Lee Peng Heng, the 44-year-old manager of a heavy machinery rental company in Phnom Penh, goes by many names.
His business associates use Mr Heng. His family members call him Lee. But everybody else knows the man by his nickname: Ta Prampi Makara: Grandfather January 7.
Thirty-four years ago today, Vietnamese troops toppled the Khmer Rouge, and Heng credits the military action for saving countless lives. He combines this attachment with his personal hobby of collecting and fixing motorbikes. Of the 60 bikes in his possession, virtually all of them have “January 7, 1979” license plates, inscriptions, stickers and decals.
“Everybody always asks me the same thing, why do I put the date? I say if I didn’t put it, if this day did not happen . . . everybody dies. The Khmer Rouge would have killed them all,” he said.
The same level of enthusiasm is not shared by all Cambodians, many of whom bear a complex relationship with the date, viewing January 7 equally as the start of a 10-year Vietnamese occupation and the establishment of the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
“A number of . . . textbooks, magazines, bulletins, newspapers and public billboards [published by the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea regime] acknowledged and praised Vietnamese troops as ‘the liberators’ and ‘the eternal friends’ of Cambodian people,” said Khamboly Dy, a researcher with the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Political analyst Chea Vannath says the divisiveness can come down to word choice.
“I use the word ‘enter’, because you can use the word ‘invade’, or use the word ‘liberate’, but the middle term is ‘enter’,” she said. “Some, they view it as liberation from the Khmer Rouge killing fields, another group of people might look at it as an invasion of a foreign country.”
Though Heng says his embrace of the anniversary is not political, he uses similar language as Cambodian People’s Party members when he refers to it as his “second birthday”. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who gained his political start after being one of the Khmer Rouge defectors appointed to the newly formed government by the Vietnamese, has said in speeches that the date represents a “second life” for Cambodia. As it does most every year, the CPP is commemorating the holiday with a massive ceremony today at its headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district.
What few dispute about the official holiday is that on January 7, 1979, about 150,000 Vietnamese troops who had spent the few weeks prior pushing back the Khmer Rouge in the East of Cambodia, stormed into an abandoned Phnom Penh and declared the country liberated.
Heng says he was only 11 years old when the military advance freed him from a labour camp in Kandal province’s Mok Kampol district, where he worked hard, had little to eat, and “cried every day”. He reunited in Phnom Penh with his family, who, except for a brother-in-law, had survived the regime.
Heng went to school, joined the police forces and started his own business. Ten years ago, he developed a passion for motorbikes. Fixing them and buying them relieved stress. The collection grew and, in 2010, he hit on the idea of using the motorbikes to honour the special date on the calendar. In time, he hopes to open up a small museum.
“I started only two years ago, but I want to spend five years more and build my collection,” he said.
Heng’s bikes are amalgamations slapped together from junkyard scrap pieces and selective online purchases from sellers abroad. He has frames from Italy, France, Holland and Japan, and tinkers on the bikes in a workshop connected to his kitchen.
Pedals, frames, engines, wheels and mirrors slowly take shape into sleek designs. After the heavy lifting is done, he labels the creations. One finished product is called the “Power Lee Cycle”. The last step, of course, is to add “Jan 7, 1979”.
He stows the bikes wherever he can; there is scant free space. Bikes are lined up in every available corridor, as well as in the living room and in rooms whose only purpose seems to be the holding of bikes.
“My house is all traffic,” he said.
On the stairwell leading up to the second floor, bikes perched on the hand banister look like insects crawling up a branch. He says his wife, who runs a carpet business from the home, doesn’t mind the lack of living space. But when he walked by the storage room, he sees nothing but an opportunity.
“When wife my sells these,” he said, tapping hands on stacks of carpets, “I’m going to put motos here.”