With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the shredding of the Iron Curtain that marked the conclusion of the Cold War, the epicenter of the whole world’s attentions immediately shifted to Cambodia 21-year cruel proxy war. It culminated in an unprecedented signature on 23 October 1991 of a milestone Peace Treaty–the Paris Peace Agreements. The deal was inked by and between leaders of four Khmer warring factions and foreign ministers of 18 nations.

Indeed, the Peace Treaty holds significant merits not only for Cambodians, but also for the rest of Southeast Asian nations and the international community as a whole. Aside from various Khmer factions who fought for power, interests and control of Cambodia; regional and international major players ranging from Vietnam, Thailand and China to the former Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.), and Western powers particularly the U.S., had all maintained their ‘bloody hands’ by involving in contributing to the Cambodia conflict and shaping ‘the magnitude of the sufferings’ of Cambodian population. The treaty served as a ‘Reset’ for a new beginning of a period of healing, reconciliation, cooperation and friendship among these citizens, and, above all, the rehabilitation and reconstruction of a shattered Cambodian society. It was a face saving, a chance for expressing reciprocal goodwill and mending moral obligation. As then French President Fran├зois Mitterrand put it, “A dark page of history has been turned. Cambodians want peace, which means that any spirit of revenge would now be as dangerous as forgetting the lessons of history.”

Many if not most at that time dreamed that, once such elusive peace was given a chance, Cambodia would once again be known to the rest of the world as an ‘Oasis of Peace,’ as she had briefly enjoyed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Furthermore, the country’s image that had been unfairly dubbed ‘Killing Fields,’ a ‘Genocide’ (some even boldly termed it an ‘Auto-Genocide’), a ‘tragedy’, a ‘Vietnamese invasion and occupation’, and so on and so forth–as part of the Cold War propaganda and conspiracy theory–would be respectively restored, reconstructed and transformed. And so did to the Khmer’s from being ‘xenophobia’, ‘racists’, ‘barbarians,’ or ‘uncivilized’.

Through the agreements, the West and the rest of the world wasted no time from the collapse of the Cold War to boldly import and impose Cambodia with their ‘Liberal Peace-Building.’ Willy-nilly, as part of their recipe, they gave the country with a single ‘to-go’ shot, the so-called ‘Triple Transition’–a transition from war to peace, from centrally planned (socialist) to market-driven (capitalist) economy, and democratization. It was a package of an ever ‘Grand Project’ under the umbrella of the United Nations ‘UNTAC,’ costing the international community no less than 2 billion US dollars. Never before had the U.N. been given and entrusted with such an insurmountable task of running an entire country. It is “probably the most important and most complex in history of the United Nations,” as then U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was quoted. This was to be followed by further international monitoring and annual financial commitments in terms of ‘Official Development Assistant (ODA)’ of approximately 500 million US dollars in average so as to survive and sustain the newly established ‘Second Kingdom.’

Unarguably, 23 years later, the now known for its tourism branding as ‘Kingdom of Wonder’ is able to persistently transform from its once territory of infamous warzone, killing fields, bomb craters and heavily contaminated with landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), to becoming one of the world’s top tourist attraction destinations. With just 118,183 international tourist arrivals in 1993, the country absorbed up to 4,210,165 international tourist arrivals in 2013, generating 2,547 million US dollars in revenue. This is equivalent to 23.5% in terms of total contribution of travel & tourism to GDP, according to the latest Travel & Tourism Economic Impact 2014, published by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

Besides, since the Peace Treaty was signed, Cambodia has gradually accessed to membership of several important regional and international organizations, in particular the ASEAN (1999) and WTO (2004). As a signatory to the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), the country is currently busy preparing herself for a much bolder integration into the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by end 2015. Having twice chaired the ASEAN Summit in 2002 and 2012, Cambodia was honored for the first time to host the East Asia Summit in 2012 and the 37th Session of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) in 2013. Furthermore, Cambodia has so far dispatched more than 2,216 peacekeepers to Lebanon, Mali, South Sudan and Central African Republic. Such symbolic but meaningful gesture is yet another concrete example showing the world how a ravaged nation of former recipient of 22,874 UN peacekeepers and civil administrators, drawing from over 100 countries, has remarkably transformed herself to the maintenance of world peace, security and order. During last month 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong boastfully addressed the world that, Cambodia has made ‘substantial progress’ by already achieving, ahead of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) schedule, its half poverty reduction rate to 19% in 2013 [down from an estimated 47% in 1994, World Bank data]. As a result, he added, the country was given a UN Award for ‘halving hunger before the deadline.’

