Accompanied by billowing smoke and haunting music, men and women draped in signature Khmer Rouge red-chequered kramas walked across the Killing Fields and mimed slitting throats.
This scene has played out over and over in the minds of survivors, and yesterday it was given a literal stage to commemorate Cambodia’s annual “Day of Anger”.
The event is not just a re-enactment of past atrocities but also an act of political theatre. Held at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields where thousands of Cambodians were slain and thrown into pits in the late 1970s, yesterday’s ceremony drew some 1,000 attendees.
The event began with a monologue celebrating the myriad “achievements of the Cambodian People’s Party”, which had helped the elderly and built roads and bridges, but not without first overcoming the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
The CPP has long cast itself as a bringer of peace to Cambodia, and as the rhetoric ramps up before the commune elections on June 4, reminding the voting public of the Khmer Rouge atrocities may be more vital for the ruling party than ever. Perhaps symbolically, at the end of the ceremony the CPP’s blue flags were brought out alongside the national flag, replacing the red banner of Democratic Kampuchea.
Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong told reporters after the event that it was crucial to prevent others from destroying the peace the CPP had fought so hard to secure.
“The commemoration is a reminder to the next generation that the Khmer Rouge left the country with destruction and suffering,” he said. “It makes us prevent the regime from happening again.”
His words seemed to echo those circulated on pro-government media, which likened the opposition party to the Khmer Rouge, as well as the rhetoric of high-profile politicians, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said an opposition victory could plunge the nation into war again.
Established in 1984, the “Day of Anger” has always had a political dimension. It was first conceived, in part, as a way of unleashing unspeakable grief and anger in a healthy way, as well as to bridge the divide between former Khmer Rouge cadres and their victims.
The fact it was initially dubbed 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, suggests its inherent politicisation. Blaming the Khmer Rouge crimes on a select few has been politically expedient for the government, which has a number of former Khmer Rouge leaders in its ranks, including Hun Sen.
As historian David Chandler wrote in his book Voices from S-21, “The [People’s Republic of Kampuchea] regime worked hard to focus people’s anger onto the ‘genocidal clique’ that had governed Cambodia between April 1975 and January 1979.”
“While the new government based its legitimacy on the fact that it had come to power by toppling the Khmer Rouge, it was in no position to condemn the entire Movement, since so many prominent PRK figures had been Khmer Rouge themselves until they defected to Vietnam in 1977 and 1978.”
The “Day of Anger” was suspended in 1991, with the Paris Peace Accords, but resurfaced in 1999 rebranded as the “Day of Remembrance”.
“Genocide is political and cannot avoid [it] being politicised,” Youk Chhang, of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, wrote in an email.
“Even fiction has a role to heal this so broken society . . . The entire country, consisting of 15 million [people] (either on the victim or perpetrator side), have been pushed to deal and face with the past in the eyes of international community.”
“I admire their courage, despite some actions [being] so blunt!”
Indeed, Dr Chhim Sotheara of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation, which has worked closely with Khmer Rouge victims suffering from PTSD, said the theatrics could serve as a double-edged sword.
“I think this day is useful. It gives the opportunity for catharsis [rather] than re-traumatisation,” he wrote by email.
“It also allows people who still have grief the opportunity to mourn their deceased relatives.”
Nonetheless, Sotheara said the graphic reenactments had the potential to also do harm by rehashing old memories and even traumatising the younger generation. “I think this event should be held without such [a] scene,” he said.
One ceremony attendee, Sreng Kimleang, 71, came to the spot where her husband was killed. She only escaped the same fate, she said, because she was pregnant. Her husband never met their child.
“They did not allow us to cry. If we cried, they would have killed us too,” Kimleang said.
Chuth Vanny, 69, was brought to tears by the performance. He lost nine relatives to the regime, and recalled how starving people were murdered for simply picking a pumpkin to eat.
Some young people took selfies with the actors dressed in Khmer Rouge black pajamas, holding rifles and knives, while a group of students said the performance had made the horrors of the past seem more real to them.
For Ngin Sengchor, 70, the drama he watched play out yesterday was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
He said he was arrested for stealing two potatoes, cuffed at the leg and given only a small bowl of water. He lost 20 relatives and recalls widespread torture for miniscule “mistakes”.
“We survived because of the national liberation,” he said.