There was a ceremonial freeing of doves and balloons, song and dance performances, and cheers of “victory, victory, victory” from thousands of ruling party supporters at yesterday’s January 7 celebrations on Koh Pich. But much of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s annual address marking the anniversary of the Khmer Rouge’s ouster focused not on January 7, 1979, but on a present alleged threat to the nation – “colour revolution”.

Speaking at the event for “Victory Over Genocide Day” – which commemorates the day Khmer Rouge defectors backed by the Vietnamese army retook Phnom Penh from Pol Pot’s murderous regime – Hun Sen warned of an ongoing conspiracy, despite the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in November over its purported efforts to foment a foreign-backed “revolution”.

“I am underlining for our compatriots that though the organisation of colour revolution was dismantled, perfidious schemes of ill-willed circles taking commands from behind their backs for colour revolution in Cambodia have not yet ended,” the premier said to a sea of Cambodian People’s Party supporters.

The CNRP – the only viable competitor to the CPP – was dissolved by the Supreme Court at the Ministry of Interior’s behest for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government, though little evidence was presented to substantiate the claim. Its former leader Kem Sokha is awaiting trial on “treason” charges.

Traditionally, Hun Sen’s January 7 speeches have focused on the liberation of the country from the Khmer Rouge, and on peace, harmony and growth.

But yesterday, he harkened back to a familiar narrative in recent months – that foreign actors, namely the United States, have been supporting an alleged opposition plot. “We hope that those circles will see and accept the truth, live with Cambodian people and stop creating obstacles for our pitiful motherland,” said Hun Sen.

As the premier was delivering his speech, Ul Navy, an activist from Borei Keila evicted from her home to make way for development, was whisked away by bodyguards as she attempted to deliver a petition requesting a fair resolution to residents’ ongoing land dispute with City Hall.

Another activist, Phouk Sophin, was also prevented from approaching the premier as he left the event and was forcefully dragged away by security personnel. Both were part of a larger group of who eventually handed the petition to Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mean Chanyada.

“While I was holding the petition for Samdech [Hun Sen], four bodyguards stopped and escorted me and they also closed my mouth to prevent me from screaming. I screamed to Samdech [Hun Sen] for help, but they closed my mouth,” Sophin said.

In the run-up to the event, the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit produced a 90-minute documentary focusing on the premier’s defection from the Khmer Rouge and his subsequent liberation of the country and ensuing “peace and development”.

Prime Minister Hun Sen (second right) and National Assembly President Heng Samrin (second left) release doves to mark the anniversary of the ouster of the Khmer Rouge on January 7, 1979. Hong Menea

Despite the documentary’s level of detail, it omits certain parts of the historical record, including the part of key actors in the invasion who would later go on to join the opposition, as well as the fact that the Chinese government – now the country’s largest donor – had for years supported the regime.

Perceptions of the national holiday have always been divided along party lines. While the CPP focuses on the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, others see it as the start of a nearly decade-long occupation by Vietnamese forces.

University student Vo Meygech, who attended yesterday’s event, said that despite not having lived under the Khmer Rouge, she believed the CPP’s version of the narrative.

“I come to celebrate the event because I think that it is the day that Samdech [Hun Sen] liberated the country and people from genocide. Today is the day that he brought the peace to Khmers,” she said.

However, former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath challenged the framing of the event, saying it was meant to spread CPP propaganda and untruths about his now-dissolved party.

“It is not like that, and there is no evidence proving that CNRP attempted to topple [the government] or run a colour revolution. It is just the propaganda to gain support,” he said.

As he does almost every year, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy took to social media to rebuke the government’s January 7 celebrations, writing that the CPP was both a precursor to and descendant of the Khmer Rouge.

Calling the observance a “political show”, Rainsy on Friday said the Vietnamese were responsible for the Khmer Rouge, comparing the country’s purported salvation of Cambodia to extinguishing a fire they started in the first place.

In a seeming rebuttal to the self-exiled leader, state-run newswire AKP published an opinion piece by government adviser Raoul Jennar, which accused Rainsy of historical ignorance and instead blamed the US for the emergence of the Khmer Rouge.

Jennar said the Vietnamese couldn’t possibly have controlled the Khmer Rouge, which slaughtered ethnic Vietnamese in a racially motivated genocide, suggesting that Rainsy “read historians like David Chandler” for better understanding.

Chandler, however, sided with Rainsy’s interpretation of events. “The CPP logo claims it was founded in 1951, but while it is silent about being founded by the Vietnamese, it was,” he wrote via email, confirming Rainsy’s timeline on the many iterations of the party that would become the CPP.

“In other words, Rainsy is right . . . The [CPP] is no longer even faintly Marxist, but it is closely allied with the Vietnamese Communist Party.”