As the 30th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements draws near, the government and civil society groups are remembering its legacy in very different ways.
On Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a sub-decree to circulate a new 30,000 riel note featuring an image of himself with the late King Norodom Sihanouk, both of whom led factions included in the deal regarded as laying a path to end Cambodia’s long civil war. A ruling party spokesman said the new note, which also includes text referencing the peace treaty and its anniversary, honors those who forged the agreement.
But civil society groups are urging the government to go beyond symbols and do more to adhere to the agreements’ commitments to human rights and democratic norms. The stipulations of the peace deal, signed October 23, 1991, by representatives of four main Cambodian factions and 18 national governments, are still relevant today, said rights activist Srun Srorn.
Srorn pointed to the comprehensive political conditions to establish a multi-party system of rule of law, with protections for human rights. Despite official moves to commemorate the peace deal such as with the new bank note, the agreements have become increasingly politicized. Political opposition members say the ruling CPP has failed to uphold the protections enshrined in the agreements, while the government says the accords are no longer binding. Last year, the government eliminated from the state calendar an official holiday commemorating the anniversary, and Hun Sen in 2017 described the agreements as “like a ghost”.
For Srorn, the peace deal is very much alive.
“While they [government] deleted the October 23 Paris Peace Agreement from the calendar, and replaced it with a banknote, it will make more people discuss the agreement that we will use daily as a note,” he said.
Srorn added that the government has labelled some modern supporters of the peace agreement as traitors, questioning how that could be reconciled with promoting the deal with a new banknote.
“How is it that we are opponents when the agreement is on a banknote? How is it wrong that we advocated for the agreements?” he asked.
Srorn said the political situation in Cambodia features intimidation and even imprisonment for participation, which he described as a serious violation of rule of law.
The government maintains that the agreements, though historic and important to the country, are no longer binding.
Chin Malin, vice president of Cambodia Human Rights Committee and spokesman of the Ministry of Justice, said the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreements ended after the 1993 election. The role of the agreements in terms of leading the country as a democratic state transferred to the Constitution, Malin said.
He said implementation of the Constitution is the real goal and that the government has adhered to that document and its founding principles.
As far as commemorating the agreements, government spokesman Phay Siphan said the banknote illustrates national history. The new 30,000 riel note bears a picture of Hun Sen and the late king clasping hands during a procession welcoming then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk back to Cambodia in November, 1991, ending the king’s exile after the agreements were signed.
Siphan said the two men were the main protagonists in the story of the agreement, which also included representation from the Khmer Rouge and the nationalist, anti-communist KPNLF.
“Those two heroes that we have to respect,” Siphan said, adding that the new banknote will help Cambodians understand the leadership of the prime minister and his role in the peace process. The bill is the first to feature an image of Hun Sen.
Currency aside, other civil society leaders say Cambodia still has a long way to go before it can claim to fulfill all its obligations as enshrined in the agreements.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said her organization is reminding the government that respecting the peace agreements does not only mean ensuring the absence of war or internal armed conflict. Rather, Sopheap said, the spirit of the agreements demands a society where social justice, equality, respect for human rights, and robust democratic institutions are respected and flourishing.
“It is high time for the government to take concrete steps to redress the deteriorating human rights situation and enable democracy to prosper in accordance with the promise it took three decades ago,” Sopheap said.