Cambodians, especially those who survived Democratic Kampuchea or the Khmer Rouge regime, remember the date January 7, 1979, although the meaning they give to that day is different based on who they are, where they are from and what they do. Regardless of the meaning given to this date, it is historically the day that brought an end to the Khmer Rouge rule during which Cambodians lived in hardship, were separated from loved ones, faced starvation and illness without medication, and feared for their lives. Therefore, January 7 marks the beginning of new era when Cambodians began to have better food, obtained freedom, were reunited with family members, received some medication when they were sick and finally, received no threat to life itself. For these reasons, Cambodians celebrated “survival” and January 7 was called “Liberation Day” or “Victory Day”. All during the 1980s, the anniversary of January 7 was celebrated annually throughout the country, except in those areas still under the control of the Khmer Rouge resistance forces along the country’s borders.
The celebration of January 7 was then big and nationwide. While the country was isolated from the rest of the free world, Cambodians were poor and were frightened of the Khmer Rouge resistance forces, but they could at least enjoy life once a year, even amid the Khmer Rouge attacks. The ceremony touched their hearts, reminded them of the hurtful past and yet the ceremony of victory made them feel that they all prevented the tragedy from happening again.
The right to live is the most important right of all. No one can claim anything if their right to life is restricted. Only when one has this right could he/she obtain any rights afterward. Many Cambodians said that if liberation day would have come later, they would have been killed, as their names were already on the black list. Unfortunately, a number of people received no such luck, as they died in the few remaining hours before liberation.
For Khmer Rouge survivors, January 7 offered a rare chance to live again. Every older Cambodian, including the Khmer Rouge leaders who were sentenced to life in prison, remembers January 7, 1979, when Cambodians were happy to be alive. Cambodians have different perspectives on the meaning of January 7. But what everyone cannot avoid is the knowledge that January 7 is historically the date that freed Cambodian Khmer Rouge survivors from hell.
Socheat Nhean is the former media centre director at the Sleuk Rith Institute.