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April 17 reflects party divide

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Young Khmer Rouge guerrilla soldiers atop their US-made armoured vehicles enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the day Cambodia fell under the control of the communist Khmer Rouge forces. SJOBERG/AFP

April 17 reflects party divide

Lifelong political enemies Prime Minister Hun Sen and former opposition leader Sam Rainsy commemorated the 42nd anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh by continuing to push their duelling historical narratives, which have defined Cambodian political discourse for decades.

On Sunday, the prime minister took to Facebook to present the ruling party as the guarantor of peace and stability, while Rainsy took the opportunity to emphasise the CPP’s former ties to the Khmer Rouge.

“Disability is very painful for both body and mind, but I tried to stand up for peace and the survival of the nation and people,” Hun Sen wrote, without specifying that he lost his eye while fighting in the 1975 Battle of Phnom Penh as a soldier in the Khmer Rouge army.

“Please maintain peace and prevent war,” Hun Sen added, repeating the ruling party mantra that the CPP brought stability to Cambodia following years of turmoil.

Sam Rainsy, meanwhile, latched onto the ties between the CPP and the Khmer Rouge, as he has repeatedly over the years.

“Over the last 20 years, only the Sam Rainsy Party and the CNRP have commemorated every year this sad anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover, whereas the CPP has just ignored it after having joyfully celebrated 17 April 1975 every year from 1979 to 1985,” Rainsy wrote, referring to the years in between the Vietnamese invasion and Hun Sen’s appointment as prime minister.

Rainsy also posted a picture depicting deceased Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, current National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, accompanied by the text “Pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge and pro-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge”.

Yesterday, government spokesman Phay Siphan accused Rainsy of “trying to confuse the public” by equating the CPP with the Khmer Rouge.

“They brought peace . . . Only the CPP has historical experience. Hun Sen and the CPP liberated the people,” Siphan said, claiming Hun Sen “never belonged to Pol Pot”.

Political analyst Ou Virak said both sides are pushing an incomplete narrative that benefits them politically.

“Each one is more than happy to tell their own side, but there is a lot of truth in both statements,” he said. “These two narratives have dominated Cambodian politics for the last 40 years.”

David Chandler, one of the foremost historians on modern Cambodia, said that of the two conflicting narratives Hun Sen’s has so far proven to be more palatable to the public.

“It seems clear to me that Hun Sen’s version of history post-1979, which is victors’ history, has more traction among people,” he said via email.

Chandler added that Rainsy’s credibility has been hurt by the fact that he was absent during the Khmer Rouge and the rebuilding period, and therefore “never had the ability to bring or maintain stability in Cambodia”.

Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, agreed with Virak that both sides distort the truth for political gain.

Strangio explained that while Hun Sen did fight in the Khmer Rouge, he abandoned the regime early on and eventually helped liberate the nation. Nonetheless, his role as liberator should not serve as an excuse for human rights abuses decades later.

While he agreed with Chandler that Hun Sen’s “political mythology” was more popular in the past, he suggested that shifting demographics may change that.

“It’s not resonating as much with people that never experienced civil war . . . It’s taking attention away from the real challenges facing Cambodian people by re-litigating old disputes which are becoming increasingly irrelevant,” Strangio said.

These shifting demographics, Rainsy hopes, will bring the opposition to victory. “You can talk about ‘stability’ and ‘prosperity’ only when compared to the Khmer Rouge some 40 years ago . . . This young, more educated and better informed generation (more than 70 percent of the population) would rather compare present Cambodia to neighbouring countries. A disaster for Hun Sen!” he said via email yesterday.

Amid the political squabbling, Youk Chhang, a Khmer Rouge survivor and the director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM), wished to focus on the victims to commemorate the day in which many Phnom Penh residents were forced to march to rural labour camps. “For the entire country that date is the beginning of family separation, forced labour, genocide and crimes against humanity. That is the truth for the entire nation,” he said.

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