For Cambodia Survival: – Is Neutrality a Good Choice?

In this world where competition among nations for fame, superiority, supremacy or simply survival is flaring everywhere, small countries like Cambodia need to make smart choices in foreign policy. Because of her strategic location in the South East Asian Peninsula, Cambodia is prey to neighboring countries with threats coming from overland and from the sea, from near and far.

Historically, during the period of Angkor, the Khmer Empire had reigned supreme, commanding respect and obeisance, due obviously to the proven strength of their kings and subjects, both in temple palaces and on the battlefields. But when their power faded as a result of climate change, internal problems, and external pressure, resulting in the abandonment of Angkor, so did their strength. Cambodia was left to be a protectorate, thanks to the French intervention in 1863. By then, Cambodia had lost Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam and the territories North of Phnom Dangrek to Thailand where the temples of Phimai and Phnom Roung stand today as living proofs of Cambodia’s rule. Cambodia also lost the Khmer temple of Wat Phu, presently in Champasak, Laos. While the loss to Thailand and Laos dated back to the early 1900, the loss of Kampuchea Krom in 1947was a more recent memory.

Cambodia regained her independence from France in 1953 – on November 9 to be exact- after a “Royal Crusade” led by then King Norodom Sihanouk, but the communist Vietnamese known as Vietminh who claimed they were in Cambodia to help fight the French colonialists were still in the country. It was only with the resolutions of the Geneva Conference in 1964 that they accepted to move out of Cambodia taking with them some of their young sympathizers, among them Pen Sovann. At that Conference, with the Western nations led by the US and England and the Eastern bloc led by China and the Soviet Union, the communist countries agreed to endorse the accords in exchange for Cambodia’s full neutrality.  In his book “Cambodia: A country Study” by Russell B. Ross, for the US Library of Congress (1987) noted:

In the final agreement, Cambodia accepted a watered-down neutrality, vowing not to join any military alliance ”not in conformity with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations” or to allow the basing of foreign military forces in its territory “as long as its security is not threatened.”

Cambodia did not respect the clauses of its agreement when she ignored the presence within her borders of communist Vietnamese troops who were fighting the American armies during the Vietnam War.

That led to developments in 1970 that, in turn, contributed to the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975. Had Cambodia stayed fully neutral during that period, she may not have experienced all that tragedy.

Thereafter, Cambodia experienced one tragedy after another, from the Khmer Rouge regime to the Vietnamese occupation. It took another decade before a reprieve was secured through the Paris Paris Peace Agreements on Cambodia that were signed on October 23rd, 1991. These agreements were intended to ensure Cambodia’s survival. Article 18 of the AGREEMENT ON A COMPREHENSIVE POLITICAL SETTLEMENT OF THE CAMBODIA CONFLICT, PART IV:  INTERNATIONAL GUARANTEES, stated:

Cambodia undertakes to maintain, preserve and defend, and the other Signatories undertake to recognize and respect, the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and inviolability, neutrality and unity of Cambodia, as set forth in a separate Agreement.

The importance of Cambodia neutrality was reinforced in Article 23 “PRINCIPLES FOR A NEW CONSTITUTION FOR CAMBODIA” that reads:

Basic principles, including those regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as regarding Cambodia’s status of neutrality, which the new Cambodian Constitution will incorporate, are set forth in annex 5.

Cambodia had fulfilled this obligation by stating in Chapter I “Sovereignty” of the new Cambodian Constitution, Article 1:

Cambodia is a Kingdom in which the King shall rule according to the Constitution and the principles of liberal multi-party democracy.

The Kingdom of Cambodia shall be an independent, sovereign, peaceful, permanently neutral and non-aligned country.

It is tragic that Cambodia is in turmoil now because the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements of October 23rd, 1991 and of the Constitution of September 21st, 1993 were not implemented in both the country’s internal and external policies.

The country’s internal policies have led to the demise of multi-party democracy that have prompted the European Union to consider lifting of tax preferential treatment on “Everything But Arms“ or EBA. The US is considering similar action with the Generalized System of Preferences (GPS) schemes.

In turn, by bypassing neutrality, and siding with communist countries, Cambodia’s foreign policies may threaten her security by turning her into a battlefield in the Cold war between the East and the West.

Remember, ignoring the neutrality agreement of the 1954 Geneva Accords led to the Killing Fields in the mid-1970s. Ignoring neutrality now as stated in the Paris Peace Conference of 1991 may lead to a more deadly battlefield. Cambodian people are suffering perhaps not physically, but mentally … and their country may not survive. In conclusion, Neutrality is not only a good choice, but a best choice!

– Ta Prum Kel

 Note: On Neutrality, please refer to Google, key word: Neutrality, political.

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