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Anniversary of Khmer Rouge Overthrow Marked By Joy, Anger

A large parade marks the country's 40th of Victory Over Genocide Day at National Olympic Stadium, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in late December 1978 and overthrew the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime on 7 January 1979.

The Cambodian and Vietnamese governments held colorful ceremonies this week to mark the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime 40 years ago.

But the event continues to divide opinion among Cambodians.

The Cambodian ceremony was organized by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen at Olympic Stadium on Monday. Speeches made and parades were held to entertain the thousands of CPP supporters who attended the event.

“The January 7 victory saved millions of Cambodians who were already at the brink of death,” Hun Sen told the crowd. “It restored the spiritual and physical value of the Cambodian people, who have built their history over thousands of years, but were almost wiped out completely during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.”

Hun Sen praised his so-called “Win-Win” policy that is credited with ending the civil war in 1998 by allowing the remaining Khmer Rouge fighters to integrate into the formal state forces.

He also criticized the former opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which the CPP-dominated Supreme Court banned last year ahead of a crucial national election in July.

Tens of thousands of Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in late December 1978 and overthrew the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime on 7 January 1979. Vietnam installed a pro-Hanoi government, which would become the CPP.

The Khmer Rouge regime is blamed for the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians. Several of the Khmer Rouge’s surviving leaders were tried by UN-backed tribunal and are now serving sentences.

But for some Cambodians, who have fled the country, the day marked an invasion by its neighbor and the beginning of a decade of occupation before peace was declared.

More than 100 Cambodians held a demonstration in Long Beach, California, on Sunday to protest the anniversary celebrations.

"What we all fear the most is that the continued gratitude towards January 7 Day would mean the ultimate control by the Vietnamese in Cambodia, just like what happened in Kampuchea Krom," said Veasna Chan, a protest organizer, referring to the southern part of Vietnam, which is home to a sizeable population of ethnic Khmers.

In Australia, over 100 protesters rallied in front of a restaurant in Melbourne, where CPP supporters celebrated the day.

Despite the protests overseas, there were no protests against the celebration in Cambodia as there have been in the past. The expression of any view contrary to the ruling party’s doctrine is now seen as too risky.

"Once he gained power, Hun Sen was corrupt,” Um Sam An, a former opposition lawmaker, told VOA Khmer. “His family lives on a pile of wealth, but most Cambodians have migrated to work abroad and live in poverty because wherever there is development in Cambodia, there are people suffering, often due to land grabbing by private companies and authorities in Cambodia."

The celebration for the CPP began in late December with the inauguration of the Win-Win Monument, dedicated to Hun Sen’s role in ending the civil war.

“In the last 40 years, Cambodians have nothing to be proud of,” said Eng Chhai Eang, vice president of the banned CNRP. “There is so-called ‘peace,’ but peace in Cambodia has been put inside a grave now because people don’t have freedom. People don’t have justice. They are victims. Nowadays, development has victimized more people because it’s unjust development.”