Around 40,000 Cambodians, many wearing white shirts emblazoned with the logo “7 January,” filled Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium to capacity Wednesday morning, celebrating the 30thanniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.
Authorities from the provinces and the capital drove around the inside of the stadium’s football pitch, in a parade of floats encircling a formation of the armed forces, as supporters marched alongside and observers waved the flags of Cambodia and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
“The day of victory, Jan. 7, saved our country and our citizens on time,” Chea Sim, president of the CPP and the Senate, flanked by Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, announced to the crowd.
“We are thankful to the volunteer Vietnamese troops who died for the liberation of the Cambodian people from genocide,” Chea Sim said.
Cambodian forces, created from a resistance movement in Kratie province and supported by Vietnamese soldiers, took full control of Phnom Penh on Jan. 7, 1979, following a month of fighting the Khmer Rouge, ousting the regime of three years and eight months.
Wednesday’s celebration comes as a tribunal prepares to try five members of the Khmer Rouge, including Kaing Kek Iev, the chief of Tuol Sleng prison, whose trial is expected to begin early this year.
Chea Sim did not mention the tribunal or the jailed Khmer Rouge leaders in his remarks, in the only CPP speech of the day.
The “liberation” of Phnom Penh led to a decade of Vietnamese occupation and more years of civil war, as the Khmer Rouge retreated to jungle sanctuaries on the Thai border and fought Cambodian and Vietnamese soldiers.
The anniversary has become a contentious marker of Cambodian history. Hun Sen said in a speech Tuesday Jan. 7 represented the “truth of history” and lambasted critics of the anniversary.
Yim Sovann, a lawmaker for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said Jan. 7 marked an anniversary for an invasion by foreign troops. The true day of liberation came on Oct. 23, 1991, he said, the day the Paris Peace Accords were signed.