The Paris Peace Accords of 1991 were a necessary step on the road to peace in Cambodia. They resolved the international dimension of the long-running Cambodian conflict.
But they did not yet bring peace to Cambodia, because internal forces still remained in conflict. Through the years 1991-97, Cambodia remained a “leopard’s skin” of urban and agricultural areas controlled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government led by Hun Sen, and inaccessible forest and mountain areas controlled by still formidable Khmer Rouge forces led by Pol Pot and, after his death, by Ta Mok.
After the ouster with Vietnamese military help of the infamous Khmer Rouge regime from Phnom Penh in 1978, Cambodia remained for the next 13 years a poor international pariah state, supported only by the Soviet bloc and Vietnam, boycotted by the West and with no UN recognition, and under attack from insurgent Khmer Rouge forces secretly supported by outside parties.
To begin the peace process in Cambodia required the agreement of all the external parties: all five UN Security Council permanent members, and Vietnam. The 1991 Paris Accords broke the deadlock of 13 years in which the Western powers and China (as King Sihanouk’s patron and protector) had ostracized the CPP government.
The arrival of a United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) saved everybody’s face. Hun Sen accepted it and stood aside, allowing his army to be disarmed, though he suspected Western trickery.
The Khmer Rouge refused to be disarmed by UNTAC. The Khmer Rouge made territorial gains when UNTAC declined to confront them militarily.
UNTAC exercised power in Cambodia for 18 months, 1992-93. It supervised free elections. The West had hoped and expected the royalist party FUNCINPEC, mostly returned refugees from Western countries, to prevail, as the self-proclaimed party of democracy. But in fact FUNCINPEC only narrowly won, gaining 58 seats versus 51 for the CPP in the 120-seat assembly.
Tense negotiations followed, supervised by King Norodom Sihanouk, who had returned as constitutional monarch. After weeks of instability, a coalition government was agreed, brokered by King Sihanouk, with his son Prince Ranariddh (the leader of FUNCINPEC) and Hun Sen as co-equal prime ministers.
This fragile peace was sustained for four years with continuing strong international diplomatic and financial support. It gave the Cambodian people breathing space and access finally to generous international aid to begin economic reconstruction.
Real progress was made in the years 1994-97, despite the continuing Khmer Rouge military threat and worsening CPP-FUNCINPEC political tension.
Both Hun Sen and Ranariddh built powerful armed bodyguard forces in preparation for feared betrayal by the other. The national government was increasingly brittle and distracted, while the CPP continued to have the loyalty of the rural people.
Fatally, Ranariddh entered secret negotiations with the Khmer Rouge. But in Cambodia, no secrets last for very long.
The long-expected fighting that broke out on the night of July 4, 1997, was planned by Ranariddh, who had prudently left the country for Thailand that same day.
I attended the US ambassador’s Fourth of July reception. I vividly remember there were no FUNCINPEC ministers present – they knew an attempted coup was in prospect. Hun Sen was on vacation with his family in Vietnam and had left his co-prime minister in charge. Several CPP ministers were present.
That night, forces loyal to FUNCINPEC led by General Nhek Hun Chhay seized key points in the city and the airport. But most of the national army remained neutral.
Forces loyal to Hun Sen regained control of the city over the next two days and Nhek Bun Chhay fled. The Khmer Rouge began to collapse and Hun Sen’s effective power in Cambodia was confirmed. A FUNCINPEC moderate, Cambodian-Australian Ung Huot, became temporary first prime minister.
Elections in July 1998, widely internationally observed, produced a decisive result in favor of the CPP. That party’s electoral position has strengthened in subsequent elections. There are still other parties but Cambodia is in effect now ruled by one major party.
Western and neighboring governments have generally accepted the reality that Hun Sen’s CPP won the power struggle with Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC.
There remain irredentist Cambodian elements outside the country who oppose Hun Sen’s tyranny, as they see it. Some Western human-rights activists continue to misunderstand what happened in Cambodia between the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the fighting in 1997 that finally resolved matters. They advocate Western sanctions against Cambodia, perhaps through Magnitsky-type legislation.
Only the Cambodian people would suffer from any such sanctions. It is time to let the past rest.
The historical facts, as seen by the majority of UN member states, are that Hun Sen respected the Paris Accords and defended their democratic outcomes within Cambodia.
Cambodia is now a prosperous, peaceful, secure and respected member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with an independent and non-aligned foreign policy, and enjoys good relations with all its larger neighbors. It is a success story for the UN Security Council and for the UNTAC peacekeeping authority.
This was not the domestic political outcome the Western powers wanted in 1991. There may still be some residual anger and bitterness in some circles that hoped-for regime change to Western-style democracy did not come to Cambodia.
But this would not be a widely held view in ASEAN countries, strong believers in national sovereignty and self-determination.