Young Cambodians and the Paris Peace Agreements: a legacy

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements (PPA). Signed on October 23rd 1991 by representatives of the four Cambodian conflict factions, the UN and 18 other nations these agreements were originally celebrated as the first diplomatic victory of the post-Cold War era and a symbol of the global political change to come.

What does the much cited “spirit” of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements mean to the very people meant to be inspired by it? Where do they see the country’s progress vis-à-vis its promise?

In cooperation with Future Forum and New Mandala we have invited young Cambodian researchers to share their perspectives on the legacy of the Paris Peace Agreements 30 years on.

Their reflections are guided by their engagement with archival records that document the UN mission to Cambodia, designed to implement the Paris Peace Agreements from 1992-93.

This collection is the result of ten years of archival research that I have conducted with the aim to gain a greater understanding of how global ideas pertaining to the liberal peace took shape in Cambodia. The records that I have compiled in the process include contemporary radio programs, internal UN reports, newspapers, campaign speeches, and letters.

Taken together, they demonstrate the depth and breadth of the Cambodian people’s efforts to assess to what extent the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements would change their lives. They also show that the people were as hopeful as they were skeptical of the domestic and international elite’s assurances and promises of its transformative potential.

Bringing these voices together will amplify how the Cambodian people have affirmed, criticised, and interpreted the design, implementation and terms of a peace and development process that now spans 30 years.

This is ever more important as the debate over the PPA’s legacy continues to be driven by elite interests. International actors memorialize the agreements as a vivid illustration of the United Nation’s key role in pushing for a global liberal order. The pressured Cambodian opposition regularly refers to the unfulfilled promise of the PPA to lobby for international support. The Cambodian government, for its part, declared the agreements dead in statements reasserting its sovereignty vis-à-vis external demands for greater compliance with democratic principles.

To move beyond these entrenched narratives, we aim to mark the occasion of the PPA’s 30th anniversary by, firstly, foregrounding the thoughts and ideas of the very generation that is so often casually cast as the progressive hope, yet rarely systematically included in conversations about their own political future.

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Secondly, we hope that by drawing attention to the very state of the Cambodian peace archive – its current haphazard existence in the form of overwhelmingly unpublished, uncatalogued, inaccessible collections of records scattered across the globe, well beyond the reach of Cambodian students and their teachers – we can reignite a debate over the more fundamental aspects of every peace process.

Then and now the Cambodian people have consistently demonstrated their courage and willingness to challenge an elite set on writing history to their own ends. As such, there is neither a need for interventions designed to foster ‘ownership’, nor perpetual assurances of international solidarity in times of crisis.

A commitment to the legacy of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements is a commitment to create and uphold the conditions necessary for the Cambodian people to engage in open, meaningful, and critical debate.

Ultimately, these debates will continue to shape Cambodia’s political future and give life to the very principles that the Paris Peace Agreements meant to instill and inspire.

Delve into this amazing collection of archives, essays and podcasts here.

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