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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - January 7 and its malcontents

January 7 and its malcontents

The Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument near Wat Botum drew fire in 1998 over an on-going heated debate.

"January 7 is still very important to us [as] the 'second birthday' of the Cambodian

people... January 7 will be revered as an anniversary forever."

Heng Samrin, First Deputy of the National Assembly and former Prime Minister of the

People's Republic of Kampuchea speaking outside the National Assembly on Jan 2, 2001.

"I still insist that January 7 marks the day that Vietnam began its ongoing

intrusion onto Khmer land."

Senator Kem Sokha on Dec 29, 2000.

The basic facts are undisputed. On January 7, 1979 the first units of an army of

100,000 Vietnamese regulars and a force of 20,000 Cambodians representing the Vietnamese-backed

Kampuchea "Salvation Front" entered Phnom Penh and brought an official

end to the three year, eight month and twenty day rule of Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea.

But times have changed since that fateful morning of Jan 7, 1979, when dismayed units

of Vietnamese and Cambodian troops wandered the empty streets of the once-bustling

capital, discovering only 70 surviving inhabitants and the still-fresh corpses of

the last victims of the Toul Sleng torture center. The initial euphoria, relief and

mourning that followed the end of the Khmer Rouge regime have now passed and interpretations

of Cambodia's "Liberation Day" have been increasingly colored by bitterness

over the ten-year Vietnamese occupation that followed.

In 1993, the Royal Government of Cambodia officially suspended observation of January

7 as a concession to Funcinpec and the then-Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, who

had persisted in following distinctly different calendar dates commemorating Cambodia's

official liberation from the Khmer Rouge.

And while Hun Sen reinstated the holiday in 1995 and members of the top leadership

of the CPP such as Heng Samrin and Chea Sim continue to describe January 7 as Cambodia's

"second birthday", public gratitude and recognition of Vietnam's role in

ousting the Khmer Rouge is now mixed with a more cynical appraisal of Vietnam's strategic

gains behind Vietnam's intervention.

"For me [January 7] has two meanings, the first being the collapse of the Pol

Pot regime and the second the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam and the occupation

and loss of independence to a foreign power," said opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

"The day is controversial, and when we celebrate something we should do it in

unanimity and if there's not unanimity we should keep quiet."

Cynicism about January 7 is by no means limited to Rainsy, whose party is noted for

past attempts at exploiting for political gain the traditional anti-Vietnamese sentiments

of Cambodians.

One of the strongest critics of the official celebration of January 7 as Cambodia's

"Liberation Day" is a former leader of the Salvation Front troops who spilled

over the border on Dec 25, 1978 to help oust the Khmer Rouge from power.

Twenty-two years later, Pen Sovann, former Premier in the Vietnamese-installed government

of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) which officially took control of Cambodia

on January 12, 1979, says that gains made by Cambodians on January 7 have been long

exceeded by the losses.

"January 7 was a victory day but also a sad day [because] Vietnam violated Cambodian

autonomy." Sovann told the Post. "After Jan. 7 [1979], from year to year

Vietnamese have put pressure on all kinds of freedom of expression in Cambodia and

the fate of Cambodia was decided by Vietnamese."

Senator Kem Sokha.

According to Sovann, his increasingly vocal criticism of the Vietnamese occupation

led directly to his removal from power and a subsequent ten year stretch of jail

time and house arrest in Hanoi from 1981-1991.

"I was the state leader for political and military affairs of Cambodia, but...

all political decisions regarding the future of Cambodia had to be approved by the

Vietnamese," he said.

Sovann said that an agreement he struck with the Vietnamese government on behalf

of the Salvation Front in 1978 containing pledges by the Vietnamese to respect Cambodian

autonomy was violated by the Vietnamese.

"During the negotiations, we had clear conditions...that when Cambodia could

help itself, the Vietnamese troops would withdraw from Cambodia," he said. "The

Vietnamese betrayed the agreement [by not withdrawing]."

Over at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, Attaché Chu Dong Loc shakes

his head in weary familiarity at the suggestion of sinister ulterior motives behind

Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and his country's subsequent decade-long occupation.

"At that time, the forces of Cambodia were very weak and without the Vietnamese

troop presence in Cambodia the genocidal regime [of the Khmer Rouge] would return,"

Loc said of the reasons behind Vietnam's 1979-1989 presence in Cambodia. "All

Cambodian people understand that without Vietnam forces this genocidal regime would

[have] come back and the second genocidal regime would [have been] even more barbarous

[than the first]."

Senator Kem Sokha, however, suggests that the behavior of the Vietnamese army in

Cambodia was far more predatory that protective.

"The Vietnamese [army] killed many Cambodians...in rural areas Vietnamese troops

accused villagers of being Khmer Rouge, arrested them and later massacred them,"

Sokha said. "After the Vietnamese withdrawal in 1989, many Vietnamese troops

remained in Cambodia, changing their military uniforms for civilian clothes and becoming

spies."

Sokha's allegations of a Vietnamese conspiracy to colonize Cambodia with massive

covert immigration is a favorite theme of the opposition-aligned Democratic Front

of Khmer Students and Intellectuals (DFKSI) which is planning to protest in front

of the National Assembly on January 7.

"The Vietnamese government has tried to send its population into Cambodia and

these Vietnamese have learned the Khmer language as part of a long term strategy

to grab Cambodian land," said DFKSI Secretary General Sun Sokunmealea of the

reasons behind the protest.

Former Premier Pen Sovann.

Sokunmealea describes the official government commemoration of January 7 as a self-serving

deception by CPP officials whose positions were given in exchange for compliance

with Vietnamese policy for Cambodia.

"People who celebrate January 7 as a 'victory day' [are those who] owe the Vietnamese

for helping them achieve power, especially the leaders of the CPP," she said.

Attaché Chu Dong Loc is familiar with the accusations of Sokha, Sovann and

Sokunmealea, but insists the costs Vietnam incurred by intervening in Cambodia far

outweighed any gains.

"Vietnam had to face many problems [such as] isolation in the world, [economic]

sanctions by many countries and the [military] losses were very high," Loc said.

"Those losses were to help the Cambodian people."

Loc says that history and the Cambodian people rightly recognizes January 7 as Vietnam's

defeat of a genocidal regime rather than a move to dominate its western neighbor.

"Such people who have this idea [of Vietnam invading Cambodia in order to control

it] are a minority in Cambodia," he said. "The majority appreciate the

sacrifices of the Vietnamese army [in ousting the Khmer Rouge]."

 

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