Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Cambodia's International Rehabilitation, 1997-2000

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Cambodia's International Rehabilitation, 1997-2000

Article excerpt

This article offers a historical analysis of Cambodia's recent three-year crisis of international legitimacy, provoked by the brief civil war in July 1997, and finally settled between November 1998 and mid-2000. Overwhelming international condemnation of Hun Sen's government after the July 1997 fighting seriously delayed national reconciliation and a return to stable government. However, the origins of Cambodia's complex 1997 crisis go back to UNTAC and before. This article argues that from 1993 onwards and especially during the 1997-98 crisis, Cambodia's national sovereignty came under serious challenge from increasingly powerful ideas about international peace enforcement and the imposition of international norms of behaviour on small or weak states. Cambodia fought off such pressures: it found a new domestic political equilibrium, and in so doing succeeded in reclaiming its sovereignty and international legitimacy.


For some sixteen months, from the outbreak of military conflict in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, between the two coalition parties sharing government (the CPP and Funcinpec) on 5 July 1997 until a new coalition government was formed in November 1998, Cambodia's international legitimacy was suspended. Cambodia's leading politician, Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), was comprehensively and routinely condemned in the world's press. [1] The credentials of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC)) to occupy its

United Nations seat were rejected by the latter in August 1997 (even though these credentials were co-signed by Hun Sen and his then co-Prime Minister, Funcinpec's Ung Huot, and endorsed by King Sihanouk). Cambodia was not able to resume its seat in the United Nations until December 1998, following the formation of a new CPP-Funcinpec coalition government. Cambodia's bid for ASEAN membership, which had been within a few days of taking effect in July 1997, was suspended by ASEAN, pending normalization of Cambodia's political crisis. Ironically, Myanmar, led by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) regime was admitted into ASEAN in 1997 along with Vietnam and Laos, while a disgraced Cambodia had to wait another year-and-a-half, until early 1999. [2]

The restoration of the U.N. seat and the acceptance into ASEAN were the key markers in rebuilding Cambodia's international legitimacy. A third key marker -- annual aid consultations with major donors, which provide about half of Cambodia's annual government budgetary revenue -- also resumed in April 1999, after a 22-month gap. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank resumed their normal programme relationships with Cambodia in early 1999. Since then, there has been a progressive and now virtually complete restoration of Cambodia's international standing.

The legitimacy of Cambodia's government is still being contested, but by a shrinking band of opponents (and not by any government). One outstanding issue still in contention until recently -- agreement on procedures for the United Nations and the RGC to jointly conduct Khmer Rouge trials -- continued to sour Cambodia's international image throughout 1999 and the first half of 2000; but finally, with the help of constructive mediation by the United States, it now seems to be on the point of implementation. [3]

The past three years have been a hard road for the RGC. The immediate and blanket condemnation by virtually the entire international community of the July 1997 conflict as a Hun Sen-led coup precipitated a three-year political crisis that carried serious costs for all Cambodians. [4]

The first cost was in the quality of governance. Much of the RGC's political energy and leadership focus, from the fighting in July 1997 till the settlement with the United Nations in July 2000 on the issue of the Khmer Rouge trials, needed to be directed to the search for political solutions and to the defence of Cambodia's national sovereignty and international standing under hostile international pressure. …

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