For 2 decades, from the 1970s through to the 1980s, Cambodia was engulfed in a war that was the by- product of a regional geopolitical conflict between East and West. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in late 1970s became known as the Third Indochinese War and the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia lasted until the late 1980s. The end of the Cold War around 1990, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, opened a new chapter in Cambodian politics when the great powers, namely the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (most notably China, Russia and the United States) agreed on the need to find a long-lasting solution to the war in Cambodia. As a result, the Paris Peace Agreements were presented to the warring Cambodian factions who then accepted and signed the peace accord on October 31, 1991, and invited the United Nations to intervene in Cambodia.
The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established to help Cambodia move toward peace, democracy, and development. UNTAC was an unprecedented multi-faceted mission the United Nations had ever sent to a war-torn nation. The most important responsibilities UNTAC had were peacekeeping, organizing and holding a free and fair national election. The election was held in July 1993. The late US Congressman Stephen Solarz, a great supporter of the Cambodian resistance to the Vietnamese invasion, hailed the 1993 election as a Miracle of the Mekong. The Agreements were implemented in great part because of the fine leadership of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who never grew tired of making his best effort to promote national reconciliation.
Still, many critics were dissatisfied with the implementation of the Paris Peace Agreements, especially when the winner of the 1993 election, namely FUNCINPEC, shared power with the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Moreover, they became even more critical of the CPP when its leader, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, used force to remove First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh (FUNCINPEC) from power by staging a violent coup on July 5-6, 1997.
It was no secret that the CPP is the new name of the Khmer People Revolutionary Party, an offspring of the Indochina Communist Party organized by the Vietnamese communists in the 1930s, with no history of power sharing. After the coup in 1997, the CPP began to tighten its control over the state, especially the armed forces and the judiciary, and became the dominant party winning the subsequent elections. The only time that the opposition proved to be a credible power contender was when the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) took 55 out of 123 seats in the 2013 election. The CPP took this growing challenge very seriously and was determined to make sure that the 2013 election results would not be repeated.
The CPP then took action to prevent the CNRP from winning enough seats to form a new government. It accused the CNRP President of treason, put pressure on the Supreme Court to dissolve his party, and banned 118 CNRP leaders from politics. Predictably, the CPP captured all 125 seats in the 2018 election, leaving 19 other minor parties without a seat.
Many democratic states in the West, most notably Canada, the European Union and the United States, were displeased with the election results and threatened to impose sanctions on Cambodia. The EU threatened to end its Everything-But-Arms (EBA) agreement with Cambodia and the United States threatened to end its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP).
Cambodia has become more divided. The ruling party and the opposition have blamed each other for what has transpired in the country in recent years. The new round of political conflict appears to be protracted with no end in sight. Each side has turned to foreign countries for support. The CPP has evidently moved closer to China and Russia, whereas the CNRP still counts on Western democracies for intervention. Each side continues to claim legitimacy through the support of Cambodian people. A mini ‘cold war’ is in the making.
From our perspective, there seems to be no way out for Cambodia. Without King Norodom Sihanouk, famous for his nationalist spirit and known as the father of independence, there is no one else who can remain above the fray, command respect from political leaders on all sides, and lead them on the path of national reconciliation. Even our current King, Norodom Sihamoni, one of King Sihanouk’s sons, appears to be limited in his ability to move the ruling party and the opposition closer to the much-needed process of reconciliation.
In the meantime, Cambodia now appears to become once again a victim of neo-colonialism, as it is subject to the growing influence of more powerful foreign countries in the region, namely China and Vietnam, known for their rivalry over the past 1,000 years or so.
The big question for all Cambodians to answer is this: What type of country do we want Cambodia to be? Most Cambodians would agree that we want their country to be independent, democratic, and prosperous. But getting there would not be easy because it would require that the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements be fully implemented. And this can only be done when all Cambodians learn to trust each other, agree to engage in the process of dialogue, allow the king to intervene in national affairs effectively, make sure that foreign powers do not pursue their interests at our expense, and invite the United Nations to stay engaged.