The Cambodian People’s Party yesterday announced its plans for “Victory over Genocide Day” on January 7, promising a massive celebration and prime-time PR blitz for one of the nation’s most divisive holidays – at a time when voices that have traditionally challenged its narrative have largely been forced into exile.
Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng yesterday said the event – which marks the day in 1979 that a Vietnamese invasion took Phnom Penh from the murderous Khmer Rouge regime – would be held at Koh Pich and attended by 40,000 people.
Traditionally, the celebrations have been attended by a few thousand at the ruling CPP’s headquarters, though on rare occasions separate events have been marked at Koh Pich.
“We have to make it a big event because it is about the memorable day of survival. Because our country is increasing in population, there are many, many people who will join our event,” he said.
The national holiday is controversial within Cambodia’s political discourse, with the CPP – many of whose senior members were Khmer Rouge defectors who facilitated the Vietnamese invasion – projecting it as the day of liberation from the Khmer Rouge.
Others, most vocally the Cambodia National Rescue Party, remember it as the start of a decade-long Vietnamese occupation and the installation of a puppet regime in Phnom Penh that would later evolve into the CPP.
Though there is truth to both sides, the divide takes on special resonance this year following the widely decried dissolution of the CNRP – the only viable competitor to the CPP – many of whose members have fled the country.
The party was summarily disbanded at the government’s behest in November, following months of accusations by ruling party officials that it posed a threat to the “peace and stability” won by the 1979 invasion.
Since the dissolution, “peace and stability” has become a ubiquitous refrain among CPP officials, with Hun Sen – himself one of the defectors who invaded with the Vietnamese – going so far as to preside over a thousands-strong ceremony at Angkor Wat to prove “everything is running normally”.
Governor Sreng, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan and city spokesman Met Measpheakdey yesterday said they were unaware of the agenda for the celebrations, with the latter only saying it was an apolitical event.
In the run-up to the celebrations, state-run broadcaster TVK will today show a documentary titled Marching Towards National Salvation focusing on Hun Sen and the Vietnam-backed defectors’ fight against the Khmer Rouge.
A trailer for the video is set to a dramatic score and features the premier speaking about his decision to go to Vietnam to seek assistance, even describing plans to kill himself if the Vietnamese sent him back to Cambodia after his defection.
TVK General Director Khim Vuthy said the video was meant to educate Cambodians about the events leading up to January 7, especially the youth. “To make them learn the hardship of our leaders, who devoted everything for the nation and the country to have what it has today,” Vuthy said.
But former CNRP lawmaker Cheam Channy took a different view yesterday, calling the day the start of “foreign control” of Cambodia, and the cause of many hardships for the people, including mass forced labour along the Thai border.
“The suffering of the people cannot be removed” from the narrative, he said.
Last year, the Future Forum think tank released a paper saying the conflicting narratives surrounding the celebrations had left Cambodia in “political paralysis”.
“Rather than establishing a viable policy platform, offering possible solutions to Cambodia’s many problems, the two sides have stayed within their mythological comfort zones,” the paper reads.
The group’s head, Ou Virak, yesterday said the CPP’s insistence on pushing its side of the narrative with highly visible celebrations would, ironically, only hurt its efforts to subdue the opposing side of the debate. The absence of the CNRP’s leadership would not actually prevent people from continuing to associate the day with the Vietnamese occupation, he noted.
“Even without the outright opposition [narrative], whispers can be a lot louder.”
Additional reporting by Ananth Baliga and Niem Chheng