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Ou Virak, Ou Ritthy and Rupert Abbott -- Cambodia's new crossroads

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A buddhist monk looks at pictures of victims of the Khmer Rouge regime at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh on June 1.   © Reuters

This year marks 25 years since the U.N.-sponsored Paris Peace Agreements laid the course for an end to decades of conflict in Cambodia and a future based on the foundations of democracy and respect for human rights.

Now, with Cambodia at a new crossroads -- with a deteriorating human rights situation and leaders struggling to keep up with the demands of a young, better-informed population -- it is time to put the spotlight back on the country and the expectations of its new generation.

In October 1991, Cambodia and 18 other signatories -- including the U.S., China, Japan, and a number of European and Southeast Asian countries -- agreed on a Framework for a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, better known as the Paris Peace Agreements.

During the preceding two decades, the Cambodian people had been the victims of complex and vicious geopolitics, and the brutality of Khmer Rouge rule. Estimates of the number of people killed run into the millions.

Since the 1980s, when civil war and Western sanctions thwarted reconstruction, Cambodian governments have made huge strides in rebuilding and developing the country. Central to many of these efforts has been Prime Minister Hun Sen of the ruling Cambodian People's Party, and he deserves credit.

With significant international support, progress has included peace, disarmament and de-mining, poverty reduction, successes in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other diseases, infrastructure development and impressive economic growth.

But development has been unequal, tainted by corruption and by land and natural resource grabbing that has led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Despite the provisions for strong state institutions in Cambodia's constitution, they too often appear to serve only private pockets and vested interests.

Further overshadowing these achievements are cycles of state violence and repression, which have included the torture, killing, judicial harassment and jailing of perceived opponents, together with numerous other human rights violations.

Now, with local elections slated for 2017 and national elections the following year, Cambodia is in the midst of another such cycle -- the most wide-ranging in a decade, bolstered by oppressive new laws, and with no end in sight.

This time is different

This cycle has seen the prime minister's bodyguards beat up opposition parliamentarians; the jailing of opposition parliamentarians and human rights workers on spurious charges; legal action and threats against civil society groups, activists and U.N. workers; and, in practice, what amounts to a ban on public protests.

Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, is in exile to avoid jail, while his deputy, Kem Sokha, remains holed up in the party's headquarters, facing spurious legal action over an alleged extramarital affair.

It all seems painfully familiar, but this time things are different. A new, social media savvy and increasingly confident generation has emerged, and took to the streets to demand change during the last national elections in 2013.

Many of these post-Khmer Rouge "baby boomers" are calling for equal development, social justice, an end to impunity and free and fair elections. They want a greater say in the direction of their country and are speaking their minds.

To them, the old tactics of repression are anachronistic -- with one recent example seeing dozens of heavily armed police deployed (unsuccessfully) in central Phnom Penh to arrest Sokha.

Meanwhile, much to this new generation's embarrassment, Cambodia's international reputation is suffering again. The latest cycle of repression has resulted in justified rebukes from the U.S., the European Union and the U.N. Secretary-General.

The clock is ticking on the will and capacity of Cambodia's leaders to evolve and meet the needs and expectations of the people.

Looking forward, one path would see repression cemented as the new normal. There would be a failure to reform, increasing resentment, and, with space for expression restricted, moderate voices silenced. Extremists from different sides would take the fore, further polarizing politics.

In this scenario, with the legitimacy of any elections in doubt, civil unrest would likely follow -- as happened in 2013 -- and potentially boil over into violent confrontation. The still-fragile economy would suffer and years of progress could be undone.

A preferable path would see an end to repression and improved respect for human rights, with political parties listening to the people and working constructively to identify and help implement genuine reforms to break the cycles of corruption, inequality and injustice.

There would be recognition of the imperfect but important legacy left by the governments of the last three decades, but there would also be planning for a future transition to a new generation of leaders, as part of Cambodia's democratic journey. Free and fair elections would be held in 2017 and 2018 as promised, and the results respected.

The right path

Twenty-five years on from the Paris Peace Agreements, Cambodia and the other signatories need to ensure that the right path is chosen. It might be preferable for Cambodia to put its own house in order, but recent events suggest this may not be possible.

While there are worse places in the world when it comes to democracy and human rights, few countries have suffered as much as Cambodia in recent history, including at the hands of others, and there are few in which the international community has invested so much. There is a lot to lose, and Cambodia can still get it right.

Beyond the practical and moral arguments, the Paris signatories have open-ended legal obligations to help.

Cambodia and the other signatories should set aside geopolitical rivalries and reconvene to host a conference and other events to celebrate the progress made, address ongoing obstacles to democratization and respect for human rights, and give the new generation an opportunity to identify the future they want.

Held in Cambodia, the initiative should involve Cambodia's king, as head of state, together with political parties -- including their leaders -- and representatives from the country's diverse civil society, including women's groups, minorities and youth organizations.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia could help to coordinate the conference as neutral facilitators.

The events should focus on the future, with open discussion, proposals and action plans to pull Cambodia out of the current cycle of repression and to support it along the path demanded by the new generation. The action plans should include benchmarks, with international aid, trade and other relationships tied in.

These proposals are optimistic, and the details would need to be worked out. But if nothing more is done to help Cambodia and its young population along the right path, all the hard-won progress could be undone, or worse. And no one will be able to say they were not warned.

Ou Virak is founder of the Future Forum think tank; Ou Ritthy is a co-founder of Politikoffee, a political discussion group; and Rupert Abbott is a co-founder of the RightsStart consultancy hub and the former deputy Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International.

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