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Cambodia’s Violent Peace

CANBERRA – Cambodia’s government has been getting away with murder. Not the kind of genocidal slaughter conducted by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. Nor the scale of killing that has been roiling Syria, or that has put Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, and Bangladesh in the global headlines of late. But murder nonetheless, with Cambodian citizens deliberately targeted by their country’s security forces.

On January 3, five striking garment workers were shot dead in Phnom Penh while peacefully demanding a minimum livable wage. Many others were severely injured by gunfire and beatings. More than 20 have been detained without trial. This followed deadly violence against unarmed demonstrators protesting last year’s deeply flawed national election, won, yet again, by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has dominated political life for more than three decades.

The recent killings repeat a pattern of political violence that has recurred all too often at crucial moments in Cambodia’s history – even after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which were intended to bring not only peace, but also democracy and human-rights protection to the country’s long-suffering people. No country in the world deserved all three more, ravaged as it was for two decades by massive United States bombing, civil war, a genocidal reign of terror by the Khmer Rouge, invasion by Vietnam, and more civil war – with some two million dead as a result.

Hopes were high that Cambodia had been set on a transformative path by the success of the United Nations peace plan, the huge peacekeeping operation that followed, and the remarkably peaceful election of 1993 (in all of which Australia played a leading role during my time as Foreign Minister).