To put this into perspective, to the great disappointment of many Khmer ethno-nationalists and foreigners, Cambodia’s ‘Triple Transition’ was challenged by three major unwanted waves of obstruction, namely: the Khmer Rouge’s unilateral defection from the comprehensive settlement; the persistence of anti-democratization or reversal to dictatorship by Cambodian elites; and the failure to fully implement and comply with the Peace Treaty spirit by foreign actors.

First, from their attitude of ‘initial goodwill’ to ‘increasing reluctance’ and from ‘open resistance’ to ‘violent confrontation’, the Khmer Rouge (PDK) eventually defected from the implementation of the peace process and boycotted the 1993 elections. This led to the UNTAC’s cancellation of its crucial ‘Phase Two’ on the disarmament and demobilization of Cambodian armed forces. The Khmer Rouge had since been pursuing its guerrilla warfare that resulted in severe human and economic casualties (including UNTACT’s 84 military and civilian personnel killed, plus another 58 seriously injured). It was not until the complete dissolution of their organization in 1999 that Cambodia was able to fully enjoy peace in a sense of ‘the absence of war’.

Second, the seed of democracy faces stern resistance from Cambodian elites, precluding it from genuinely flourishing up to the present day. From the balance of power ‘Check and Balance’ among the country’s three major branches ‘Executive’, ‘Legislative’ and ‘Judiciary;’ to the internal governing of political party institution and non-governmental organizations, hardly has the very basic concept of liberal democracy been seen genuinely applied by Cambodian elites and politicians. Then as now, 23 years later, although with minor change, Cambodia is still governed by same Prime Minister, Ministers, Members of Parliament (MPs), political parties’ presidents, and leaders of non-governmental organizations. Between 1993 and 2014, the country witnessed several reversal progresses, including no less than four abortive coups, one successful coup d’état that resulted in a brief suspension of her seat at the U.N., and four major post-election power-sharing agreements. The country’s Constitution was amended no less than eight times–mostly not to the interest of Cambodian citizens but to those of elites. Among the worst of these were the weird creation of two Prime Ministerial posts in 1993, and the 2004’s controversial constitutional amendment that paved the way for concurrent establishment of the National Assembly and the Government through an anti-democratic principle of ‘Package Vote’. In addition, countless number of political harassment, intimidation, repression and cases of human rights violence against opposition party leaders, activists and members, as well as journalists, NGOs workers and ordinary civilians continue to exist. The country’s social justice system is ‘rotten to the core,’ witnessed by deep-rooted corruptions, skyrocketing cases of land grabbing and illegal deforestations, to mention a few.

In addition, of the overall four general elections ever held by the country, rarely has any been declared genuinely free and fair, without post-election protests or political stalemate. Their outcomes have always been plagued with controversial questions of credibility that fall short of international standards. The ruling party (CPP) has been accused of systematic manipulation of the entire electoral processes resulted in widespread fraudulence. As one may recall during every election period–in particular the latest one in 2013–it is not surprising to hear the CPP and its leaders making repeated propaganda remarks linking the opposition party’s winning the election to an all-out war, or the return of a similar Khmer Rouge regime.

This was to be followed by the build-up and deployment of soldiers, tanks, and other heavy military armor across the outskirt of the capital and several provinces bordering it. Time and again, their tactics are the same–to instill psychological threats, to intimidate and to expect the unexpected by being readily hell-bent on resisting any election loss or post-election uprising. History shows that the CPP has never abandoned these actions given its complete control of the state’s key institutions ranging from the Constitutional Council to the legislative and judiciary branches, the media, the military and the monarchy. It appears that peace only exists provided the CPP wins every election, and that any scenario of losing election followed by voluntary power transfer simply does not and will never exist in their political calculation regardless of whatever costs and consequences. To them, the only acceptable election equation is an all-time victory while losing means an ‘Act of War.’

