Cambodia’s 1991 Paris Peace Agreements: Thirty years of contested commemoration – New Mandala

There are two most contested commemorations in Cambodia’s modern history: Vietnam’s removal of the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, and the peace agreements in 1991. Both historic events marked a watershed in Cambodian and Southeast Asian modern politics. While Vietnam’s military campaign put an end to the Khmer Rouge regime and massacres on 7 January 1979, this action also led to a civil war which caused humanitarian crises in the country and destabilised the region until the early 1990s, when the Comprehensive Cambodian Peace Agreements (known as the Paris Peace Agreements, hereafter the PPA) was signed in Paris on 23 October 1991. The agreements led to the establishment of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which operated a peace-keeping mission and organised democratic elections that were held in 1993. After the elections, a new coalition government was formed, and the commemoration of the PPA immediately became a site of contention between First Prime Minister Prince Nodorom Ranariddh (President of the royalist FUNCINPEC Party) and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen (Vice-president of the Cambodian People Party, hereafter the CPP).

It was contested because when the PPA anniversary of 23 October was newly instated as a national celebration, the CPP’s most important commemoration of 7 January 1979, which had been celebrated annually as “Liberation Day” since 1980, was suspended. The suspension happened due objections from the FUNCINPEC and the Buddhist Liberation Democratic Party (BLDP), which viewed the 7 January event as a symbol of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. But in 1996, only a few days prior to its 17th anniversary, Hun Sen successfully demanded his co-premier Ranariddh reinstate the 7 January Liberation Day as a national celebration, along with the PPA commemoration. Ever since, Liberation Day has remained an important national celebration and a public holiday, while the PPA anniversary has officially been suspended twice, from 2004 to 2012, and again in 2019 until the present. No explanation for the 2012 reinstatement was given by the government but it cited economic reasons for the suspensions in 2004 and 2019.

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the PPA. Even though it was no longer a national celebration, the Cambodian government commemorated the event by issuing a new banknote featuring a portrait of the late King Sihanouk holding hands with Hun Sen. An official ceremony hosted by Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn was held at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh. In Paris, there was a public gathering to commemorate the anniversary led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, along with other assemblies and protests organised by opposition supporters around the world. There were also many public seminars and academic forums to celebrate the PPA organised by civil societies, think tanks, journalists’ clubs, embassies, and higher education institutions in Cambodia and outside.

Even though these stakeholders commemorate the same historic event, they actually have different interpretations of its meaning and legacy. The government has largely considered the PPA as a “ghost” which has little impact on Cambodia’s peace and development and is no longer applicable to current situations, whereas the opposition party and civil societies have demanded the government be held accountable to the agreements with regards to the respect for multi-party democracy and human rights.

Whatever the disagreements are, the PPA should be remembered based on two principles. First, the agreements did put an end to the civil war that was militarily contested by four different Cambodian factions for the entire 1980s. Even though the Khmer Rouge boycotted the 1993 elections and continued to destabilise the country’s peace and development until the late 1990s, the PPA led to the formation of an internationally recognised government and the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees along the Thai-Cambodian border. Second, apart from Sihanouk and Hun Sen, BLDP leader Son Sann and Khmer Rouge faction leader Khieu Samphan were also signatories to the Peace Agreements. Regardless of what happened after the agreements, the two leaders’ role and perspectives, along with larger Cold War geopolitics of the late 1980s and early 1990s, should also be remembered in discourses around the commemoration of the PPA.

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