Cambodia: The Elusive Peace Dividend
Cambodia: The Elusive Peace Dividend
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict
Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 8 / Asia

Cambodia: The Elusive Peace Dividend

Almost a decade after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, Cambodia is at peace and the government is at last secure enough to contemplate the trials of some Khmer Rouge leaders.

Almost a decade after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements,[fn]Nineteen countries signed the Agreements:  Australia, Brunei, Canada, the People’s Republic of China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the USSR, the United Kingdom, the United States, Vietnam and (representing the Non-Aligned Movement) YugoslaviaHide Footnote Cambodia is at peace and the government is at last secure enough to contemplate the trials of some Khmer Rouge leaders.  The country has a coalition government that is stable, has reclaimed its seat at the United Nations (UN), and has become a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  It is posting 4 per cent annual economic growth rates and making modest strides in economic reform.  Clearly the country has moved forward: it is intact, it is without internal or external threats, and it has the necessary framework for good government.

Given the gulf that existed between the political groupings of Cambodia in 1991 when the Paris Accords were signed, and the lack of a liberal, democratic tradition in the country, the existence of a stable coalition government by the year 2000 could be seen as an important first step in achieving the potential offered by the 1991 settlement.  But this judgment must remain considerably clouded given the systematic resort to political violence and abuse of process by key players to get to this point.  Cambodian politicians could have done better.  There is peace but the majority of Cambodians are still waiting for their peace dividend, and many believe that it will never come.  Social welfare is virtually non-existent and the national economy has little prospect of supporting the growing adult population. 

Cambodia remains a strongman’s state, replete with lawlessness, human rights abuses, grinding poverty, bloated security forces and an economy thriving on prostitution, narcotics trafficking, land grabbing and illegal logging.  The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has now achieved long-sought legitimacy but this has come essentially by default – by marginalising political opposition, wearing down donors and diplomats, and maintaining a lock on power through the military and local government offices.

The government has pledged itself to an ambitious agenda for growth and reform, yet it remains to be seen whether the CPP will deliver.  There is considerable room to believe that the CCP’s public commitment in a donors’ meeting in Tokyo in February 1999 to a program of political reform and social welfare is disingenuous.  In the most important areas of necessary reform foreshadowed in 1991, the government has made little progress.  The likelihood of large-scale violence or a collapse of government control is relatively low, but all parties cannot ignore the cumulative effects of ongoing abuses by the ruling party or the potentially explosive issues on the horizon.  Economic inequalities are increasing, and are being met more frequently with public protests against land grabbing and corruption.  Tensions within the armed forces are being exacerbated by attempts to reduce the size of the forces, while attempts to replace old guard local officials may unleash violence against their opponents.  One of the most sensitive, if not potentially traumatic, issues is the question of a tribunal for the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership.  The ruling party cannot agree within itself on the way forward, and any decision will elicit strong public response.  The government has yet to show consistent leadership on any of these major issues despite its commitment to donors to do so. 

The international community, deeply involved in pushing Cambodia to the horrors of 1975 and then in trying to bring it back, bears a particular responsibility for the state of the country.  Those who signed the 1991 Peace Agreements can take credit for finally drawing the teeth of the Khmer Rouge and bringing an end to the civil war, and those who have kept the country financially solvent in subsequent years can take much of the credit for the limited gains made.  But they should all be now honestly reviewing their role in creating and subsidizing the government that today controls the country.

ICG’s previous report on Cambodia[fn]‘Back from the Brink’, 26 January 1999. This report, like all ICG reports, is available on the website Footnote  emphasised the importance of breaking the cycle of impunity, stepping up preparations for local elections and reforming public finances by shifting excessive military spending to social sectors.  These recommendations still hold, although none has been addressed effectively by the Cambodian government or the donor community.

Phnom Penh/Brussels, 11 August 2000

Report 215 / Asia

Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict

The violent border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia earlier this year have challenged the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to turn its rhetoric into action, but to achieve peace and security more robust diplomacy is required to end a still unresolved conflict.

