By: Sek Sophal

October 23 marks an important date in contemporary Cambodian politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union dried up its long-running military support for Vietnam’s military operations and without Soviet support, Vietnam had no choice but to completely and unconditionally withdraw from Cambodia. 

As the last convoy left, the prospects for peace and national reconciliation were becoming real. Four conflicting parties – the State of Cambodia (SOC) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) led by Son Sann, FUNCINPEC led by Prince Norodom Rannariddh and the Khmer Rouge led by Khieu Samphan – finally met in Paris and signed an agreement on a “Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict,” also known as the Paris Peace Agreement on October 23, 1991. 

To commemorate the peace settlement that millions of the Cambodians had waited for since the 1970s, October 23 has remained a public holiday. Unfortunately, the Cambodians are about to forget October 23. According to a newly-released sub-decree by the Cambodian government in early August, October 23 will no longer be a public holiday from 2020 onward. 

The decision to abolish the commemoration day of the Paris Peace Agreement has sparked a mixture of public outcries. Is the Paris Peace Agreement becoming forgotten history? 

The value of peace is recognized only after it is lost. October 23 means different things to different people from different generations. To the young generations born in the post-Cold War era, October 23 might be nothing but one of the annual public holidays listed on the national calendar. However, to the older generations who experienced bloodshed and atrocities during the protracted civil war, the date represented the promise of peace and spirit of national reconciliation and unity, in which the conflicting parties agreed to put aside their political differences and work with each other for the sake of peace, stability, and prosperity for the country and its people.

As a primary school student in Battambang, I personally witnessed the tragedy of Cambodia’s armed conflicts. Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest province, located in the north-western part of the country and sharing the border with Thailand. During the wartime, Battambang was a strategic theater of military operations. 

In early 1991, just months before the Paris Peace Agreement was signed, my village came under heavy artillery bombardment by the Khmer Rouge soldiers during a night-time offensive. Almost the entire village was burned down. Dozens of people were killed and seriously injured. We abandoned the village and did not come back for several months for fears of refreshed bombardments. 

By then, even though I was too young to understand anything about the proxy war or the confrontation between the East and the West, I learned of the peace negotiations through the Voice of America’s Khmer Service. I did not even know how promising the Paris Peace Agreement was. But the only thing I knew was that if the war was over, there would be no more artillery bombardments by any of the conflicting parties and no more villagers would die. 

Henry Locard, a French professor of history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, rightly observed the same sentiment of the Cambodians across the county. “The Paris peace conference,” as Locard re-called during an interview with The Cambodia Daily in 2009, “had raise[d] hopes among Cambodians that at long last the international community would come to the rescue of the Khmers to save them from misery.” 

The conclusion of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991 did not happen overnight, but rather through years of diplomatic communication, trust building, and tough negotiations. Kek Galabru, founder and president of the local human rights organization Licadho, was one of the key insiders of the peace process, meeting for the first time with Hun Sen, who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea during his official visit to Angola in 1983. 

With her close family relations with late King Sihanouk (then Prince Sihanouk), the Galarbru family started playing a low-profile, but very critical role of going between Prince Sihanouk and Hun Sen to arrange their meeting. Yet, the channel of communication, as Galabru re-called during the exclusive interview with The Phnom Penh Post, was never easy. 

Without a direct line, the phone calls from and to Phnom Penh and Paris were made through Moscow. The persistent efforts yielded a major political breakthrough in December 1987 when Prince Sihanouk and Hun Sen finally agreed to meet each other for the first time in Fère-en-Tardenois, a quiet village in the northern part of France about 110 km from Paris. 

The meeting paved the way for rounds of political negotiations that followed. The first and second Jakarta Informal Meetings, also widely known as JIM 1 and JIM 2, were held in 1988 and 1989 respectively. In June 1990, with the initiative and support of Japan, all the four conflicting parties agreed to attend a conference in Tokyo, where Prince Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a joint communique to set up the Supreme National Council (SNC), the most crucial political agreement leading to the conclusion of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991. 

Evidently, the Paris Peace Agreement is the result of huge investment in resources, times, political patience, and willingness and trust by all relevant stakeholders. As Khatharya Um, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in her journal of Cambodia in 1988: The Curved Road to Settlement, “The road to a peaceful settlement has been a serpentine one, of proposals and rejections, of side-and back-channel diplomacy to ‘soften’ and ‘soothe’ the many feathers involved.” 

After the final reintegration of the Khmer Rouge soldiers into the Cambodian society in early 1999, Cambodia’s chronic civil war was officially ended. The absence of armed conflict and violence, however, does not mean that Cambodia is at peace. The deterioration of democracy and human rights, shrinking space of media freedom, rampant of corruption are still critical challenges. 

As Johan Galtung, a Norwegian professor of peace and conflicts studies and a founder of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, argues, peace should be associated with freedom, equality, justice, pluralism, and dynamism. Those are things Cambodia has never fully achieved since the conclusion of the Paris Peace Agreement 28 years ago. Now, the Paris Peace Agreement will soon be a forgotten history for the younger generations in Cambodia.

Sek Sophal is an affiliated researcher of the Democracy Promotion Center, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.