F IVE years on from the Paris Peace Agreements, it is time to lay to rest arguments
about Western concepts being imposed on Cambodia, according to Dr Lao Mong Hay of
the Khmer Institute of Democracy.
"This is the turning point," Mong Hay said of the Oct 23 fifth anniversary
of the agreements' signing. "There is no more debate about the so-called Westerness
of the agreements, of the democratic model which Cambodia should follow in the future."
Mong Hay said that two Cambodians in particular - Hun Sen and then Prince Norodom
Sihanouk - had played major roles in spurring the peace process which led to the
Paris agreements, and both publicly acknowledged their roles.
There was no room for confusion over Cambodia's system of administration: the peace
agreements, which were binding on their signatories, specified a liberal, pluralistic
To say that this represented 'Western' ideals being imposed on Cambodia was nonsense,
Mong Hay said.
"The principles of democracy and of human rights have moral and ethical origins
in Cambodia's history - in Cambodia's religion, literature, folk stories...
"There is no question about this. This issue has been settled," declared
Mong Hay, speaking after a three-day symposium in Phnom Penh to mark the Paris agreements
Kassie Neou, of the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights, touched on the same issue
in a paper presented to the symposium.
Referring to authors who contended that "Cambodia is not fertile soil for human
rights and democracy," Neou acknowledged that "in one sense, the authors
have a point.
"The Cambodian people have for over a thousand years been governed by most dictatorial
regimes. There are also strong hierarchical aspects to traditional society..."
However, he argued, "there are important concepts in traditional Cambodian culture
which reflect respect for human rights and democracy, and which only need to be emphasized
and developed to flourish."
Most notable was Theravada Buddhism, "in which many, if not all, of the basic
human rights found in international law find expression in one form of another...
"For example, the Buddhist injunction against killing is, in its effect, the
same as the right to life. The Buddhist prohibition on doing harm surely prohibits
torture. The injunction against theft recognizes property rights, and so on.
"The entire notion of mutual respect embedded in traditional Cambodian culture
is one that naturally leads to treating others with dignity and with due regard for
"Similarly, the concept of democracy, or making decisions by consensus, is an
old one among...monks in Theravada Buddhism. At village level as well, a customary
way of making decisions, on a community development project for example, is for the
villagers to meet, discuss the issue and reach agreements. This is, in essence, grass-roots
Mong Hayand Neou's references to culture highlighted the long-standing debate over
so-called Asian versus Western ideals, and the effects of the Paris agreements and
the subsequent United Nations-sponsored elections in Cambodia.
The Phnom Penh symposium, organized by the Center for Advanced Study and 13 other
organizations, was attended by politicians, officials, academics, NGOs and foreign
diplomats. It focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the peace process, particularly
the UN operation, and the gains since made by Cambodia.
The Prime Ministers, in speeches to the symposium, delivered their own judgments
on the 1993 UNTAC elections.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh was fulsome in his praise of the peace agreements, the UN
elections and the "concrete progress" made in the past five years.
Hun Sen praised the "noble" work done by Cambodians and foreigners to bring
peace to Cambodia - and also used the symposium as an opportunity to request the
return of the 1993 ballot papers from the UN. Hun Sen has repeatedly alleged voting
irregularities in the election.
In a report on "successes and shortcomings" of UNTAC, Chea Vannath of the
Center for Social Development highlighted lessons to be learnt from the $2 billion
The UN's principle task in the run-up to the 1993 election - to create a "neutral
political environment" - became impossible in an atmosphere of fear, intimidation
and political assassination, Vannath wrote.
She argued that from the outset of UNTAC the odds were stacked against the four Cambodian
factions - and particularly the Khmer Rouge - receiving impartial treatment from
UNTAC failed to meet its mandate to control and supervise the key administrative
areas of foreign affairs, finance, information, defense and the interior.
The former State of Cambodia government continued to make millions of dollars from
corruption "or other informal channels", to sign foreign business deals,
issue passports and discriminate against officials and supporters of the other factions.
On the impact of UNTAC's presence on Cambodia society, Vannath noted the increase
in prostitution, and subsequent spread of Aids, which followed the arrival of 22,000
She also argued that traditional Khmer Buddhist culture was eroded by foreign influences
which flowed freely into Cambodia.
Vannath concluded that Cambodia "still has progress to make towards enhancing
its moral values and development, towards developing a civil society and towards
creating a neutral political environment to allow free and fair elections in 1998."
Kassie Neou, in a paper on democracy and human rights since the Paris agreements,
urged a long-term approach through education to make further achievements.
While noting considerable gains since the 1993 election, the paper highlighted freedom
of the press and political pluralism as two key areas of concern.
The papers' recommendations included that the government consider establishing a
human rights office, similar to that of an ombudsman in other countries.
It also strongly urged the international community to "stay engaged in Cambodia".
Noting that the building of democracy and human rights would take at least a generation,
it said that "one externally-organized election is not a democratic transformation."
In particular, it urged that education programs for the 1998 election, involving
the government, local NGOs and the international community, start immediately.
Diplomat Jacques Bekaert, of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, in a paper on
"Envisioning Cambodia in the 21st Century", also urged the world not to
give up on Cambodia.
Noting that it seemed "fashionable in the West" to claim that the money
spent by the world on Cambodia had been poorly spent," Bekaert said that significant
democratic gains had been made in the past five years.
It would still take more time for "the enemies of yesterday" to accept
and trust each other, he said, adding: "It would be very wrong for the international
community to abandon Cambodia simply because it does not like everything it sees
in the country. The revival of Cambodia, the reconstruction of Cambodia, and I am
talking of moral as well of material reconstruction, can only take place if Cambodia
is not left alone."
For the Cambodian government, Bekaert highlighted the need for an effective, credible
taxation system to help raise "impossibly low salaries" and fund education,
health and agriculture.
But along with economic development, he also stressed the need for a revival of Cambodia's
culture, beyond simply "preserving the glorious monuments of the past or providing
tourists with a glimpse of traditional music and dance."
In a "morally exhausted" country wracked by a quarter century of war, "a
moral, cultural, spiritual rehabilitation" of Cambodia was perhaps most urgent
"All the money poured in the country by the international community, all the
effort of those courageous and often exemplary Cambodians who work hard for their
fellow human beings and their country will come to very little if there is not a
passionate effort to develop a greater sense of moral urgency among those responsible
for the destiny, for the future of the country," Bekaert said.
"...Parents, teachers, religious and civil leaders can play their role, should
play their role, in providing the kind of example that will convince the younger
generation that there is more to life than mobile telephones, bodyguards and expensive
cognac and flashy jewels."