Protesters Beaten Ahead of Paris Peace Agreements 30th Anniversary

Kong Sreynech after being assaulted by police outside the French Embassy in Phnom Penh

The day before the Paris Peace Agreements turn 30, police employed violence against women who were demanding Cambodian uphold its obligations under the agreements and called on France to intervene

PHNOM PENH--Outnumbered by a large police presence, roughly 20 women staged a peaceful demonstration outside the French Embassy on Oct. 22, calling on the French and Cambodian governments to meet their obligations under the Paris Peace Agreements, which was signed 30 years ago tomorrow.

For the past two years, the Friday Women of Cambodia have protested the jailing of their husbands, brothers and other relatives who were affiliated with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) which was outlawed by the government in 2017.

Facing near-weekly confrontations with the police and often subject to heavy-handed tactics from authorities, the Friday Women have been beaten, kicked, dragged along the ground and, in many cases, arrested in the campaign to release their loved ones. Those who have avoided jail said they are often followed by police and surveilled by local authorities.

Kong Sreynech, 32, joined the Friday Women after her mother was arrested at the group’s protest on last year’s anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements.

“We are calling on the French Embassy to intervene on behalf of all the political prisoners in Cambodia and to restore the principles of the Paris Peace Agreements,” she said.

The CNRP had provided a lawyer for her mother, Sreynech added, noting that she had seen her earlier this month for the first time since her arrest in October 2020.

“I hope that France will help us, they signed and hosted the agreements, but Cambodia isn’t exactly practicing the rules of the agreement, instead all critics—environmental activists, political activists, land rights activists—they are all arrested,” she said.

Police drag a protester along the ground while seizing a banner

Given the notorious lack of an independent judiciary in Cambodia, Sreynech said she does not expect her mother to get a fair trial, so she can only hope that the government releases her.

As she spoke, police pushed protesters to the floor in an attempt to confiscate a banner calling on Cambodia to respect the Paris Peace Agreements. A mixture of different police forces and plain-clothes officers from the Ministry of Interior were present, all offering various levels of aggression when dealing with protesters and observers alike.

“We expect violence from the police, they use it against us often and in many different forms,” Sreynech said, adding that she had been sprayed in the eyes with hand sanitizer earlier this morning.

Journalists Systematically Harassed

Reporters were repeatedly told not to document violence against protesters, with police attempting to seize cameras and press passes from reporters. Many Cambodian reporters were outright banned from covering the protest.

One police officer explained that he had attended many of the Friday Women’s protests and said that he didn’t understand why they do it.

“They don’t need to do this, it’s all in the courts’ hands,” he said.

When asked why journalists were banned from covering the protest, he said that the authorities “don’t want journalists to say the police are beating people.”

Before he could respond to enquiries as to why the police were beating people, another officer pulled him away and reprimanded him for speaking to the press.

Police interfered with journalists' work 

Another officer said that journalists were not allowed to cover the protest as a matter of “public order and security” and that the police were simply “trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The police’s treatment of journalists comes as little surprise, particularly after the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA) released a report on Oct. 19 that documented nine incidents of harassment—a mixture of legal action, violence, threats, detentions and imprisonments—involving 21 journalists in Cambodia between July and September 2021.

The report also detailed a new Ministry of Information memo that grants authorities the power to prosecute journalists if they are deemed to be interfering with official work—a move that Nop Vy, executive director of CamboJA, warned earlier this year had the potential to further restrict press freedoms in Cambodia.

A Family Persecuted

After nearly an hour, around 9.30 a.m., the French Embassy agreed to meet with three representatives of the Friday Women and would accept their petition.

“The Friday Women of Cambodia call now on the signatories of the Paris Peace Accords to return to their commitments and support Cambodia in working toward a genuinely peaceful and democratic future,” the petition read.

The petition praised the efforts of the signatories in ending the civil war that had consumed the country following the exit of Vietnamese forces, “But in the three decades since the signing of the Accords, the commitments contained within them have been undermined. The spirit of dialogue, pluralism, and multi-party democracy they embodied has given way to divisiveness and authoritarianism.

“The will of the Cambodian people has been repeatedly thwarted and the specter of conflict and oppression has, once again, returned in stark form,” it read.

Both uniformed and plain-clothes officers towered over Prum Chantha as she squatted on the pavement to sign the petitions—two versions, one in English and one in French—before one French police officer escorted Chantha and two other Friday Women into the embassy compound.

VOD reporters were forbidden from interviewing Prum Chantha 

Chantha’s husband, Kak Komphear, was a CNRP official and was jailed in June 2020, but a year later in June 2021, Chantha’s 16-year-old son was also jailed for insulting officials on a private messaging app. His trial caught the attention of human rights advocates after the presiding judge denied that Chantha’s son was autistic, despite evidence presented, and dismissed the diagnosis on the grounds that “he could use social media.”

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Vitit Muntarbhorn voiced his concerns over the 16-year-old’s imprisonment at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month.

“The dismantling of political opposition and the Cambodia National Rescue Party and arrest and imprisonment of political opponents speak to a lack of will for political pluralism and democracy,” Muntarbhorn wrote in an email. “It is important to recall the values and vision enshrined in the Paris Peace Accords, for a society grounded on liberal democracy and pluralism. This remains as relevant today as it did some 30 years ago.”

