Opinions again divided over Vietnam’s role in toppling the Pol Pot regime in 1979.
THOUSANDS turned out on Thursday morning for celebrations marking the 31st anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime, reigniting an annual debate about the meaning and legacy of the event.
During an official ceremony at the headquarters of the Cambodian People’s Party, party chairman Chea Sim paid tribute to the Vietnamese offensive that led the overthrew of Pol Pot in 1979.
“We celebrate the 31st anniversary of the great victory on January 7, 1979, which saved our nation and people from the genocidal disaster caused by the regime of Democratic Kampuchea,” he said in an address.
“At the same time, Cambodia forever carves in its heart [the] invaluable services of the voluntary army and people of Vietnam, under the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam, for their effective and timely mannered response to the call of the people of Cambodia.”
Chea Sim also took the opportunity to laud the achievements of the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) – the forerunner to the CPP regime of today – and castigate those local and international forces that opposed it during the civil war of the 1980s.
“All of their actions have failed one after the other in face of the national forces in great solidarity, with support and assistance provided by friends from near and far,” he added.
But the implications of January 7 and the ensuing civil war between the Phnom Penh government and resistance groups camped on the Thai border continue to cast a long shadow over Cambodian politics. Some critics maintain that the liberation from Pol Pot merely ushered in a new form of domination from communist Vietnam.
“Cambodian sovereignty has been transferred to Vietnam over the past 30 years,” said Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party. He said the party welcomed the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but that January 7 had brought with it a host of problems, including illegal Vietnamese immigration, political repression and the routine violation of Cambodian sovereignty.
“People living along the Cambodia-Vietnam border are losing their land because of a border demarcation process based on a 1985 treaty,” he said. “This is what January 7 left behind.”
Former resistance fighters, who opposed the PRK regime with international backing throughout the 1980s, agreed that the fall of the Khmer Rouge was no excuse for the problems that resulted from the Vietnamese presence.
“When we were in the jungle, we were against January 7. We were happy about the end of the Khmer Rouge, but our duty was to look to the future,” said Pol Ham, the former information minister of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, which opposed the PRK.
“The 7th of January brought the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, but the start of the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia.”
A day less divisive
Lu Laysreng, the deputy president of Funcinpec and a former resistance figure, proposed October 23, 1991 – the date of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords – as a more unifying national event.
“Some day, when democratic political parties are able to rule the country, we will have the ability to eliminate the January 7 [holiday] and replace it with October 23 … as an anniversary of reconciliation,” he said.
But others said that the overthrow of the “genocidal” Khmer Rouge – and preventing their return – justified the involvement of Vietnamese assistance and made January 7 a worthy celebration.
“In order to save the lives of Cambodian people [and prevent] the return of the Khmer Rouge regime, we needed Vietnamese soldiers to remain in the country to fight against the KR,” said Ros Chantraboth, a professor of political science and deputy director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia.
The country owed a debt of gratitude to the Vietnamese army and the National Front for the Salvation of Kampuchea, he said, referring to the resistance group established by Khmer Rouge defectors in Kratie province in December 1978.
But despite opposing the event in principle, Pol Ham added that both sides repeating the same statements year after year only detracted from the national challenges still remaining. “I don’t care about the celebration – if many people are happy about it I don’t mind,” he said. “We must look to the future of our country.… January 7 is history.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NETH PHEAKTRA
YOUR SAY: JANUARY 7 CELEBRATION
Thach Cheang, 30
Kiev Hom, 73
Korn Sokhun, 29
Public relations officer
Pao Vorlin, 14
I don’t know much about what happened, I only hear people say that January 7 is a lucky day for all Cambodian people because our government tried to liberate our country from a dreadful regime. And I agree.
I can’t find the words to say how happy this anniversary makes me. After January 7 it was like I was reborn again. During the war, I had to collect wood to make medicine, but today I am just sitting on the chair and smoking a cigarette. I can go anywhere I want.
I am very happy about January 7 - I think Cambodia needs an anniversary like this. We can work together towards development. If Pol Pot was not defeated, we would all been dead. In only 3 years and 20 days, the Khmer Rouge killed so many people.
I am happy with the anniversary because we have a holiday today. If it wasn’t for that day, I probably would never have been born.
INTERVIEWS BY REBECCA VALLI AND MAY TITTHARA