NGOs Call For Action on Anniversary of Paris Accord Amid ‘Deterioration’ in Cambodia

Prime Minister Hun Sen defends his crackdown and accuses the opposition of violating the agreement.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, second from left, takes a selfie with youths upon his arrival for a groundbreaking ceremony of a bridge near Phnom Penh, Oct. 23, 2017.

A “severe deterioration in the state of human rights and democracy” in Cambodia requires a reconvening of the Paris Peace Conference, a group of 55 nongovernmental organizations said Monday, in a letter marking the 26th anniversary of accords that ended conflict in the Southeast Asian nation.

The NGOs called on United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and French President Emmanuel Macron to take “decisive action” and “ensure that the democratic vision for Cambodia outlined in the Paris Peace Agreements is not completely forsaken.”

The Paris Peace Agreements ended war between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1991 and led to the U.N.’s administration of Cambodia’s government while the country transitioned to a system of democratic elections.

According to the terms of the accord, the 55 domestic and international NGOs noted, signatories are obligated to “undertake appropriate consultations” with members of the Paris Conference “in the event of the agreements being violated.”

“We respectfully submit that your obligation to take concrete action under the Paris Peace Agreements has now been triggered as a result of the severe deterioration in the state of human rights and democracy in Cambodia in recent weeks and months, which has led to clear violations of the Paris Agreements,” their letter said.

“The severity of this crackdown is unprecedented in the post-1991 era, and poses an existential threat to Cambodian democracy.”

Last month, Cambodian authorities arrested opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha and charged him with “treason” for collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in a move critics say shows Prime Minister Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of a general election set for July 2018.

Hun Sen has threatened to dissolve the opposition, and redistribute its parliamentary seats and commune councilor positions to government-aligned parties in the event that the CNRP is shut down.

Since late August, the government has also expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suspended some 20 radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and targeted the English-language Cambodia Daily with a hefty tax bill, leading to the newspaper’s closure.

In their letter, the 55 NGOs said that if present circumstances persist, next year’s vote “has no chance of legitimacy” and that “far-reaching remedial steps would be required for this election to be deemed genuine, participatory and inclusive.”

They called on the three leaders to reconvene the members of the Paris Conference, along with other relevant stakeholders, “for an emergency summit to discuss the state of Cambodian democracy,” and methods to encourage Cambodia’s government to reverse course.

“Urgent action is required to ensure that the vision of a democratic Cambodia outlined in the Paris Agreements is not betrayed,” the NGOs said.

In a statement accompanying Monday’s letter, Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Hun Sen had “taken a wrecking ball to the human rights and multi-party democracy commitments enshrined in the Paris Peace Accords” in recent months.

Robertson noted that in the 26 years since the Peace Accord, billions of U.S. dollars of U.N. and international donor resources have been spent in support of Cambodia’s democratic development.

“This is why it's so disconcerting that the international community has been shockingly silent as Hun Sen has stepped up his blatant grab for total power,” he said.

“The Paris signatories should act now, and stop Hun Sen from making his destruction of democracy and disregard for human rights the new normal for Cambodia.”

Prison letter

Also on Monday, Kem Sokha penned a letter from Trapeang Phlong Prison, in remote Tbong Khmum province, echoing calls for signatories of the Peace Accords to convene an urgent meeting about Cambodia, which he said “has been marching against the spirit of the Paris Peace Accords, resulting in condemnation from both the national and international communities.”

In the letter, which was posted on his Facebook account, Kem Sokha said that the government has been “labelling people as a pretext for preventing Khmers, who are one and the same, from being able to fully take part in the election,” and that doing so “is a violation of the constitution and the spirit of the Accords.”

The CNRP leader said that “issuing statements alone is not enough,” and urged members of the international community to “take actual measures” to prevent the government from “victimizing” the Cambodian people.

“I am of the opinion that if the international community, as well as all Cambodian parties, do not promptly seek solutions at this point of juncture, Cambodia will regress to its earlier stage, which will result in the loss of Cambodia’s interests and slow its development, much like we witnessed during the more than two decades of war prior to the Paris Peace Accords,” he said.

Hun Sen responds

Hun Sen on Monday dismissed suggestions that his government had violated the Peace Accords and likened the CNRP to the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975-79 and was gradually dismantled in the aftermath of the Paris Conference.

Speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for a bridge on the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh, said that the organizational structure of the remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers had been abolished because “they failed to respect the Paris Peace Accords … and that is the same reason [the CNRP] will be subject to dissolution in the very near future.”

“These are the facts—we shall convict those who have betrayed the Paris Peace Accords, the contents of which had already been built into the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” he said.

The prime minister said that calling for the signatories of the accords to reconvene is “outdated and cannot be realized” because four Cambodian political parties that were present at the time “would have to be recreated.”

“Now there is only a single Cambodian [political] party and that is my legitimate government here, as represented by our monarch [King Norodom Sihamoni], who serves as the head of state of the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

Politician flees

Meanwhile, former senior official of the royalist Funcinpec Party Lu Lay Sreng fled Cambodia for neighboring Thailand Monday amid accusations by Hun Sen that the veteran politician had insulted Cambodia’s King Sihamoni in a leaked telephone conversation, according to local media reports.

Lu Lay Sreng, who had recently spoken out against the government’s political crackdown, had become the subject of complaint jointly filed by lawyers representing Hun Sen and Funcinpec president Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The leaked conversation was posted over the weekend on the page of Facebook user “Seyha,” who is believed to have close ties to the government.

During the phone call, Lu Lay Sreng purportedly claims that if the King cannot resolve the present political crisis, he should abdicate, and suggests that Hun Sen has financed the Funcinpec party in return for its filing of a lawsuit calling for the dissolution of the CNRP.

The former Funcinpec official was unavailable for comment Monday, but sources told RFA’s Khmer Service that he had unsuccessfully sought apologies from King Sihamoni and Hun Sen before he left the country.

Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, some 20 CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.