Amid the winding-down of the Cold War in early December 1987, Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Sihanouk met in the quiet northern French village of Fère-en-Tardenois for their first talks on ending Cambodia’s intractable civil war.
It was an overture that opened the road to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement – signed 25 years ago on Sunday – and followed two months after Hun Sen’s People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime had publicly outlined the details of the pact it sought.
Sihanouk would return to Phnom Penh, the PRK suggested, and take “a high place in the leading state organ” of the regime, while the Vietnamese military battling to overcome Sihanouk’s resistance forces would withdraw and let the PRK run elections.
It was the first acknowledgement that Hun Sen’s pariah republic needed the legitimacy that only the return of the popular former king could bring.
“They have come to understand that if Cambodia wants to recover its full independence, the country needs Sihanouk,” wrote Jacques Bekaert, The Bangkok Post’s correspondent in Cambodia, after the meeting, while noting the terms would never be accepted.
“They know Sihanouk is too realistic and too proud a man to accept simply joining the PRK in exchange for some mostly honorific position,” he wrote.
When the Paris Peace Agreement was finally inked on October 23, 1991, it accordingly included much more than the PRK’s original offer, promising free elections organised by the UN and a resulting liberal democracy with equal participation from all.
Yet if Hun Sen’s regime in 1987 seriously intended to secure the continuation of its total rule with the added legitimacy of a centuries-old monarchy and an opposition no longer heavily armed by foreign powers – a quarter of a century later, they have it.
Far short of the modern democracy promised in 1991, the Cambodian People’s Party – as the old PRK regime renamed itself that year – continues with its fingers deep inside every part of the state, from the courts and bureaucracy to the police and armed forces.
Indeed, from military commander-in-chief Pol Saroeun to his deputies Kun Kim and Meas Sophea to National Police chief Neth Savoeun – and even the Supreme Court’s top judge, Dith Munthy – those who occupy key state institutions are members of the CPP standing committee – the old communist politburo.
“The CPP didn’t ‘capture’ any institutions. It entered a vacuum in 1979, and held onto the institutions it had ‘owned’ since then,” David Chandler, a prominent historian of Cambodia, said yesterday, referring to the year the Khmer Rouge were toppled.
Chandler said he believed it impossible to say if the PRK ever intended to give up power to its rivals when it inked the Paris Peace Agreement – but that by the time the UN-run elections rolled around, it was clear the party knew it could hold what it had built.
“It seems clear to me that its leaders in 1992-93 had no intention of relinquishing power. They were not attracted to the concept of an open election and fully intended, like all Cambodian leaders before them, to remain in power whatever happened,” he said.
“Moreover, the UN did a poor job of replacing or disempowering the government ‘in place’ in Cambodia, which the CPP viewed as a completely legitimate institution.”
A 1994 New York Times article on the 1993 election – which Sihanouk’s son Prince Norodom Ranariddh won as leader of Funcinpec – even featured a CPP official expressing shock the royalists did not put up a fight for a real foothold in the deeper state.
“A senior official in the Interior Ministry, which controls administration down to the village level and the pervasive, Communist-style security apparatus, said People’s Party officials were in disarray when their election defeat was announced,” it said.
The official said the CPP “expected the victors to move in and claim the spoils,” according to the article. “But ... because of lack of organization, the royalists never did, and as a result the repressive Communist apparatus remained in place ‘from top to bottom.’”
The opinion was one supported yesterday by Nhek Bun Chhay, a Funcinpec military general who later served as defense minister in a coalition with the CPP, who said the former resistance was never in a position to take over or even share the levers of state.
“The CPP had a strong structure since the past – both the administration of the army and the police – this was the key factor that allowed it to run and control the country so easily up to now,” Bun Chhay said.
“Funcinpec did not have any strong structures, because we came from the border,” he said. “Therefore, we had not yet built any foundations inside the country – and secondly, there was the leadership. We did not have any clear strategies to run the country.”
“We regret that the UN spent more than $2 billion to give an opportunity to Funcinpec, which won the election, to run the country, but it was unavoidable that we could not run the country and would be left without anything.”
The absence of much effort from the UN to separate the CPP from the state it built – despite promises in the Paris Peace Agreement – also helped place the CPP in a position where it could “entrench itself in power,” said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.
The resulting imbalance of power – even as Ranariddh headed a coalition with the CPP – would later lead Funcinpec to court the last Khmer Rouge soldiers along the Thai border, angering Hun Sen and leading him to decide he had to remove the prince, Thayer said.
“This contributed to the so-called 1997 coup, the demise of Funcinpec and the entrenchment of the CPP in power,” he explained. With that, the only serious threat to the ruling party was extinguished.
“The UN’s electoral process and the political culture nurtured by the CPP were contradictory,” Thayer continued. “I have often quipped that the UN needed to conduct two consecutive elections in countries like Cambodia for democracy to take root.”
In any case, with the UN long gone, the situation that remained was that the opposition had been disarmed, the government was administering elections and Sihanouk – as king – was relegated to a ceremonial position – all as suggested by the PRK in 1987.
Hun Sen would come to assert the CPP’s vise-grip during the July 1998 election, which, like each successive election, was marred by accusations of fraud, while the UN’s human rights office verified more than 100 political killings in the year before the ballot.
The CPP has since 1993 repeatedly denied it has any control over the institutions of state meant to be neutral, and the party’s spokesman, Sok Eysan, said yesterday that the present state of Cambodia was a testament to its commitment to the 1991 deal.
“From 1993 until now in 2016 ... if we did things wrong, the country would not have such development like it does today. Therefore, our achievements are the result of implementing the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreement,” Eysan said. “That’s inarguable.”
Yet others have disagreed.
The dire results of the Cambodia democracy project led John Sanderson, the commander of the UN’s peacekeeping force for the 1993 elections, to write in 2001 that the multibillion dollar project purchased little more than the right to forget the country.
“So much was promised to the Cambodian people by the United Nations ... that it is all the more poignant they find themselves in a state which remains largely lawless some nine years after the Paris peace agreements,” Sanderson wrote.
For many, the evaluation would remain an accurate reading of the country’s present situation, even on the 25th anniversary of the landmark agreement.