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Border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia that caused dozens of casualties and displaced thousands have challenged the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to finally turn its rhetoric on peace and security into action. Cambodia’s successful attempt to list the Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site came against the backdrop of turmoil in Thai politics after the 2006 coup that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thai pro-establishment movements used this issue to whip up nationalist sentiments against Cambodia as they tried to topple the Thaksin-backed government. The emotionally-charged campaigns halted border demarcation and sparked a bilateral conflict. In early 2011, the dispute turned into the most violent clash yet between ASEAN’s members, testing its historical commitment to non-aggression and prompting it to get involved. This has raised expectations that it might live up to its stated aspiration to keep peace in its own region. As yet, however, while its engagement set important precedents, it has no significant achievements. More robust diplomacy and leadership are still needed.

The resurgence of a largely forgotten 50-year dispute into an active armed conflict was related to two events: the colour-coded struggle in Thailand between the pro-establishment “Yellow Shirts” and the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” sparked after Thaksin’s ouster in the September 2006 coup; and the decision of Cambodia to register Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, which UNESCO accepted in July 2008. In Cambodia, the listing was occasion for national joy and Khmer pride. In Thailand, the ultra-nationalist Yellow Shirts used it to argue that Thaksin’s proxy administration led by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had sold out their motherland and committed treason. It became a powerful weapon to further their agenda, forcing the foreign minister to resign and destabilising the government. They successfully portrayed backing for the listing as a move to further Thaksin’s business interests, despite this policy having been supported by the previous military-installed administration. Until the Yellow Shirts’ attacks, bureaucrats on both sides had seen the listing as a mutual tourism bonanza.

The frontier became increasingly militarised and tense. Border survey and demarcation ground to a halt, as it became too dangerous to field joint teams. At the same time, political turmoil in Thailand led to a high turnover of foreign ministers and other senior officials. Nationalist lawsuits, controversial court rulings and constitutional provisions hamstrung the efforts of officials to negotiate and poisoned the bilateral relationship. Frustrated by this inaction and these obstructionist tactics, Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, often lashed out and on one occasion appointed Thaksin as an adviser – an episode that was the political low point of a troubled period.

Despite the warning signs between 2008 and 2010, passivity rather than active peacemaking was the “ASEAN way”. After the outbreak of hostilities in 2011, the UN Security Council set a precedent by referring the issue back to ASEAN and its then chair, Indonesia, which showed how energetic and bold leadership could bring the association closer to what [some of] its supporters wished it might be. ASEAN broke more new ground after both sides agreed to receive teams of Indonesian observers to monitor a ceasefire.

Thailand’s civilian leaders initially agreed to the deployment but backtracked after its military resisted, claiming the observers would undermine sovereignty, a sign that the post-coup struggle for power is unresolved. Cambodia approved them in May, but Indonesia would not dispatch its monitors until both sides signed on. The election of Yingluck Shinawatra as Thailand’s prime minister in July 2011 was expected to be a turning point, but was not. Even a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that ordered the creation of a provisional demilitarised zone around the temple and called on ASEAN to monitor a troop withdrawal did not remove political obstacles. Then in October, Thailand was crippled by the worst flooding in living memory, leaving the government overwhelmed. With the waters now subsiding, Thailand and Cambodia need to recommit to complying with the ICJ decision as soon as possible.

ASEAN aimed to stop hostilities and restart negotiations when it took up the border issue in early 2011. While there has been no fighting on the border since May, the ceasefires in place are mostly verbal and unsigned. Until troops are verifiably withdrawn and diplomats resume negotiations, this conflict is not over. But in trying to resolve it, ASEAN, under Indonesia’s leadership, has laid out a methodology for dealing with future disputes. If it wants to fulfil its stated goal of taking responsibility for its own peace and security, it needs to use its existing mechanisms at the first sign of trouble and not just rely on an activist chair. The Thai-Cambodian conflict remains an active challenge for ASEAN, which must achieve a certifiable peace on this disputed border if it wishes to keep its own region secure in the future.

Bangkok/Jakarta/Brussels, 6 December 2011


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