component was deployed far too slowly, and never in fact became the confident monitoring and neutrality-guaranteeing body that it had been intended to be.

The Khmer Rouge never did cooperate with UNTAC or show any willingness to participate in the UN organised elections. Despite this, and the violence which characterised the electoral campaign (not instigated only by the Khmer Rouge), the general atmosphere was judged sufficiently neutral for the elections to proceed. This they did from 23-27 May 1993, with an almost 90 per cent turnout and, to everyone's surprise and delight, almost no violent disruptions. I don't think I have ever been more moved than when I saw those first satellite pictures of men, women and children lined up at the polling stations in their scores of thousands, knowing the risk of bomb attack, but thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives.

The results brought a further surprise, the clear winner being Sihanouk's FUNCINPEC, with Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) coming second. Hun Sen – in a foretaste of what was to come – absolutely refused to accept this, and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement was eventually adopted, with the new Government headed by Sihanouk's son, Prince Ranariddh as 'First Prime Minister', and Hun Sen as 'Second Prime Minister', with mainly FUNCINPEC and CPP Co-Ministers in each portfolio.

We have to acknowledge that by no means did everything go perfectly with the UNTAC operation. Obvious lessons to be learned were the fundamental need for greater flexibility within UN Headquarters and in the field to get an operation up and running and to deal more rapidly with significant changes in conditions. There were also, as I have just said, serious weaknesses in the actual implementation of what was in many ways the most innovative single element of the Paris Plan, i.e. the civil administration function.

It is also clear, in retrospect, that the Paris Agreements should have included specific measures for building a functioning criminal justice system as part of the transitional period and post-conflict peace-building exercise, as the rule of law, and institutions needed to support it, had clearly broken down in Cambodia. If a peacekeeping force is given a mandate to guard against human rights violations, but there is no functioning system to bring violators to justice - even those who violate others' right to life - then not only is the UN force's mandate to that extent unachievable, but its whole operation is likely to have diminished credibility, both locally and internationally.

Despite all the setbacks and deficiencies, the UN-supervised settlement did achieve its principal aims. It succeeded in removing the Cambodian conflict as a source of regional tension; it enabled Vietnam to enter into much more productive relations regionally and internationally; external patrons, not least China with the Khmer Rouge, withdrew 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 from the Thai border were successfully repatriated; the path was cleared for Cambodia to assume its rightful place in the community of nations; and reconstruction could at last begin.


At the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991 I said in the course of my speech: "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 else, the observance of human rights."

The truth of that observation has been amply demonstrated in the course of events since 1993. The democratic process has remained fragile, the biggest shock coming with Hun Sen's coup in July 1997, but with plenty of other things to be legitimately concerned about before and since, including the continued obstacles put in the way of Sam Rainsy and his party operating as a full-throated opposition voice, and in the case of Sam Rainsy himself, even being able to be present in the country. It is unhappily not an exaggeration to describe Cambodia today as a de facto one-party state.  

The legal system is still in very poor shape, with far too many still having a sense of impunity, that they can do just about anything without the justice system touching them, and continuing troubling signs of politicization of the courts. Not coincidentally, there has been a long and tortuous process involved in bringing to justice the main perpetrators of the 1970s genocide, in the hybrid national-international tribunal set up for this purpose. I am not as critical as some of the decision by the government not to continue the prosecutions beyond the present core surviving leadership group – including Khieu Sampan, with whom I had personally many negotiating sessions (a disconcerting experience when you stop to think of the magnitude of the slaughter for which he had shared responsibility) –  but it is hard not to be deeply unimpressed by the political gamesmanship and lack of evidently sincere commitment to the process over many years.

When we set in train the UN peace plan for Cambodia in 1989 it was with a three part agenda, the hope being to deliver not just peace, but democracy and human rights as well. I suspected at the time that we were being a little optimistic on the latter two objectives, and this has absolutely proved to be the case.

That doesn’t diminish the scale of the original achievement: what was desperately needed was a return to some semblance of normality, after years of the most horrific violence, and the peace process did deliver that. Despite all the John Pilgers and other sceptics who blasted me at the time, loudly proclaiming that the Australian-initiated peace process was playing into the hands of the Khmer Rouge, our confidence that it would lead to their eventual disintegration has been absolutely vindicated. One of the best bits of evidence that the wheel has turned is that Cambodia is now making a really significant contribution to UN peacekeeping in various parts of the world. From receiving blue berets to stabilize the country to sending blue berets to stabilize other countries is one hell of a full circle to turn!

And this peace in turn has made possible the gradual revival of confidence in the economy, to the extent that Cambodia is now one of the success stories of the region. I have to say that when I visited Phnom Penh two years ago, after a long time away, I could really sense the spirit of confidence and vitality in the air. Phnom Penh looks and feels very different, and very much more vibrant, than the city struggling to find its feet I knew two decades ago.

But all that said, the glass is still only at best half full. In democracy and human rights terms, Cambodia still has a long way to go before it can stand proudly in the ranks of those nations who can credibly claim to fully respect both. It is crucial, for this reason, for civil society activists in Cambodia to main their commitment to effective change; crucial for we in the rest of the world to give them all the support their commitment, and courage, deserves; and crucial that the spotlight of close and informed scrutiny continue to shine on the state and its leadership at high level expert conferences like this, which it has given me great nostalgic pleasure to be invited to address.