October 23rd is celebrated as a public holiday in Cambodia, commemorating the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements that ended decades of conflict in the country.
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Specifically, it ended the Cambodian-Vietnamese War that had begun back in 1979, but the nation had been in a state of turmoil since 1975, when the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime had seized control of the government.
The Paris Peace Accords of 1991 led to the first instance ever of the U.N. temporarily assuming control over a national government. It was also the first deployment of U.N. peacekeepers since the end of the Cold War. The agreement was signed by 19 nations and provided for cessation of warfare between Cambodia and Vietnam, the removal of foreign troops from Cambodian soil, and the establishment of democratic rule. U.N. peacekeepers were tasked with protecting human rights within Cambodia. The U.N. Human Rights Office, set up in Cambodia in 1993, has pushed for prison reforms, civil rights, property rights, and judicial justice. The Nepali human rights monitor who oversees the project, Surya Subedi, acknowledges great progress but also awaits a day when the vision of the Paris Peace Agreements become “a reality for all Cambodians.”
The full background of the agreements begins with the rise of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Genocide, famine, and war killed about 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge finally fell. A democratic Cambodian resistance arose in 1977, and Vietnamese Communist forces intervened beginning in 1979. For over a decade, civil war continued, and there were still Khmer Rouge forces active in Cambodia in 1991, when the Paris Peace Agreements were signed.
After the agreements, only gradually did Cambodia reach a “normalised” situation, the fighting continuing for years in the early 1990s. In 2012, when the ultimate success of the Paris Peace Agreements was clear, the Cambodian government declared October 23rd a national holiday. It is now a time to reflect on the tragedies and triumphs of the past and to celebrate what Cambodians hope their nation will become in the future.
If in Cambodia on Paris Peace Accords Day, some activities you may wish to take part in include:
- Attend the main festival, which is held in the capital city of Phnom Penh. While Cambodia is mostly rural, large portions of the populace travel to the capital to celebrate on October 23rd. There are fireworks shows, speeches by political leaders, and numerous cultural events.
- Tour the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also in Phnom Penh. Here, you will see a detailed account of the bloody Khmer Rouge in a building formerly used as a prison and execution centre. Over 20,000 were once held within the confines of “Security Prison 21” on the “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” (Tuol Sleng).
- Take the opportunity to appreciate Cambodia’s natural beauty. As most workers are off on Paris Peace Accords Day, it is a chance for locals to get out and “breathe some fresh air,” and there is no reason tourist cannot join them. One prime spot to see is Kep National Park, which sits on mountainous terrain and is criss-crossed with walking trails. There are amazing views of the countryside and the nearby South China Sea. You can also take a break for refreshments at the Led Zep Cafe, which offers very affordable meals and drinks.
Cambodia has a rich cultural heritage and a history filled with both dark tragedies and hope-inspiring victories. There is no better time to visit Cambodia and learn about its people and their story than on Paris Peace Accords Day.