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 / Asia 3 minutes

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.

Executive Summary

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 www.crisisweb.org.Hide 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

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.