Finding hope in pragmatic beginnings: the Paris Peace Agreements 30 years on

By Dr Katrin Travouillon, Lecturer, Department of Political and Social Change at the Coral Bell School – Australian National University

On the weekend, Cambodia marked the 30th anniversary of peace agreements signed in Paris to bring an end to decades of conflict. Katrin Travouillon argues that international effort can only be seen as a success through the lens of pragmatism – a “hope that arises and is rekindled in spite of things”.

An invitation to reflect on the legacy of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements is an invitation to revisit its beginnings. It is an invitation to assess to what extent its stated objectives have been fulfilled 30 years on and whether it can still provide a template for future progress in political terms.

The answer to these questions, I would suggest, is yes, the broad objectives of the agreements have been fulfilled and they do offer lessons for future intractable political conflict. But that comes with the caveat that political actors recognise that the underpinnings of political progress in Cambodia always have derived more strength from pragmatism than idealism.

Due to the often-evoked status of the Paris Peace Agreements as the backbone of Cambodia’s democratic political system, and the key role they played in normalising the country’s political and economic relationships with the world, their designers and implementers have regularly assessed their impact by referencing two distinct benchmarks.

The first is the quality of the detailed provisions for the peace process stipulated in the agreements, including the mandate of the United Nations Transitional Authority (1992-93), the express commitment to the people’s right to self-determination through free and fair elections, and a range of recommendations to secure Cambodia’s future economic rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The second is their ‘promise’ or ‘spirit’; an often cited, but less clearly defined, criteria that aims to capture the idea that Cambodia’s transition to a liberal democracy, fully respecting of democratic and human rights principles, is possible.

Until at least the 25th anniversary of the agreements in 2016, observers and representatives of the original signatories judged their legacy as “mixed”. On the positive side, observers listed Cambodia’s economic growth, regular elections, and the relative freedom of public debate and the media.

This was offset by the disproportionate share of new wealth taken by the country’s elite, which provided them with the means to ensure that the people’s freedoms never impeded on the dominant power of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). This consensus could only be enlivened by reference to the spirit of the peace agreements – the idea of a more democratic, more just system to come and the reiteration of international support to achieve this goal.

As such, the anniversaries reliably fulfilled the dual purpose of providing an occasion to formulate recommendations for the way forward and to reassert the promise of a democratic political identity for Cambodia.

Events and meetings to commemorate the 30th anniversary are underway. Those that already have already taken place reveal debate over the legacy of the agreements is markedly different this year. There are three reasons for this.

First, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has made the already difficult task of identifying a clear causal connection between the peace instilled by the 1991 agreements and the level of prosperity today almost futile. The peace agreements enabled Cambodia’s recovery and reconstruction. However, to assess the relationship between democracy and economic stability in Cambodia it is more important to focus on the political and economic interests of Cambodia’s contemporary partners.

Cambodia People's Party
Cambodia People's Party billboard featuring President of the National Assembly of Cambodia Heng Samrin and Prime Minister Hun Sen, Kampot, Cambodia - December 13, 2016. Image credit: David Bokuchava, Shutterstock.

Secondly, the forced dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party in 2017 has secured the CPP’s dominant position against peaceful electoral competition.

And thirdly, this year’s anniversary takes place in a global political climate where many key actors are searching for, rather than confidently declaring, their identity and purpose. In the 1990s, the decade of the Paris agreements’ inception, the international mindset was reflected in UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace and Francis Fukuyama’s End of History; this decade, global democratic leaders keep returning anxiously to John Ikenberry’s increasingly rhetorical-sounding question of “The end of liberal international order?”

Taken together, these facts can only serve to unsettle established narratives about the possible democratic future for Cambodia and the presumed loci of global political power (which is what reflections about the Paris agreements were always about).

Predictably, these factors have already triggered the type of collective search for the safety of an idealised past that scholars have identified as typical for those confronted with ruptures and forced reckonings.

While the ruling CPP and its supporters confidently embrace the benchmarks provided by the Paris text itself, and justify their grip on power by reference to a spirit of democratic gradualism in the country’s constitution, other actors evoke the images of enthusiastic Cambodian voters at the ballot boxes in 1993 to measure the extent of the promise lost.

It is certainly a compelling image for the international designers and implementers of the intervention because it preserves above all their good intentions. However, it is also a misleading image, for my own research of a unique series of documented recollections shows that the Cambodian people never experienced the type of naïve hope and trust in a radically different future that the idealised image conveys.

Political parties competing in the UNTAC organised election referred to the CPP as the “host party” and warned that some may choose to “only play democracy”. In the months following the elections in May 1993, public servants emphasised the importance of local level reforms to challenge the CPP’s power base lest the new political system be built on a “rotten foundation”. Teachers and students complained to UNTAC that the elite did not “respect the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements” and that the bribes that students were still obliged to pay for passing their exams would stifle efforts to combat nepotism and establish a more equitable and just society.

To some, these statements may read like a sad foreboding considering that now, 30 years later, Cambodians are faced with ever greater restrictions and threats to their personal and political freedoms. In this regard, putting emphasis on the original ‘spirit’ of the Paris agreements may be motivated by a desire to inspire and encourage.

However, nostalgia and politics never mix well, and telling young activists to "go and read" the agreements to understand and confront their contemporary challenges, as one American speaker recently suggested, is akin to asking the Cambodian people to find hope in a history of counterfactuals.

Instead, I would suggest, it is more empowering to recall that the hope inspired by the agreements and the 1993 election was skeptical, careful, and (for many) short-lived. To return to the beginnings, then, is an opportunity to remember that the very strategies that made change happen were rarely inspired by a sense of boundless opportunities, but by the kind of hope that arises and is rekindled in spite of things: borne out of pragmatism, determination, and the will to persist, 30 years on.

Dr. Katrin Travouillon is a Lecturer at the Department of Political and Social Change at the Coral Bell School, Australian National University. Her research focuses on the transnational dimensions of Cambodia's political transformation since the 1992-93 UN Transitional Authority (UNTAC). Her researcher profile can be accessed here.

Banner image: Angkor Wat at sunset, Cambodia. Credit: Muzhik, Shutterstock.