Several nongovernmental organizations gathered in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday to mark the 28th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, which ended war between Vietnam and Cambodia, calling for an end to divisions in society amid an ongoing political crisis.
The groups held an event to commemorate the agreement, which led to the U.N.’s administration of Cambodia’s government while the country transitioned to a system of democratic elections, at the newly relocated Freedom Park on the outskirts of the city, after authorities rejected their request to march downtown.
Speaking during the ceremony, representatives of the NGOs slammed Prime Minister Hun Sen for failing to adhere to the principles set forth under the accords, citing what they called “grave breaches of human rights” and the undermining of democracy in recent years.
Labor rights campaigner Vorn Pov lamented divisions in Cambodian society, saying that while politicians fight with one another they have failed to bring peace and harmony to the country, in contradiction of the spirit of the agreement.
“Our gathering today is to mark the 28th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords,” he said.
“We need real peace and development, with respect of human rights and democracy for all. We need Cambodians to be united, not divided as they are today.”
The call from NGOs for an end to divisions in society came as the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) issued a statement saying that the accords had been “completely breached” since the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve it in November 2017, citing its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
The ban on the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election, extending Hun Sen’s 34-year strongman rule.
CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy and several other party leaders plan to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9 from self-imposed exile to lead what they have termed a “restoration of democracy” in the country through nonviolent protest, and have called on supporters and members of the armed forces to join them, but Hun Sen has vowed to arrest them as soon as they enter the country for “plotting a coup.”
In its statement, the CNRP called on all stakeholders, and in particular signatories of the accords, to fulfil their obligations by convening an emergency consultative session to set forth measures to end the political crisis in Cambodia, with an aim to restore human rights and democracy in the nation.
Hun Sen took to Facebook Wednesday to dismiss suggestions that the peace accords had ended war in Cambodia, saying instead that without his self-styled “win-win” policy—which encouraged defections of Khmer Rouge fighters as part of a plan for their reintegration into society in the late 1990s—Cambodians would not be able to “enjoy the peace and prosperity they do today.”
Also on Wednesday, around 300 Cambodian-Australians gathered in Australia’s capital Canberra to mark the anniversary of the accords, demanding that Hun Sen enact protections of human rights and democracy, as stated in the agreement.
The protesters marched to several embassies, including the Chinese, European Union and U.S., calling on signatories to pressure Hun Sen’s government over the accords.
Chea Youhorn, a leader of Cambodian community in Dandenong, a suburb of Melbourne, said he has faith that the international community will push Hun Sen to respect the agreement, and told RFA that he believe’s Sam Rainsy’s return will help to solve the current political crisis.
“Sam Rainsy is returning to Cambodia unarmed,” he said, adding that Hun Sen must not order the armed forces to attack CNRP supporters.
“Millions of Cambodians were killed during the [1975-79] era of the Khmer Rouge. If Hun Sen kills people again, I trust the United Nations, and particularly the International Criminal Court (ICC) would not tolerate his actions.”
Several Australian opposition lawmakers joined Wednesday’s event, including Clare O’Neil, Julian Hill and Mark Butler, who warned Hun Sen that Australia is watching the situation in Cambodia and expressed support for Sam Rainsy’s return.
Their comments followed a hearing of the Congressional Cambodia Caucus (CCC) in Washington on Monday to mark the anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords during which lawmakers said that if Hun Sen chooses bloodshed over reconciliation on Nov. 9, he will invite “massive sanctions” from the U.S.
Call for support
Sam Rainsy on Wednesday renewed calls for supporters, including members of the Cambodian diaspora living abroad, to join him on his return to Cambodia in a message posted to his Facebook account, saying that while there is “no place like home, Hun Sen has made it difficult to live there.”
“Let’s all go back home together to bring our country back to our people,” he said.
“Nov. 9 will be a historical date for Cambodians everywhere, especially [migrant] workers in Thailand, to unite and join me in my return home. We need to restore our country for all—not just for Hun Sen’s family and his cronies.”
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan responded to Sam Rainsy’s message saying that his appeal would fall on deaf ears.
“It’s his right to make such an appeal—he can do that from outside the country, but I bet no one will join him,” he said.
“I wonder how he will be able to enter Cambodia, as the Thai authorities have banned [the CNRP] from entering their country as well. He’ll only be able to return if he learns how to make himself invisible.”
On Sunday, authorities in Thailand refused entry to CNRP vice president Mu Sochua citing “security concerns” after she flew to Bangkok to assist in preparations for the return of Sam Rainsy to Cambodia, although she told RFA that negotiations are underway with the Thai government to allow party officials to travel there.
While the CNRP has not specified that its leaders will try to enter Cambodia through Thailand, it is the most likely neighboring country from which to do so because of its comparative openness, despite having recently transitioned from a military takeover.
Hun Sen has been counteracting efforts by Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders to gather the support of the international community by seeking the cooperation of neighboring countries to ensure that their return will be prevented, and Laos has reportedly agreed to take “strict measures” against any opposition officials who attempt to enter Cambodia through its territory.
As CNRP activists prepare in Thailand and elsewhere, authorities in Cambodia have made multiple arrests of Sam Rainsy’s supporters in recent weeks, bringing to at least 54 the number of CNRP activists detained since the beginning of the year and nearly 186 the number subjected to interrogation over the same period.
On Tuesday, authorities in Kampong Cham province arrested Heng Hoan, the former elected CNRP chief of Chamkaloeur district’s Svay Teap commune, and are holding him at a local police station, according to his wife, Nuth Prak.
Ten policemen stormed Heng Hoan’s home and took him into custody without any warrant, she said, adding that she only learned later that he had been arrested because he had been accused of organizing people to receive Sam Rainsy.
Nuth Prak said she believes her husband was targeted because he was tagged in several Facebook posts related to Sam Rainsy’s return next month.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.