January 7 is perhaps the most contentious date on the Cambodian calendar. This
year was no different, as Chris Fontaine and Samreth Sopha report.
Pen Sovann remembers Jan 7, 1979, with both sadness and pride. Two weeks after 100,000
Vietnamese troops and a skeleton People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) army of 20,000
spilled across Cambodia's eastern border, he walked the empty streets of the newly
captured capital shocked at the death and desolation left by the Khmer Rouge.
"When I arrived in Phnom Penh on Jan 7 it was a ghost city. From that day we
had to start from the beginning and arrange everything," said Pen Sovann, who
briefly served as prime minister of the PRK.
The advancing Vietnamese and Cambodian armies found only 70 people living in the
capital when they arrived, Pen Sovann said, far outnumbered by the thousands of dead
from Tuol Sleng and other detention facilities in the capital.
"I cried when I saw what they had done," he said of his first visit to
the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison. Pol Pot's assertion last year that the torture center
was a fabrication of the Vietnamese, who later turned it into a genocide museum,
is flatly refuted by the Jan 7 eyewitness.
"Pol Pot denies, Ieng Sary denies, Ta Mok denies. Who was responsible for this,
then?" he asked. "There was no one else in Phnom Penh at the time, so who
else could be responsible except Pol Pot?"
Some call Jan 7 Liberation Day, a holiday marking the toppling of Pol Pot and his
genocidal tendencies from power. Others see it as the beginning of more than a decade
of foreign occupation in Cambodia while more than 300,000 Khmers lived in makeshift
camps along their homeland's border with Thailand.
The date is so contentious that the new Royal Government of Cambodia in 1993 decided
to stop celebrating it as a national holiday in the interests of national reconciliation
between returnees from the border camps and the former PRK.
The holiday was revived by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen in 1995 as the CPP began
to assert its dominance in the coalition government. Alternative celebrations were
held by former resistance chiefs last year, but 1998's celebration of Liberation
Day left no doubt that there is only one accepted interpretation in post-coup Cambodia
of the 19-year-old battle.
"The Cambodian people consider Jan 7 as their second birthday, the day they
regained their rights and freedoms, as well as peace and hope for the future,"
CPP president Chea Sim told more than 6,000 celebrants gathered at the party's headquarters.
Participants wearing identical white golf shirts emblazoned with the CPP logo roundly
praised the day as a worthy occasion for a party. "Some who are not CPP members
do not support this celebration because they remember this date as the Vietnamese
invasion," said 44-year-old Pech Ponnary. "I only remember that myself
and my family saw an end of famine after January 7."
As Pol Pot's agrarian experiments of the late-1970s failed and violent purges rocked
eastern Cambodia, hundreds of thousands of Killing Fields refugees streamed into
Vietnam along with the seeds of the Khmer Rouge's eventual expulsion from Phnom Penh.
Vanquished Eastern Zone cadre including Pen Sovann, Heng Samrin and Chea Sim linked
up with their former communist allies across the border and together began plotting
the end of Democratic Kampuchea.
The first official meeting of the United National Front of Salvation was held on
Dec 2, 1978, in Snuol district of Kratie province near the Vietnamese border. Heng
Samrin was named president of the government-in-waiting, Chea Sim his deputy. Twelve
others were given official positions in the anti-Pol Pot movement. An ambitious 26-year-old
ex-Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen, was named youth representative.
Pen Sovann's prominence in the new communist government was short-lived. After rising
to the Cambodian premiership, he soon found himself at odds with his Vietnamese benefactors
and was purged from PRK ranks in 1981. The next 10 years were spent in jail and house
arrest in Hanoi.
As he relived Liberation Day for the Post at the headquarters of his fledgling National
Supporting Democracy Party, Pen Sovann insisted it was a Cambodian-initiated attack
against the Khmer Rouge in late 1978. When quizzed on specifics of the advance from
the border, he would only darkly refer to "foreign powers who insisted that
they continue to help Cambodia and began interfering in our internal affairs".
