Cambodian political analyst Ou Virak’s newly formed Future Forum think tank on Monday issued its first policy statement – an “open letter” addressed to both ruling and opposition parties – that called for both groups to establish a unified “non-aligned foreign policy”.
While the release was covered by both the English-language and Khmer media, one of the most controversial – but potentially most profound – proposals was largely overlooked.
Buried within the 12-page document was a call for the destruction of Cambodia’s civil war monuments, built in the 1980s during the Vietnam-installed communist regime, and their replacement with more inclusive memorials.
The existing statues were “problematic”, Virak told Post Weekend yesterday, because they did not represent an accurate depiction of the civil war period.
The capital’s war memorial located in Wat Botum park, known as the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument, depicts a Cambodian and Vietnamese soldier standing watchfully behind a Khmer woman and her baby.
The statue has been the site of political turmoil, including a non-fatal bomb attack in 2007 and an incident in 1998 in which opposition protesters scaled the statue with hammers and set it alight with petrol.
In the letter, the existing statues are described as “occupation memorials that continue to divide Cambodia”.
They do not give proper representation to the many sorts of “victims” lost in the “30 years of warfare and violence between 1969 and 1998”.
“Other than senior Khmer Rouge leaders, everyone who died were victims,” the letter says, “whether [they were] innocent civilians, government forces, resistance forces ... Vietnamese troops, or even junior to mid-level Khmer Rouge troops”.
The letter stresses that, along with recognising all casualties of Cambodia’s three decades of war, the ideal memorial would also address the “geopolitical power struggles, instigated by the US, the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Britain and France” that had ultimately victimised “[a]ll these dead”.
“I think by acknowledging all sides of the conflict, we acknowledge that we were all victims of a bigger Cold War, a bigger conflict between world superpowers,” Virak said.
“Cambodian politics seem to not move past the [differing] interpretations of January 7 .
“And unless we discuss that, I don’t think we can actually talk about having a proper foreign policy.”
“I also think we need to finally ask Vietnam to treat us as equals ... I think that’s very key in what I’m proposing. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge the contributions of Vietnam [and] the role they had in ending the fighting.”
Virak said that he understood his proposal “could be a bit controversial” and said that the biggest challenge would be getting both sides to agree to it.
When the Cambodian People Party’s spokesman Sum Yara was asked about Virak’s proposal he said: “We are the party level. The CPP has nothing to do with that command. The monument is a public asset, so we can’t comment on that.”
When asked similarly, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan cited concerns over budgetary allocations and then said: “We welcome any suggestions, but it’s up to the National Assembly”.
Spokespeople for the Cambodia National Rescue Party did not respond to inquiries.
For Virak, the statues were ultimately about national reconciliation and coming to terms with the complexities of history in a politically productive way.
“If you look at the politics of the past, there’s always been that: Do we treat [January 7, 1979] as a liberation or an occupation?” said Virak. “I think we need a pragmatic solution to this.”
“It’s necessary for us to move forward.”