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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - One man's liberation is another's occupation

One man's liberation is another's occupation

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

enemies."

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 [1998] 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.

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