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 by Kenneth Quinn

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia. That accord closed the door on years of war, during which the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields” caused the deaths of up to two million persons (out of a population of seven million) and brought the 1,000-year- old civilization to the point of obliteration.

When I landed in Phnom Penh in 1996 to begin my term as U.S. Ambassador, the country was in the fifth year of implementing that 1991 agreement. Looking back on this improbable diplomatic success offers a chance to assess the effectiveness of American diplomacy in the 1990s, and how, despite one extremely unfortunate regression, Indochina and Southeast Asia were irrevocably changed by that accord.

Indochina in 1990—An Intractable Situation

At the start of the 1990s, Indochina seemed frozen in time. As I began serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the East Asia and Pacific Bureau, little had changed from the situation that obtained at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975:

-The United States had no official relationship with, nor diplomatic presence in, either Vietnam or Cambodia. Over 2,000 American POW/MIAs were still unaccounted for from the war; sharp political differences about whether Hanoi was holding back a “warehouse” full of the remains of U.S. military personnel blocked any forward movement.

– Cambodia was riven by internal conflict and civil war. Vietnam, having invaded the country with 200,000 troops on Christmas Day 1978—thus ending the brutal Khmer Rouge rule—had installed the authoritarian Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in power.

-An opposition movement, under the titular leadership of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and composed of royalists, pro-democracy elements and the Khmer Rouge units that still controlled much of the Cambodian countryside, battled the CPP.

– Sino-Vietnamese relations, both diplomatic and commercial, had effectively been severed following their 1979 border war. That confrontation was continuing in Cambodia, with China supplying assistance to the opposition Khmer Rouge and royalist forces.

– The Soviet Union, through its support of Vietnam, further intensified its decades-long antagonistic relationship with China. The Nixon-Kissinger tilt toward China had provided important reassurance to Beijing about its vulnerable southern border.

– Japan, to induce Vietnam to provide more cooperation with U.S. POW/MIA accounting, had held back all development assistance and commercial investment from Indochina. The six ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia remained aloof from Cambodia and Vietnam.

Formulating a Three-Part Diplomatic Strategy

To address this seemingly deadlocked situation, we in the East Asia Bureau endeavored to craft a new diplomatic approach, one that would link together progress toward three distinct objectives:

– Ending the decade-long civil war in which Cambodia had been mired and instilling democracy and human rights through a new freely elected government,

– Linking improved American official and commercial relations with Vietnam to progress in both achieving a Cambodian settlement and significantly enhanced Vietnamese assistance on POW/MIA accounting,

– Ensuring that the genocidal Pol Pot Khmer Rouge would never return to power.

Few gave us much chance for success.

A Small Step in Paris Dramatically Shakes Up the Process

Nonetheless, in the summer of 1990, Assistant Secretary Richard Solomon and I accompanied Secretary of State Jim Baker to Paris. While there, we announced that the U.S. would no longer support the Khmer Rouge holding Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations, a significant reversal of the Reagan administration policy.

This seemingly small step, however, had an immediate impact, including: giving new life to the idea of a UN-centric negotiation to bring the Cambodian parties together; generating a favorable response in Hanoi, which viewed the Khmer Rouge with such disdain; and instilling uncertainty into the Sino-Soviet-U.S. geopolitics equation. As a Chinese interlocutor told us, our policy reversal was causing Beijing to wonder if this marked the end of the U.S. tilt toward China.

From “Sideshow” to Center Stage

Suddenly Cambodia was no longer, to use William Shawcross’ famous book title, a “sideshow,” but rather the main event around which so many dramatic diplomatic changes would revolve.

Assistant Secretary Solomon urged that the long-stalled negotiating process involving the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council now move forward. One month later, the Perm 5 would meet to begin drafting the “framework” for an overall Cambodian peace agreement. Over the next 15 months, Solomon and I would represent the U.S. at negotiating sessions in New York, Beijing, Paris, Jakarta and with the Cambodian parties in Thailand, crafting an all-encompassing final agreement.

Factoring in the Demise of the Soviet Union

The combination of the U.S. policy shift on the Cambodian seat at the UN and the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was so disconcerting to Beijing and Hanoi that they immediately convened an urgent secret meeting in Sichuan Province in September 1990. Apparently worried that the Soviet unraveling could be replicated in their countries like a global anti-communist virus, they secretly agreed to end their decade-long estrangement, including their proxy conflict in Cambodia.

From both China and Vietnam’s point of view, the draft UN Perm-5 agreement could provide a face-saving mechanism which, like a carefully choreographed kabuki performance, would allow them to simultaneously move off the Cambodian stage and concentrate on solidifying their political control at home.

Sensing this significant development, we adjusted our approach, and saw the immediate impact when neither the Chinese nor the Soviets (reflecting Hanoi’s interests) opposed the U.S. proposal to add human rights protections and other democratic political elements into the final Paris Peace Agreement documents.

A “Roadmap” to Diplomatic Relations with Vietnam

Our decision to no longer allow the Khmer Rouge representative to hold the Cambodian seat at the UN changed the tone of our conversation with Hanoi. When meeting with Vietnam’s representative at the UN in September,1990, my first sentence — “We both strongly agree that the Khmer Rouge must never return to power”—was met with a smile and a nod of agreement.

