PHNOM PENH: Tens of thousands of Cambodians packed a stadium in Phnom Penh on Monday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime — a day strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen called the country’s “second birthday”.
The ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, installed a reign of terror in 1975 that left two million Cambodians dead from starvation, hard labour, torture and mass executions.
It ended on Jan 7, 1979, when Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, led Vietnamese forces into the capital to expel the murderous regime.
The 66-year-old premier hailed the day as Cambodia’s “second birthday” at an elaborate ceremony in Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, where he was joined by traditional Khmer apsara dancers and marching bands.
“Today we celebrate this ceremony in order to recall unforgotten memories of the most heinous crimes of Pol Pot’s group,” Hun Sen told the crowd, and thanked Vietnam for saving the country.
A UN-backed tribunal found two top Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of genocide in a landmark ruling in November.
The feisty prime minister — who has ruled the country for 33 years — also took the opportunity to revisit history, hitting back at countries which continued supporting the Khmer Rouge after its ouster.
“These countries ... boasted about humanitarian and human rights and democracy [but] unjustly blocked” when the people needed assistance from the international community, he said, without naming any specific nation.
After the regime was toppled in 1979, Hun Sen found his Vietnam-backed government caught between geopolitical forces as the US sought to keep the ousted Khmer Rouge at the table in the United Nations.
The Southeast Asian country in recent years has tilted towards China thanks to loans for infrastructure and few complaints on human rights issues.
Last July, his party won a much-criticised election handily, after his government dissolved the country’s main opposition group and jailed its leader — effectively turning Cambodia into a one-party state.
Hun Sen on Monday vowed to “deny the actions of extremist opposition politicians and the foreign circle behind them”, claiming that they were trying to push Cambodia from a democratic path.
Critics say Hun Sen’s 33-year reign, as one of the longest serving premiers in the world, has created a more repressive Cambodia, where journalists, rights defenders and opposition politicians are routinely jailed for dissent.
An estimated 1.7 million people died at the hands of the extremist, communist Khmer Rouge regime.
Most victims died of torture, starvation, disease, or exhaustion in labour camps. Others were beaten to death during mass executions.
Seang Tharuon, 69, lost 11 siblings and both her parents during the killings. She was forced by the Khmer Rouge to marry her husband.
Like many others, Seang Tharuon was evacuated from Phom Penh by the Khmer Rouge at the start of its nightmarish rule. She walked for more than 100 km (62 miles) from the countryside back to the capital when the regime fell in 1979.
“We mainly had gruel to eat, and they would let us eat rice once a month,” Seang Tharuon told Reuters as she bought drinks from Srey Heng’s stall outside the stadium.
In downtown Phnom Penh, former Khmer Rouge soldier Prum Punly balanced on one leg as he fed birds by the river. He lost his other leg to a landmine while fighting against US-backed Cambodian government forces in 1975, as the Khmer Rouge came to power: “I was too young to understand politics,” the 67-year-old said. “It was chaos”.
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2019