Seven years on from the 1991 political settlement between Cambodia's four warring factions, the country stands at an important crossroads. Recent setbacks in the internationally-inspired peace process, which hinged precariously on the success of its fragile democratic transition, have placed an enormous burden on Cambodians themselves to bring to a close a tragic chapter in their history.
As the Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia in the late 1960s, the politically-divided country was launched into a thirty-year period of war and social upheaval during which its people endured genocide, foreign occupation and a series of destructive interventions by the superpowers. Only with the ending of the Cold War were conditions finally ripe for the settlement of the Cambodian conflict. Under intense pressure from their foreign sponsors, Cambodia's four warring factions signed a peace agreement in 1991 which was implemented by an 18-month United Nations peacekeeping mission. Though beset by numerous setbacks, including the 1992 withdrawal of the Khmer Rouge from the peace process, the UN successfully organised elections in 1993 which held open the promise of a return to a semblance of normality for Cambodia.
This was not to be. Cambodians could only stand by as the international community allowed the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to force its way into a power-sharing arrangement with election winners FUNCINPEC, with complete disregard for the spirit of the Paris agreements. Despite early indications that the political arrangement might work, the contradictions of power-sharing in the absence of genuine reconciliation and functioning democratic institutions soon became apparent. By 1997, with the prospect of upcoming elections (scheduled for the following year) and the break-up of the Khmer Rouge rebel movement portending dramatic changes in the balance of power, the coalition began to founder. Tensions erupted violently in July 1997, resulting in the overthrow of Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh (FUNCINPEC) by co-Premier Hun Sen.
International pressure was quickly brought to bear on Hun Sen, facilitating Ranariddh's participation in the July 1998 elections. By then, however, Hun Sen had effectively consolidated almost complete control over the state and the electoral machinery, a situation which did not bode well for a fair result. Despite financing the electoral exercise, the international community failed to establish clear benchmarks against which to assess the credibility of the polling process. Carried out under the shadow of widespread allegations of intimidation and fraud, the elections look set, in line with the 1993 experience, to return a government in which the distribution of power does not reflect the expressed will of the voters.
Although the official results gave Hun Sen and the CPP a relative majority of 41 per cent of the votes, the joint results of the two main opposition parties FUNCINPEC (31 per cent) and the Sam Rainsy Party (14 per cent) were superior to the CPP. But a controversial change in the formula for allocating seats in the National Assembly gave the CPP a majority of 64 seats out of 122. By the end of October 1998, the opposition leaders were still holding out for a role in a future coalition which would reflect the dominant position they believed their parties had earned in the National Assembly. The chances of this being realised looked slim given Hun Sen's control over the government and the Constitutional Council which was officially charged with ruling on the outcome of the elections.
In the absence of strong and autonomous political institutions as called for by the Paris agreements, Cambodians must today face the harsh reality that their peace remains vested in the hands of a small number of political elites. With few legal constraints on their use of power, violence and intimidation have become common currency in the resolution of disputes. Not only has the human cost on an already war-weary nation been huge, but the delicate process of democratisation, ultimately necessary for longer-term peace in Cambodia, has also been seriously undermined.