I was there to start the process for a breakthrough meeting between Secretary Baker and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach in New York later that month. It would be followed by Minister Thach’s unprecedented visit to Washington in October to meet with General Jack Vessey, the President’s Special Representative on POW/MIA Affairs

These meetings led to Hanoi agreeing to our opening a military POW/MIA accounting office in their capital, a significant step, augmented by Congressional visits to Vietnam by Senators John McCain and John Kerry. During one of those trips, I informed Foreign Minister Thach that the U.S. would provide $1 million in humanitarian aid, our first ever post-war assistance,

To build on this momentum, we drafted and presented a new “Roadmap” policy, a four-part list of actions each side could take that were specifically designed to advance the bilateral relationship through three main stages: lifting the U.S. trade embargo, creating Liaison Offices, and finally establishing formal diplomatic relations.

Signing the Paris Peace Agreement—An Improbable Success

Just 16 months after our first step in Paris, this swirl of diplomatic activity brought representatives of 18 countries and the four Cambodian factions back to the French capital on October 23, 1991, to sign the Paris Peace Agreements (PPA). Its provisions were as remarkable as they seemed impossible in 1990.

Some of the most immediate aspects of the agreement were that it:

– provided for an interim UN transitional authority to take over administration of Cambodia and organize free elections,

– brought a hugely effective UN Peacekeeping force, organized by Under Secretary General Kofi Annan, into the country to implement a cease fire ending the decade-long civil war and certifying the withdrawal of all foreign (i.e. Vietnamese) forces,

– allowed the international community (including the U.S.) to return to Cambodia and establish permanent diplomatic missions, and

– resulted in significant amounts of development assistance flowing into the country.

In terms of the Cambodian political environment, the agreement:

– provided for the restoration of the monarchy, a thousand-year-old symbol of Khmer history,

– dramatically changed the political atmosphere by instituting freedom of the press that led to newspapers and television stations with varying points of view to begin operation, and

– permitted political parties to operate openly, allowing the royalist FUNCINPEC Party and two wings of the Liberal Democratic Party to open offices and conduct party activities.

Include the Khmer Rouge in Order to Destroy It

When Secretary Baker signed the completed PPA in Paris, Khieu Samphan, the “foreign minister” of the Khmer Rouge, was there to sign it as well. Normally, having an organization involved that had committed crimes against humanity would be anathema for the United States. However, in this case, our judgment was that we had to allow the Khmer Rouge to participate in order to destroy it.

I outlined our strategy to attack the Khmer Rouge in a sidebar discussion with our new Ambassador to Cambodia Charles Twining and USAID officers at a Cambodian pledging conference in Tokyo in 1992. Based on my experience 15 years earlier in Vietnam, I had seen the powerful impact that upgraded rural roads and new high-yielding rice seeds could have in undermining the Viet Cong Insurgency.

I therefore directed that all $13 million of our development assistance funds would be used to lease road grading equipment in Thailand and to bring it into Khmer Rouge controlled areas in the Cambodian countryside and begin upgrading and improving the roads.

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn with Senator John Kerry and King Sihanouk at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in 1998
Ambassador Kenneth Quinn with Senator John Kerry and King Sihanouk at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh in 1998

This rural development approach, combined with the new government’s efforts, produced immediate results as some Khmer Rouge military commanders began to defect to the government side. Subsequently, I met with Prime Minister Hun Sen who agreed we would jointly expand this road building strategy into the main Khmer Rouge base area at Anlong Veng.

The 1993 Cambodian Election and the Establishment of U.S.-Vietnamese Relations

The 1993 UN-implemented election in Cambodia produced a coalition government that ushered in a period of political stability, with the Royalist FUNCINPEC party leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk as Prime Minister. When combined with the success of the Roadmap policy, this led in 1995 to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, an achievement on which I worked closely with Assistant Secretary Winston Lord. The result was a transformational period of economic development and openness throughout Indochina. Both Cambodia and Vietnam began developing relationships with ASEAN.

The tragic breakdown of the coalition government and return to warfare among the Cambodian parties in 1997 was a terrible setback; the great promise of the Paris Agreements appeared lost. The U.S. cut all development assistance to Cambodia.

My embassy, nonetheless, continued to track and attempt to capture Pol Pot, who was killed or committed suicide in 1998. The Cambodian government maintained our road building strategy. On March 6, 1999, Ta Mok, the last remaining Khmer Rouge commander surrendered.

Peace, Development, Growing Chinese Influence, Ending Genocide

Three months later, speaking at the 1999 East Asia Chiefs of Mission conference, I expressed great satisfaction that, as a result of the Paris Peace process and the U.S. diplomatic strategy, the worst genocidal mass murder terrorist organization of the second half of the 20th century had been eradicated.

I then outlined China’s use of soft power and commercial relations to build an astounding web of relationships in Cambodia. In less than a decade, China had become the most influential foreign country, an approach I predicted would be replicated throughout the region, potentially undercutting American influence. Almost no one agreed with me.

Although in 2021 there is indeed significant Chinese influence in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, it is nonetheless possible to look back and see that the flurry of American diplomacy we initiated in Paris in 1990 began a process that truly transformed Indochina. As a result of American leadership, the region has been at peace for close to three decades. America now has a remarkably friendly relationship with Hanoi; Cambodia and Vietnam are fully integrated members of ASEAN; poverty levels have dropped precipitously in both countries; and all across Cambodia high-yielding varieties of rice are producing bumper crops. The “Killing Fields” have truly returned to being farm fields.End.


Kenneth Quinn

Kenneth Quinn served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the East Asia and Pacific Bureau 1990-1995, and as American ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia 1996-1999, when he retired from the Foreign Service. For his role in addressing the issues affecting Indochina during this 10-year period, he received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, the Secretary’s Award for Heroism and twice was the recipient of the AFSA Herter Award for Intellectual Courage and Dissent. In 2019, Ambassador Quinn was presented the Aegis Trust Champion of Humanity Distinguished Service Award for confronting genocide, presented at a ceremony at the House of Lords in London.



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