Third, many Khmer ethno-nationalists cast doubts over the fact that their country’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and inviolability, as guaranteed by the Peace Treaty, has not been properly respected by Cambodia’s neighbors. This ranges from the explicit case that Cambodia was seen acting as China’s pawn when it chaired the ASEAN in 2012; the 2008-ongoing border conflict between Cambodia and Thailand over the Preah Vihear issue when the latter was enlisted as UNESCO’s World Heritage Site; and the highly controversial case of Cambodia government’s ‘Special Relationship’ with Vietnam. The latter case remains the gravest concerns and fears among Khmer ethno-nationalists who accused Vietnam of deeply meddling in Cambodia affairs and being ‘earth swallower’. For instance, four previous treaties of friendship and cooperation between Cambodia and Vietnam entered into in 1979, 1982, 1983 and 1985 when Vietnam flagrantly invaded and occupied Cambodia–considered illegal by the Peace Treaty and thus be declared ‘invalid’–have all been revived by the 2005 supplemental treaty.

The ruling CPP, whose present leaders including Prime Minister Hun Sen had been installed to power by Hanoi government, is suspected of conspiring with Vietnam over the matter that resulted in Cambodia’s ‘territorial loss to Vietnam both on land and at sea’. Several outspoken border activists were jailed by the government while some others sought refuge abroad. This is to be further evidenced by the government’s development of favoritism policy towards Vietnamese companies and immigrants, including its nontransparent issuance of thousands of hectares of 99-year economic land concessions and its failure to properly implement Immigration Law over the past 23 years. For these reasons, many Cambodians have never felt any confidence in the fact that, with the lack of appropriate international monitoring, Vietnam did honestly withdraw its over 200,000 invading and occupying troops and experts from Cambodia when it declared so in September 1989. It is theorized that some of them camouflaged and still operate secretly in Cambodian society. Anti-Vietnamese sentiments remain running high nowadays as several waves of protests have been repeatedly held against a Vietnamese Embassy’s spokesman who claimed that Kampuchea Krom ‘Lower Cambodia’ belonged to Vietnamese ancestors for ages.

To judge the present peace brought by the Peace Treaty a success or failure depends on whether you are a type of half-glass-full or half-glass-empty–or both. The questions are: internally, will every Cambodian citizen eventually have a chance to enjoy peace in a long-run and coexist together under common ground without the expenses or losses of the others? Or will the present peace instead produce long-term illegitimate regime, inequality, social injustice, and marginalization of the poor and the powerless that may eventually result in endless rivalries between different social groups? Externally, how well could Cambodia response to the concerns, fears and sentiments posed by those Khmer ethno-nationalists while at the same time balance the friendly relationship with her neighbors? How well could Cambodia balance her position on foreign chessboard within the present geo-political situation?

Against all odds, the Peace Treaty has brought about both the ‘wind of change’ and the ‘changelessness’ in Cambodia and did somehow work her ways out since 1999 from a state of ‘absence of war’ or the so-called ‘Negative Peace’. Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who played a key role in Cambodia’s peace process and settlement, dubbed the country’s status a ‘Violent Peace,’ accusing the present Cambodia’s government of ‘getting away with murder’ and of repeating a ‘pattern of political violence.’ Nevertheless, Cambodia’s peace remains far from reaching a level of sustainability, or in other words a ‘Positive Peace’ provided that the country is still facing with myriad problems, internally and externally, that can vulnerably expose her to structural and cultural violence. Although the probability is low at the meantime, this may eventually turn to unexpected physical violence ‘the presence of war’ if not addressed promptly.

Sovannarith Keo is an independent researcher focusing on Cambodia’s and Southeast Asia’s foreign policy, peace and security issues. He can be reached at [email protected].