He added that the forthcoming commune and national elections would be an acid test for the government’s political will to allow legitimate competition for power.

Numerous clashes between the police and protesters took place while Chantha was in the French Embassy, but upon her return, she was scarcely able to explain what had been said before police had surrounded her. She had attempted to speak with reporters from VOD but police quickly swarmed upon the camera crew and refused to let them interview Chantha.

“This is supposed to be a free land, why are you banning this interview in a public place?” Chantha shouted at police who merely responded by harassing VOD reporters until their camera was put away.

Speaking to reporters after the protest and away from the prying eyes of local authorities, Chantha, said that the Cambodian government is trying to cancel the Paris Peace Agreements and that the one-party regime is ruling the country based on their own whims, harassing activists who work to protect what is left of democracy in Cambodia.

Prum Chantha signs the petition while surrounded by police

She called on the 18 signatories to help release all of the activists, including her husband and a son, who are now facing inconvenience in the prison.

“I want them to hold another discussion [with Cambodia] to help restore democracy, which has sharply declined due to the one-party regime,” she said, adding that the French Embassy was chosen as France was a co-host along with Indonesia to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements.

Chantha then railed against the government’s reluctance to allow proper political competition, saying that this refusal to accept pluralist democracy had stripped her family of their political rights.

“Is This a Country with Peace?”

But the violence employed by authorities when dealing with the Friday Women appears to act as a recruitment tool for the group. Phat Sat is another woman who joined the weekly protests following the arrest of her mother, who had been demonstrating with the Friday Women on the 29th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements last year.

Protesters rush to protect a fallen women as police continued to lash out

“They [the authorities] were so cruel to us, we cannot accept it. They commit violence against me and other women,” she said. “They said they were here to protect us, but which of their actions suggested that they were here to protect us? They’re here to protect us or put pressure on us. I want to ask that, is this a country with peace?”

Sat said that she felt criminalized for exercising her right to protest, but the physical abuse against women at the hands of police officers and other officials was not something she could ignore.

“We were here only to demand justice for our family members who have been unfairly convicted. They even detained innocent children, people and put them in a place without clean water,” she said, adding that the activists jailed for speaking out love their country.

“Injustice prompted us to fight for our family and other people,” said Sat. “I request all of the signatory countries of the Peace Paris Agreements help us as well as our country because there are serious human rights violations.”

But few believe calls to the Paris Peace Agreements’ signatories will be heeded, among them Elizabeth Becker—a veteran journalist who covered Cambodia through the 1970s and 80s, as well as the Paris Peace Agreements.

“Treaties are rarely ever opened up again, I see no political will for this at all,” she said at an event hosted earlier this week by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand. “I think it’s very much like other treaties, we respect them by reinvigorating them, but I really don’t see a real precedent.”

No arrests were made this year, but numerous protesters sustained injuries

No Going Back

As the Paris Peace Agreements turn 30, they have been revisited, reassessed, re-written about by a range of local outlets, with some revisiting the history that led towards the historic agreements, others looking back on the challenges while others explored the phenomenon that the agreements have become in Cambodia, but whether the Paris Peace Agreements and the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) mission that followed were a success or not, three decades has seen whatever may have been achieved eroded under the iron-fisted rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Gareth Evans, former foreign secretary of Australia who helped broker the Paris Peace Agreements, said that establishing a political solution—giving China a face-saving exit from their support of the Khmer Rouge—to the multifaceted “Cambodia problem” had been a success, but a costly one.

“As for democracy and human rights, the other two core elements of the Paris Peace Agreements, it has to be acknowledged that the record has been one of dismal failure,” Evans said. “The 1993 elections had been a success…was the last fully free and fair election Cambodia was to hold.”

Cambodia, Evans ventured, could not be described as anything other than a dictatorship. He then went on to advocate for targeted sanctions against Hun Sen and his inner circle for the myriad human rights abuses committed and the systematic corruption that has thrived under his reign.

Despite violence and a lack of will from the international community to revisit the Paris Peace Agreements, protesters remained defiant

But Evans said he felt there was little hope to be had from international organizations—especially the UN and ASEAN—for providing further assistance to Cambodia or to ensuring Hun Sen’s obligations under the Paris Peace Agreements were fulfilled.

From his exile in Paris, Sam Rainsy, acting president of the CNRP took the opportunity to lash out at China, saying that aggressive lending, investment and potential military-grade infrastructure development in Cambodia was a sign that the neutrality set out in the Cambodian Constitution—itself a product of the Paris Peace Agreements—was being assailed.

“If there is no appetite for democracy, then neutrality from China…should be in the interest of the international community,” he said, adding that the Paris Peace Agreements enshrined a notion of universal values in Cambodian society, but that practical freedoms are no longer possible to exercise.

On this, Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, agreed, saying “We have to be frank, few ordinary people are talking about the Paris Peace Agreements, but they are trying to exercise fundamental freedoms.”

Most Cambodians, she continued, are not interested in the bureaucracy of the UN or ASEAN, but “even if they’ve never read the Paris Peace Agreements, they exercise the spirit and core values [of the agreements].”

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