History matters, not just in the way that it is presented in classes and history books but also in how it is publicly remembered in holidays and memorials. National holidays tell a simplified version of history. Cambodia’s recent decision to add “Win-Win Policy Day” on December 29 to the national calendar to celebrate the surrender of the Khmer Rouge is notable because it is matched by a lack of similar recognition for the anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements. Until 2019, the anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements (PPAs) on October 23, 1991 was a public holiday in official recognition of the valuable contributions the agreements made to ending conflict in Cambodia. Even as public dialogue around the importance of the PPAs in Cambodia today continues, recognizing the PPAs on the national calendar would celebrate the lengthy, complex, and fraught pathway that Cambodians walked to bring the country from a state of civil war to where it is today.
The PPAs were a collective victory for international diplomacy, resulting in a comprehensive political framework for the creation of a peaceful and democratic Cambodia. The agreements, the negotiation of which involved more than 19 states and a range of major domestic political stakeholders, paved the way toward an end to years of conflict, reconfirmed Cambodia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and enabled political reconciliation. The PPAs presented a clear vision of Cambodia as a liberal democracy with principles of good governance and human rights, which were later enshrined in the Cambodian constitution. The effectiveness of the implementation of the PPAs is still debated in Cambodia and elsewhere, but it is hard to dispute that the PPAs were instrumental in opening up a new development pathway for Cambodia. The PPAs provided an opportunity for the Cambodian people to recover economically and created a normative framework for the country’s political development.
Life for the average Cambodian today is significantly better than it was 30 years ago, but there are still many aspects of the political vision laid out in the Paris Peace Agreements which have not yet been realized. There is still room for further efforts to enhance the independence of the judiciary, strengthen anticorruption efforts, ensure transparency, and promote competitive and accessible multi-party elections.
The PPAs are now over 30 years old, and this is a particularly appropriate time to review their importance. Most Cambodian citizens were either not alive or were very young when the PPAs were signed. As young Cambodians increasingly take on decision-making roles in the economic and political spheres, it is even more important than that the story of how peace was achieved in Cambodia is remembered. There would not have been a “Win-Win Policy” if the Paris Peace Agreements had not begun the process of resolving the country’s conflict.
A survey of major English language newspapers in Cambodia in 2021 reveals both widespread public discussion of the PPAs as well as a noticeable shift in the way that the agreements were described on the 30th anniversary last October, compared to coverage of the 25th anniversary in 2016. At least 46 articles in 2021 substantively commented on the PPAs compared to only 25 in 2016. In 2021, 37 percent of the articles that commented on the PPAs and their contributions also referenced the “Win-Win Policy” touted by Prime Minister Hun Sen as ending conflict with the Khmer Rouge, compared to less than 1 percent of articles in 2016. Notably, in 2021 at least six articles about the peace process ignored the Paris Peace Agreements and only referenced the “Win-Win Policy.”
Historical narratives naturally evolve over time as new generations use different lenses to reexamine exactly what happened, why it happened, and the role played by that individuals and stakeholder factions in driving national change. For example, the United States has seen a major reevaluation in recent years of the role of non-white citizens and women as drivers of change. Such a reevaluation is most valuable when it presents a more complex and inclusive picture of what happened and supports frank dialogue about what worked, what didn’t, and how lessons from history can support a more positive future. A recent small survey of students in Phnom Penh indicated that most respondents did not have a clear understanding of what the PPAs were or the role they played in bringing peace to Cambodia.
As a new generation of politicians, businesspeople, teachers, and citizens begins to drive policy decisions in Cambodia, it is vital that the full range of complex historical processes that brought the country to where it is today be remembered. One way to do this is to integrate a range of recently published interviews, books, and reports on the PPAs and the peace process in Cambodia into the classroom. A smaller but more visible step would be to reestablish the anniversary of the PPAs on the national calendar, recognizing this date alongside the other key dates that brought peace to Cambodia.