Prime Minister Hun Sen and his chief rival, Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy, yesterday waded once again into the annual confrontation over how to characterise January 7, 1979, as Cambodia marked 37 years since the Khmer Rouge regime fell.
The premier, a member of the Vietnamese military-backed group of ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers that ousted Pol Pot and have ruled the country since, celebrated “Victory Day” with some 10,000 supporters at the headquarters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Hun Sen retold the story of how the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation (FUNSK), with the “huge and effective” assistance of the Vietnamese army, overthrew the Khmer Rouge, under which more than 1.5 million Cambodians died.
“There are still political groups and ill-willed circles, who keep slandering the historic meaning of January 7 Day; no matter how hard they try, they cannot reverse Cambodia’s situation, since January 7 belongs to the people, and what they do is against the people’s will and interest,” Hun Sen said.
“This is the first time in the history of more than 500 years, after the prosperous time of Angkor, that Cambodia has realised full peace and national and territorial unity, as well as lived in harmony under one constitution.”
Rainsy, who is currently in self-imposed exile in France, provided his own take on history, posting an illustration on Facebook crudely depicting a Vietnamese character burning a house in 1975 and then extinguishing the flames four years later.
In the comments below, he maintained that Hanoi had a hand both in forming and toppling the Khmer Rouge.
“7 January 1979 is a military and political show organised by the Vietnamese,” Rainsy, who faces charges widely considered politically motivated, said in the post.
Rainsy also posted another clip of the late King Norodom Sihanouk, in the 1980s, criticising current National Assembly President Heng Samrin for “serving the Vietnamese”.
Samrin, the former head of state for the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government, set up after the Khmer Rouge’s demise, has launched a defamation claim against Rainsy for claiming the PRK sentenced Sihanouk to death in a show trial, while the late king was in exile.
Samrin’s lawyer, Ky Tech, yesterday said Rainsy’s latest video bolstered their case.
The tumultuous events that engulfed Cambodia as it was dragged into the Vietnam War and into the hands of the Khmer Rouge continue to provide a battleground for contemporary politics.
Hun Sen, a former deputy regimental commander in the Khmer Rouge, yesterday again heaped the blame for the country’s slide into catastrophe on the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 by army general Lon Nol.
Prior to his ousting, however, Sihanouk was drawing closer to the Vietnamese communists, while at the same time waging a battle against the Khmer Rouge, who were themselves initially supported by their Vietnamese counterparts.
Once deposed, the late King turned to his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge, for support, but was placed under house arrest after returning to the capital the movement had seized from Lon Nol in 1975.
As time wore on, the ultra-Maoist regime became increasing hostile to Vietnam, sparking the war that led to the regime’s fall.
After the Hanoi trained and backed FUNSK took over, the Vietnamese army remained in Cambodia for a decade, as the fledgling People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) fought against the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, which retreated to the country’s west.
Whether Vietnam was a liberator or occupier remains a continually re-opened wound in the country’s politics.
Speaking yesterday, political analyst Ok Serei Sopheak, who fought with the non-communist resistance against the PRK, said all Cambodians held deeply personal views about January 7.
“I encourage [debate], as long as it is taking place in a healthy way, [on] all issues, not only the Khmer Rouge genocide or liberation or occupation of the 7th of January,” he said.
“This needs to be debated, but outside the political frame, because it could be used in an unhealthy way for a political purpose and that’s the problem of this country.
“If you allow people to talk openly about any issue, after a while, it becomes so common it doesn’t attract any unhealthy confrontation.”