More than 10,000 ruling party members will gather today on Koh Pich to celebrate January 7 “Victory Day” and mark the 35th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Divisive under ordinary circumstances, the holiday this year comes only days after brutal police crackdowns on opposition demonstrators and striking garment workers – raising concerns of possible clashes.
And though authorities have been swift in their response to anyone seeking to demonstrate, or even gather in small groups, following a Saturday ban on public protest; it appears that today’s annual celebration held by the CPP will continue unhindered.
The public holiday marks the January 7, 1979, overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime by Vietnamese forces and Cambodian communist defectors, which has long been touted by CPP leaders as their crowning achievement and source of legitimacy.
Many, however – including the Cambodia National Rescue Party – see the date as the beginning of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, which they believe, despite official withdrawal in 1989, continues today in the form of political influence from Hanoi.
The opposition’s strong rhetoric against illegal Vietnamese immigration strongly appealed to voters in the lead-up to July’s election and anti-Vietnamese sentiments appear to have increased in the post-election period.
On Friday, several ethnic Vietnamese-owned shops were attacked and looted by demonstrators, according to local authorities and the Vietnamese embassy.
Protesters and bystanders during recent police crackdowns have also said they believe the authorities are using Vietnamese officers to commit violence.
The ruling party appears to be acutely aware of the tensions today’s event will generate.
“The recent crackdown on demonstrations is one of the measures taken to prevent anarchic protesters, who may use this opportunity to protest against our event and the Vietnamese,” senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said yesterday, adding that celebrations would take place across the country.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak, who has emerged as a lone voice among local human rights groups against the opposition’s anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, said he was worried that further incidents of anti-Vietnamese violence could occur today.
He added that the threat of more government crackdowns was also a concern.
“It could go both ways, and the CPP might try to find any excuse to crack down on legitimate debate on the day,” he said.
Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy said yesterday that he believed the violent clearing of Freedom Park and orders to halt all demonstrations were partly designed to ensure anti-government protests would not overshadow the ruling party’s celebrations.
“Definitely there are relations between the two events. The fact that until recently there were massive demonstrations with a very strong show of support for the opposition [is] a humiliation … so when the CPP celebrates January 7, they definitely could not allow [that] to continue,” he said.
Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the opposition had called on its supporters to remain calm and condemned attacks on Vietnamese businesses.
“We condemn any attacks of violence and we appeal to all people to respect strictly the principle of non-violence,” he said.
The Vietnamese embassy had received word that some “extremist nationalist” protesters had attacked some ethnic Vietnamese-owned shops after being “incited”, said spokesman Tran Van Thong.
But, he added, “we are not worried about the anti-Vietnamese feelings of the protesters, because the Cambodian government controls the country in accordance with the laws, and the majority of Cambodian people are kind to Vietnamese people”.
But Son Soubert, Human Rights Party president and high privy councilor to King Norodom Sihamoni, said he did not believe all demonstrators could be controlled by the party.
“You cannot control them. [So] if they want to express their feelings, they may go alone.”