The 2013 Cambodian national election put the Khmer Rouge (KR) history in a troubled spot through the resurgent politicisation of the history, genocide denial and racist incitement.
Dragging master narratives of Cambodian modern history into politics could lead to social division, political classification and violence.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) employed the KR rhetoric as one of their strategies to win people’s votes.
Highlighting the KR crimes and promoting the CPP’s leadership as the saviours of the nation has always been the fundamental strategy for the CPP to gain people’s votes. The CPP has been successful in this endeavour as every single Cambodian family has at least one member who died or disappeared during the KR.
The people’s suffering during the KR is relevant and the CPP’s January 7 Liberation Day resonates with the party’s fundamentally political pulse since 1979. With this rhetoric, the CPP has dramatically increased its seats from 51 in 1993 to 90 in 2008.
By then, the CPP was able to consolidate almost exclusive power. The Royalist FUNCINPEC party, which won the first 1993 United Nations sponsored election, has gradually lost power and is fading away from the political stage, becoming subordinated to the CPP.
The opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) became the only major challenger of the CPP in 2008, but could not bring in any substantive change. However, the CPP’s sharp decline to 68 seats suggests the KR rhetoric appears not to be working in the present context where many young voters who have no personal experiences with the KR era appear to be passionate for leadership change and have thrown their support behind the opposition.
At the same time, a sense of genocide denial unprecedentedly emerged during this 2013 election. Kem Sokha, an outspoken opposition leader, commented in a public gathering that the very existence of Tuol Sleng prison was a stage and that evidence of torture and execution inside this notorious centre was fabricated by Vietnam to justify its invasion of Cambodia.
Although he later denied making this remark, his political comments angered KR victims, especially Tuol Sleng survivors like Chum Mey, who accused Kem Sokha of insulting the souls of the dead, re-traumatising the suffering of the survivors and distorting historical facts.
Likewise, opposition leader Sam Rainsy attacked the CPP by linking the latter to several unpopular issues relating to Vietnam and the KR. Sam Rainsy’s strategy was to enlighten people on the issues of the uncontrolled flow of Vietnamese settlers in which he claims remains active today.
This allegation creates long-time speculation among the Cambodian population of the continued Vietnamese grip on Cambodia’s political and internal affairs, the disputed border markers and the recent electoral irregularities with the claim of illegal Vietnamese voters and counter arguments that January 7 Liberation Day was in fact the day of the Vietnamese invasion.
Sam Rainsy’s speeches could have injected the sentiment of hatred towards the Vietnamese on social media which influences a large number of young voters.
His rhetoric could be galvanised into incitement that could lead to violence, although he may not have any intention of provoking such violence.
Cambodia has gone through a number of political regimes and major political transitions from French colonialism to today’s constitutional monarchy. The structures of these political regimes are largely hierarchical, centralised and dependent on individuals’ charisma.
There has never been a strong democratic system that we should embrace and enforce. Going through these transitions and difficulties, Cambodian people have developed a high resilience and the potential for building our well-being and nation.
To equip Cambodia with stronger democratic principles, the rule of law and a respect for human rights, politicians should put a hold on politicising history.
Instead, we should equip the 3.5 million young Cambodians who are born after the KR through education. Without scientific study and research, our young people will lose the chance of knowing their own history.
The young people should have the opportunity to study, analyse and evaluate their history in a way that will institutionalise a culture that values human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
Historical empathy, tolerance and forgiveness are key ethos that is crucial to a thriving post-conflict democracy.
The youth should be encouraged to question and challenge the authorities that guide the country in the wrong direction so they can become competent leaders and active agents in the quest for peace and national reconciliation.
Liberating KR history from the troubled spot through education characterises the first important step in this endeavour. KR history is undeniably our history.
It belongs to all Cambodians and so does the genocide.
Author of A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), Documentation Center of Cambodia.