Cambodia celebrated its 62nd year of independence from France yesterday, an opportunity that leading figures from both of the country’s political parties quickly took to promote their own agendas.
During the official ceremony, attended by thousands of students, members of the armed forces and others, King Norodom Sihamoni, accompanied by Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top officials, laid a wreath and ignited a torch at the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh.
According to tradition, the “Flame of Victory” will burn for three days to commemorate the Kingdom’s independence from France on November 9, 1953.
Although the event was largely apolitical, a post on Hun Sen’s official Facebook page heralding Independence Day was less neutral. In the post, Hun Sen – who has repeatedly warned of civil war should the opposition prevail – reappropriated the opposition’s mantra of “change”, saying Cambodia’s history showed regime change to be a road to genocide.
“On March 18, 1970, Lon Nol made a coup against the former King [Sihanouk] and plunged [the country] into the killing fields, a lesson which shows [the effects of] ‘change’ caused by toppling the head of state in order to take power, and now Cambodia has to move from that very dangerous road,” the post read.
“The Cambodian People’s Party, of which I am the president and prime minister, is determined to protect the constitution and the King and ensure peace for Cambodia.”
The prime minister did not, however, mention his own role as a military commander in the Khmer Rouge revolution that ushered in the so-called killing fields.
Meanwhile, Kem Sokha, vice president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, also took to Facebook to congratulate Cambodia on its independence – and to make an implied critique of the ruling CPP. “I would like to appeal to all Khmer politicians to be independent from foreign countries and fully ensure [Cambodia’s] sovereignty,” Sokha wrote.
Sokha did not elaborate on which countries he was referring to, but the opposition has long accused the CPP of being backed by Vietnam, a country some of its members also accuse of encroaching on Cambodian territory at the border.
With relations strained following the beating of two opposition lawmakers on October 26, political analyst Chea Vannath said the fact that both of Cambodia’s main political parties were implicitly attacking each other on Independence Day showcased the Kingdom’s enduring divisions.
“In Cambodia, the divisions between the political parties is much more acute,” she said, noting that independence day celebrations in other countries were typically occasions for national unity.
“It means that the maturity of democracy [in Cambodia] is still at a very early stage.”
A cheerier message about Cambodia’s national day came from United States President Barack Obama, who highlighted his wife Michelle’s visit to the Kingdom in March in an official message from the White House delivered late last week.
“I hope that Cambodians, both home and abroad, have a healthy and happy Independence Day celebration,” the letter read.