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On Independence Day, a Refurbished Monument, Little Real Progress

Cambodia celebrated its 54th Independence Day Friday with the release of doves and the dedication of a refurbished monument in Phnom Penh, as some observers bemoaned the current state of the country.

Reigning King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top officials attended the ceremonies, along with a crowd of 20,000 people. Former king Norodom Sihanouk, who was the monarch when Cambodia was left 90 years of French rule, was not in attendance.

King Sihamoni lit a torch inside the Independence Monument to celebrate the break, in 1953, as students and other Cambodians looked on. Many said that Cambodia had backslid following independence.

"I would like to call for the current government to maintain real independence, not just independence by lip service," said Ly Ry, an English teacher in Phnom Penh. "I request that the leadership be independent, just like the independence we achieved in 1953."

Noranarith Anandayat, secretary-general of the Norodom Ranariddh Party, said the country had declined since achievements following its independence.

"Universities, hospitals, schools and so on have gradually been destroyed by concurrent governments," he said. "These are the biggest worries of the party. Nevertheless, we still congratulate the independence claimed by Norodom Sihanouk without bloodshed."

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the party should have more pressing concerns.

"At the moment what I'm worried about most is the fate of the Norodom Ranariddh Party," he said, referring to next year's national elections. "We're worried that this party is not going get any seat in the parliament. We want them to get one or two seats."

Chun Sary, a 63-year-old retired government employee, said times had gotten worse since independence.

"Back then, the Ministry of Education was called the Ministry of Studies, and teachers' salaries were the highest among all the government positions," he said. "And that is the reason students tried hard in their studies. Farmers experienced no starvation. They cultivated once for three to five years worth of food."