His bitterness extends to the current CPP leadership, whom he will most likely oppose
in the July elections. "The people who led the struggle of Jan 7, 1979, are
not the same people who lead today's Jan 7 celebration," he said.
Although Pen Sovann denounces his former comrades, Siem Reap Governor Toan Chay has
made peace with the political and military machine he fought against until the 1991
Paris Peace Accords.
Previously an officer in Lon Nol's US-backed armed forces, Toan Chay spent the first
days of 1979 in the jungles of the northwest, the commander of a small army of battered
and confused republican forces. "At that time I fought both [the Khmer Rouge
and the Vietnamese]," he said.
The young commander lined up behind then-Prince Sihanouk along with other resistance
groups and border bandits in 1981, forming the National Sihanoukist Army. The newly
unified royalist forces set up a central base at a small village nestled among jungle
hill tops on the Thai border, O'Smach.
Western nations, Thailand and China condemned the Vietnamese invasion, and foreign
military aid flowed to the Khmer Rouge. Toan Chay said he and other republican and
royalist groups succumbed to intense political arm twisting and formed an alliance
with the stronger Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk, republican leader Son Sann and nominal Khmer
Rouge leader Khieu Samphan met in Kuala Lumpur in 1982 and signed an agreement creating
the Coalition Government of Democratic Kam-puchea. China then began direct military
assistance to Sihanouk's army.
"There was pressure. If we did not join we would not get assistance from the
international community," Toan Chay said. "But I never had a good time
with the Khmer Rouge."
But unlike his former resistance allies Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Son Sann, Toan
Chay chose the CPP over the Khmer Rouge last year when military and political factions
took sides during the tense build-up to the July fighting. He, along with a handful
of Funcinpec MPs who broke away from Ranariddh's leadership of the party last April,
attended this year's celebration of Liberation Day.
"It was a sad day [in 1979]. It was hard to fight the enemy. They were liberators
and invaders at the same time," he said. "At that time we were enemies,
but now we have made friends with the CPP. But the Khmer Rouge - they are still our
Members of Son Sann's BLDP, who remain in self-exile along with Prince Ranariddh
and his Funcinpec loyalists, issued a strong statement condemning this year's celebration
of the holiday.
"It is shameful...to celebrate the January 7 Vietnamese invasion and occupation,"
the statement read. "We must consider this date a mourning day for all the thousands
of Khmers who have been executed and slaughtered by the VN occupation."
The hardline Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng let loose on Jan 7 with a typically vitriolic
anti-Vietnamese radio broadcast claiming Hanoi still had plans to annex Cambodia
and that "participation in the Hun Sen and Vietnamese arranged  elections
will be like a one-way ticket into the iron cage of the Vietnamese aggressors".
A hand-made explosive found near the home of a Vietnamese embassy official this Liberation
Day added to government-cultivated fears of Khmer Rouge terrorist attacks in the
capital, but the crudely made device was defused without incident.
"The first conclusion of the police is that the grenade was placed by terrorists
under a tree in front of the [Vietnamese military attaché's] house...to make
trouble in Phnom Penh on the holiday," national criminal police chief Khuon
Sophan told Reuters.
But Vietnamese embassy spokesman Dinh Van Thanh played down the incident, which he
said might not have been political. "It was an accident, I think. Sometimes
there are shootings and explosions in Phnom Penh. It's normal."
Celebrants at CPP headquarters seemed to understand that both the Khmer Rouge and
the Vietnamese no longer have a presence in the administration and that Cambodia's
latest fighting is a power struggle between Hun Sen and Ranariddh.
But with China, Pailin-based former Khmer Rouge, elements of Funcinpec and the majority
of Son Sann's generals from the Khmer People's National Liberation Front now supporting
Hun Sen's ad-minstration, the 1998 observance of Jan 7 in Phnom Penh appeared to
confirm the old adage - history is written by the victors.