Skip to main content

Pierre Lizée is professor of international studies at Brock University and the author of Peace, Power, and Resistance in Cambodia.

Call it the test-lab approach to conflict resolution. Cambodia was where the “peace through social engineering” model of international intervention, later adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan, was first tried in the early 1990s. After the Cold War, the United Nations wanted to be more pro-active in the resolution of many long-standing conflicts. Why not go in with massive amounts of aid and personnel, and rebuild these societies that had been so conflict-prone? Elections would be organized, a democratic life would take hold and conflicts would be resolved at the ballot box rather than through war.

This failed. The movement towards democracy, which often took centuries to unfold elsewhere, could not be telescoped in a few months in Cambodia. And leaders whose power rests on networks of corruption and nepotism will always resist new forms of politics they would not control as well. These lessons, of course, are still being learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Never mind, said the international community, we will yet again try something new in Cambodia. If not peace through democracy, why not peace through justice? Cambodia suffered one of the largest genocides in history in the mid-1970s – approximately 2.5 million people slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the Killing Fields. To assuage its conscience, the West sponsored a trial on those atrocities. It was unusual because it was held in Cambodia and managed mainly by Cambodians, unlike other trials, such as the one on atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, held outside the areas where atrocities were committed and managed by international legal teams. This was meant to usher in the rule of law in Cambodia. This failed, again for two reasons: disinterest among the international community for crimes long gone from the front pages of the global media, and resistance from the many former Khmer Rouge who are still in power in the Cambodian government.

And now, Cambodia is again a test case. Elections are held this Sunday. Hun Sen, the ex-Khmer Rouge Prime Minister in power for more than 30 years, will either cheat his way to victory or ignore the results of the vote if he loses. For good measure, he has already abolished the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and closed independent newspapers. The test is simple: How will the international community react?

This is critical because it relates to the one element that has been central in the peace operations conducted since the end of the Cold War: time. This is the core of the argument. Changing a society, whether through democratization or development of the rule of law, so it becomes more peaceful takes a lot of time.

This makes this weekend’s elections a special test case, distinct from other elections manipulated by authoritarian regimes. Cambodia was the first country where social engineering as a conduit to peace was tried. It has experienced this process for the longest time – and time is precisely what is supposed to bring peace to a country such as Cambodia. This is why the stakes are so high. If the international community is not willing to denounce forcefully the abuses of power taking place in the country, how can it go elsewhere and claim that it will support democratic change for all the time it needs to unfold there?

This has implications for Canada. Canadian troops were part of the democracy-building efforts in Cambodia, and the Canadian government supported the Khmer Rouge trial. Now, the Trudeau government is committing itself to peace operations in Mali, Latvia and Iraq. Fine, but finish what you started elsewhere. The Trudeau government should denounce irregularities in the Cambodian elections and demand that opposition parties and a free media be allowed to operate. Will it?