Cambodia, the country with quite possibly the most public holidays of any nation in the world, has just added one more – and a controversial one at that.
A sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin on February 14 and obtained today declares May 20 the National Day of Remembrance, though for years it has been better known as the national “Day of Anger” towards the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. The designation brings the total number of days of national holidays in Cambodia in 2018 to 28.
The Day of Remembrance will be nestled in the Kingdom’s packed holiday roster between the Royal Ploughing Ceremony on May 14 and International Children’s Day on June 1. According to the sub-decree, the holiday is to “respect and pray for the victims who passed away from Democratic Kampuchea regime”.
The holiday has a controversial history, however. It was inaugurated in 1984 as the “Day of Hatred against the genocidal Pol Pot-Ieng Sary-Khieu Samphan clique and the Sihanouk-Son Sann reactionary groups” by the then-Vietnamese backed government, shortly after Vietnam’s ouster of the Khmer Rouge.
The day is often celebrated with re-enactments of Khmer Rouge atrocities and reminders of the “achievements of the Cambodian People’s Party”, which for decades has based its political legitimacy on its role in the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, drawing accusations that the holiday is strictly political.
Similar acts of political theatre and hagiography surrounding Prime Minister Hun Sen have ramped up over the past year, with the premier – a former Khmer Rouge official himself – publicly re-enacting his journey across the Vietnamese border to defect from the regime. He and other defectors would return in 1979 with the Vietnamese army, which quickly routed the Khmer Rouge from the capital, a tale recounted recently in a glossy television production featuring Hun Sen’s recollection of the events surrounding the offensive.
As the government intensified its crackdown on its only viable opposition last year, numerous officials warned that the opposition would bring instability and war, reminding voters that only the CPP could ensure peace as it had in 1979. The opposition was ultimately forcibly dissolved and its leader arrested on widely decried charges of “treason”.
Asked about the decision to officially mark the day given Cambodia’s already-copious holidays, government spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment in detail.
“I do not know about why 20th May has been decided to be the Day of Remembrance,” he said. “We already have the [Khmer Rouge tribunal] to dig out the truth for Cambodian people.”
Social analyst Meas Nee said with the political crackdown ongoing ahead of the July national elections, the ruling party might use the day more for political ends than quiet contemplation and remembrance.
“I think it is the more for political purposes than future reconciliation,” Nee said. “The leader of the Cambodian People’s Party takes the day that is about their victory as the thing that they can use to get support from people.”
“But the government should consider that more than half of the country was born after the regime, so their propaganda might not be effective enough, especially for youth,” he added.
Youk Chhang, executive director at the Khmer Rouge research body the Documentation Centre for Cambodia, said making the day into a holiday would give people an opportunity to remember their loved ones lost to the murderous regime, which claimed an estimated 1.7 million lives.
“It must be a day for us all to collectively remember and share, to discover strength so we can move forward,” he said.
But in the face of death on such a scale, it was almost inevitable that that memory would become not only personal, but political, he added.
“It merges into a political narrative . . . It’s powerful because so many people have died.”
Additional reporting by Erin Handley
Updated: 6:32am Wednesday 21 February 2018