It was a familiar tale the prime minister told his party faithful on Saturday as they gathered to celebrate the January 7, 1979, ousting of the Khmer Rouge.
“It is a fact that if there were not people to rescue the Cambodian people on time, they would have suffered and would have been smashed endlessly,” he said at a gathering at CPP headquarters.
It was “pure-hearted compatriots of the Cambodia People’s Party” who left the “genocidal Pol Pot regime” then returned to take back the Kingdom, with Vietnamese “assistance”.
“There will be no one who can forget, manipulate, destroy or pervert this fact,” he said.
It is, of course, disputed every year. And on Saturday, CNRP leader-in-exile Sam Rainsy did just that. He marked the occasion on Facebook with a racially charged cartoon depicting figures in conical hats setting homes on fire and a statement suggesting that “communist Vietnamese” were ultimately responsible for Khmer Rouge atrocities.
“Until now  those who serve the interest of foreign aggressors continue to persecute Cambodian patriots assassinating them or putting them in jail in order to divide and weaken Cambodia so as to maintain our country under Vietnamese military and economic colonialism,” he wrote.
The two leaders’ refrains are familiar ones a little too familiar, according to a new paper from the Future Forum think tank, which argues the January 7 debate has kept Cambodia in “political paralysis”. The competing myths about the ousting of the Khmer Rouge fall along political lines, where the “liberation” touted by the CPP is seen by the CNRP as an “invasion”.
“Rather than establishing a viable policy platform, offering possible solutions to Cambodia’s many problems, the two sides have stayed within their mythological comfort zones, asserting decades-old historical claims and counter-claims,” the paper reads. “The guns may have fallen silent, but the old civil war rages on.”
For Future Forum’s Ou Virak, the inability to acknowledge the contradictions within these respective narratives, instead spinning them for political expediency, has done Cambodians a disservice.
“I think Cambodia in general has moved on, but I think the main political parties are stuck in their own narratives of January 7,” Virak said.
“I am not advocating for ignoring history, I’m an advocate for trying to understand this from a less polarised narrative we need to start debating the current issues but also what I haven’t seen is a vision for the future.”
CPP spokesman Suos Yara defended the government’s reverence for January 7, saying it was a “second birth” after the country had been stripped of its people, wealth and national identity.
“I do not count on those who [who suggest] January 7 is a kind of obstacle; it is the source of the prosperity, sovereignty, independence and freedom January 7 planted multiparty democracy and policy dialogue,” he said. “If one party rules for 30 years, it does not mean that this is single party rule multiparty democracy does not mean we have to change the party every five years.”
But CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann seemed to agree that the January 7 debate had continued long enough.
“I do not want to respond – I have talked about it for more than 30 years already,” he said, adding he would rather discuss corruption, border issues and illegal immigration. In an email yesterday Rainsy said allegations of racism were “groundless” and the word youn a sometimes derogatory term was interchangeable with the term “Vietnamese”.
“Some ignorant or [i]nexperienced foreign journalists and observers cannot make the difference between ‘offensive’ and ‘politically incorrect’,” he said, claiming that the once-neutral term had “become politically incorrect following Cambodia’s occupation by Vietnam in the 1980s”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TOUCH SOKHA