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Dueling Holidays Reflect Stark Political Differences

Foreign ministers attending the Paris Peace Conference on Cambodia pose prior to the meeting, Oct. 23, 1991. Front row L-R: United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Roland Dumas of France, Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk, back row L-R: unidentified, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, Qian Qichen of China, Soviet Union's Boris Pankin, Burnei's Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Great Britain's Lord Caithness, unidentified, Thailand's Anan Sarasin. (AP Photo)

Last week, a group of monks, students and rights workers demonstrated to tell the government it was not fulfilling its democratic obligations spelled out in a 1991 Peace Accords.

The Oct. 23 anniversary of the accords is often a time for supporters of liberal democracy to push for change.

More conservative members of the ruling party, however, favor a national holiday, on Jan. 7, which marks the ouster of the Khmer Rouge.

The two days have become a polarizing political factor in relations between supporters of the opposition, who favor the peace accords, and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, who tout Jan. 7.

The two sides, meanwhile, interpret the meaning of the Peace Accords differently.

For Lor Kheng, a lawmaker at the National Assembly, “Oct. 23 is the child of Jan. 7.”

For her, the accords that brought peace to the country’s warring factions, after decades of violence, would not have been possible if the Khmer Rouge had never been ousted from power.

Jan. 7 celebrates that day, marking the point in 1979 when Vietnamese troops and Cambodian fighters pushed the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh.

But that also meant a decade of Vietnamese occupation that embittered many Cambodians.

The Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, mounted a renewed insurgency from the jungle, and those loyal to the royalists also took up arms.

War and bloodshed followed, until the UN stepped in to produce a ceasefire and the accords.

Ho Vann, another Assembly lawmaker, said the 1991 accords are “precious history for Cambodia that marked a step toward democracy and development.”

The Oct. 23 holiday was taken off the list of national holidays, angering those who see it as an important day and opening the ruling party to criticism for the move.

“The CPP wants to keep, as long as possible, the gratitude regarding Jan. 7 for ending the Khmer Rouge,” said Ou Virak, chief of the board for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “The opposition wants to devalue it, and to value the Oct. 23 holiday for bringing democracy.”

But he said there’s room for both.

“Both sides must admit the value of the two days and end their motivations for political rhetoric and concentrate to deal with challenges of national development,” he said.