On 07 January 2016, Cambodia marked 37 years since the collapse of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the death of millions of people and the utter destruction of the whole fabric of society. During the 1980s, Cambodia was engulfed in another protracted civil war, in which the world powers were also involved. Worse yet, the country was also under international sanctions, making ordinary life even more difficult.
The signing of the Paris Peace Agreement on 23 October 1991 helped put an end to this decade-long conflict and allowed all the warring factions to establish political parties in order to compete for power through a multiparty election, which was arranged by the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. However, Cambodia was far from peace. The Khmer Rouge reneged on its promises and went back to the forest to continue the fighting.
It was not until 1998 that peace was finally within reach after the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders were captured and their soldiers were integrated into the national armed forces. For the first time, a large majority of Cambodian people could now cast aside the burdens and tragedy of the past and begin to look toward a better future. With stability and peace, Cambodia’s economy took off, lifting millions of people out of extreme poverty.
As a victim of bloody civil wars for many decades, Cambodia is best positioned to promote peace around the world. Over the past years, thousands of its peacekeeping forces have been sent to several war-torn nations such as South Sudan, the Republic of Chad, the Central African Republic, Lebanon, Syria, and Mali, among others. Moreover, Cambodia’s demining team is also highly praised for its work and professionalism.
Between 2006 and 2015, Cambodia sent a total of 3,156 troops as part of ten separate United Nations various missions, making it the third largest provider of peacekeeping personnel in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Unfortunately, four members of the country’s peacekeeping forces have been killed and another five were injured during missions abroad over the past ten years. Despite such losses, the government is still strongly committed to its international responsibilities.
Besides contributing to peacekeeping efforts, Cambodia is also providing a platform for regional partners and global powers to discuss about some of the most critical issues that continue to pose significant threats to peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia Pacific and beyond. Admittedly, the reason that the Kingdom has now become an important venue for such high level dialogue is no coincidence.
Since Cambodia is a non-claimant in contentious maritime territorial disputes over the South China Sea, which is now increasingly seen as the setting for fierce competition between China and United States; it is among a handful of countries that take a neutral position. Thus, Cambodia could act as a mediator or host talks for all the claimants to reconcile their differences and reach compromise solutions.
Compared to other countries in the Southeast Asian region, Cambodia has very strong relations with China, earning the country an important place in its giant partner’s foreign policy. Moreover, Cambodia also enjoys the same power and privileges as other ASEAN member states due to the basic principles of this regional organization – consensus and consultation. This further confirms the importance of Cambodia’s role in helping the claimants to resolve these maritime disputes.
Moreover, Cambodia has done a great job in integrating the concept of cultural preservation and protection in the promotion of peace. Besides human losses and physical destruction, another victim of Cambodia’s civil wars and political turbulence is thousands of ancient temples, statues, monuments and other architectural buildings, which have long suffered from widespread looting, severe damage and lack of maintenance.
Over the past few years, Cambodia has successfully arranged a number of large events to promote culture and to raise awareness about the need to protect these ancient treasures during periods of wars or armed clashes. Furthermore, some even go as far as to suggest that some kinds of multilateral peacekeeping forces should be established that could intervene when these world heritages are in great danger.
Given that more countries in the Asia Pacific are now putting heavy emphasis on peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and search and rescue operations, Cambodia should take this opportunity to expand and strengthen its peacekeeping and demining forces. For example, in September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested that the USD 1 billion China-UN Peace and Development Fund would be used for peacekeeping purposes.
Last year, Japan also amended its pacifist constitution, allowing its Self-Defense Forces to engage in a wide range of military operations overseas. In response to the critics, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strongly rejected the idea that such amendments would aim to change the military posture from defensive to offensive, and that the ultimate goal is only to enhance the capability and resources of Japanese Self-Defense Forces in promoting and maintaining peace around the world.
The United States has also been working with many countries in the Asia Pacific to strengthen their peacekeeping forces through joint training and exercises. In addition, some ASEAN member states are also proposing to create peacekeeping forces and give this regional body more power to prevent intra-state conflict and violence. If such proposals are accepted, the ASEAN region might stand a better chance to avoid wars or armed clashes as a consequence of many unresolved territorial disputes.
Of course, advocating for peace will also greatly benefit Cambodia. As the logic of rational action of small states, Cambodia cannot resolve conflicts with its larger and more powerful neighbors or other major countries through military force. It will need to depend on multilateral organizations – such as the United Nations and ASEAN, among others – and international rules and norms to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Therefore, Cambodia should take more of a leadership role in keeping, building and promoting peace around the world. It should seek support from current peacekeeping initiatives in the region, most notably China and Japan, in order to strengthen the capacity of its peacekeeping forces and send more of them to assist in United Nations missions. For Cambodia, the best way to avoid wars and violence is perhaps to become the champion of peace.