Sunday is officially Cambodia’s Victory Over Genocide Day, an occasion to be celebrated by some, while others have mixed feelings about it.
This Sunday, the 39th anniversary of the end of the Khmer Rouge regime will be marked by an estimated 40,000 people at Koh Pich in Phnom Penh, with Prime Minister Hun Sen as the guest of honour.
But not everyone in Cambodia will be celebrating on Sunday.
Yak Sok, a 78-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre and a former member of the Khmer People’s Liberation Armed Forces, said January 7 was not a great day for him.
Mr Sok always carried a gun and was a soldier when he was young, but in his old age he now spends all his time with his family at their home near the base of a mountain in Battambang province’s Banan district.
As a soldier who worked on the border, he was fighting against Vietnamese troops almost 40 years ago on January 7.
Mr Sok has survived many regimes in his long life – the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, which literally meant the “community of the common people”, Lon Nol, Pol Pot and now the Royal Government of Cambodia.
He said Cambodians fought Cambodians in the past because one man said they must stop a foreign country from taking over Cambodian territory.
“We fought to protect our territory. Cambodian people went to fight only for one person, but I cannot mention his name,” he said, referring to Pol Pot.
“He is the person who created the Khmer Rouge and the United Issarak Front (Samakhum Khmer Issarak), which led to the Lon Nol coup. Then he came back to join the new regime,” he added. Mr Sok was a Khmer Rouge soldier before he joined the Khmer People’s Liberation Armed Forces and continued to fight against the Phnom Penh government’s troops while his family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand.
“January 7 was not peaceful for people who lived in Pailin or Battambang and other rural areas where there was still fighting. They still fought with the Phnom Penh government’s troops until the Paris Peace Agreement,” he recalled.
“January 7 was only peaceful for the people in Phnom Penh. For us, we had peace in 1998.”
Wearing a jacket to keep his body warm in the cool mountain air near his home, he added: “If I take a look back 38 years in the past, we never dreamed that our country could be peaceful like it has been recently, because in the past, the flames of war burned strongly.
“So please keep the peace. We don’t want to see the war come back again. I have experienced too much civil war.
“You know the wars never made people happy – we only lost our family members and we were hungry. So I am proud of the person who brought the peace for us,” he added.
No peace all round
Sitting in a wooden house in Pailin province, Keo Pong, a 76-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre, has bitter memories of January 7 all those years ago.
He had escaped from the Khmer Rouge and fled to the Thai border between Phum Malai and Phnom Chatt on January 7, because he had been fighting with troops from Phnom Penh and also against the Khmer People’s Liberation Armed Forces.
With tattoos on his face and hand, he recalled with a smile: “For us, we stopped fighting in August 1996, so we got peace during that time when my boss Y Chhean announced that battle-weary communist soldiers in Pailin would lay down their arms and join the Phnom Penh government forces.”
He added that senior Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok came to Pailin in July 1996, before his boss announced they would join the Phnom Penh government forces.
Ta Mok, later nicknamed “The Butcher”, went directly to meet Mr Chhean and told him go to Malai district’s Banteay Meanchey province, but he refused.
“I think my boss was afraid Ta Mok would kill him if he agreed to go, because he knew my boss was negotiating with the Phnom Penh government. In my opinion, if my boss had not joined with the Phnom Penh government, the flames of war would not have ended,” he said.
He added that he had joined Pol Pot’s revolution in 1972 and spent until 1996 fighting against Phnom Penh’s troops. He said himself and the other fighters were so happy when they heard rumours that the war would soon be over after his boss’s negotiations.
“I had had a dream about the war finishing and my village commander called a meeting with about 50 families to announce that we were defecting to the Phnom Penh governor and the war had ended,” he said. “We were so happy at that time because we knew we had peace and all of us were smiling.”
He added that almost all of the former fighters returned to the cities, setting up market stalls, since people were now allowed to have their own businesses.
The Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge were followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, which infamously carried out genocide against the Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge’s army was slowly built up in the jungles of eastern Cambodia during the late 1960s. It was supported by the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong, the Pathet Lao communists in Laos, and had strong support from the People’s Republic of China.
The Khmer Rouge emerged victorious from Cambodia’s civil war when they captured the capital Phnom Penh in 1975 and overthrew the corrupt military dictatorship of the Khmer Republic and imposed socialism.
After their victory the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Khieu Samphan, installed a government called Democratic Kampuchea and immediately set about forcibly depopulating the country’s cities, murdering hundreds of thousands of their perceived political opponents and carrying out a genocide during which up to three million people, or about 25 percent of the population, died.
The United Nations suspended its operations in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s rule, from 1975 to 1979.
In the 1980s the UN sent emergency humanitarian relief and the UN Border Relief Operation came into existence on January 1, 1982, to provide and coordinate humanitarian assistance to displaced Cambodians along the Thai-Cambodian border, where there were many refugee camps.
In January 1990, the five permanent members of the Security Council called for a major UN role in bringing peace to Cambodia and announced an agreement on the main elements of a political settlement to end the conflict in the country.
In 1991, the various Cambodian parties decided to implement an unlimited ceasefire and to stop receiving military assistance. They signed a peace treaty in Paris to end the instability and prepare the country for elections.
By August 1996, Prime Minister Hun Sen had successfully courted the forces in Pailin led by Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, after pardons issued by the king.
Khmer Rouge defections
Mr Chhean, a former governor of Pailin province and a former bodyguard of Pol Pot who went on to command his province on the Thai border, said January 7 was important for people in his province and also for the whole country.
“After my defection in August 1996, after I had negotiated with Defence Minister Tea Banh, he said that Prime Minister Hun Sen had promised all Khmer Rouge soldiers that he would make concessions to put the country at peace, I could keep my position and no one would be sentenced,” he said.
He added that before he reached the agreement with Gen Banh, he let Prum Pat, his close confidant, attempt to open negotiations first. Later he met and talked with Gen Banh himself.
“The reason was I knew it was too dangerous for me to travel to the capital. I am happy with January 7 and will never forget that,” Mr Chhean said.
“Without the Prime Minister’s concessions, the war would not have ended, so I would like to call on all people to respect the value of January 7 and to respect the founder of that day, Prime Minister Hun Sen. He is the man who brought peace to Cambodia.”
He added that 38 years later, Cambodia has advanced on the correct path in accordance with the public’s aspirations and in conformity with common regional and world trends.
According to the book titled “The DIFID of Techo Hun Sen of Cambodia” written by Pol Saroeun, the strategy was to “Divide, Isolate, Finish, Integrate and Develop” and dissolve the Khmer Rouge political and military organisation.
The strategy started after the overthrow of Democratic Kampuchea on January 7, 1979, and was aimed at preventing the return of that regime.
The author said that although the regime of Democratic Kampuchea had collapsed, the Khmer Rouge political and military organisation had not been completely destroyed and civil war continued to plague the country and hinder development for the Cambodian people.
During that period, Mr Hun Sen started to implement the DIFID strategy secretly and effectively, making the Khmer Rouge isolated both internationally and inside the country.
The majority of Khmer Rouge fighters separated from Pol Pot’s regime and joined the government forces and the regime was dissolved in early 1999.
“This book clearly states who is peace loving and seeking peace for the people of this nation and for maintaining this peace that has come from this hardship,” the author said.
“This DIFID strategy created a win-win policy, with three main points: to ensure the survival, to protect assets and to maintain positions for the former Khmer Rouge,” he added.
The founder of January 7
The Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit has produced a one-hour, 34 minute video documentary title “Marching Toward National Salvation” which shows how Prime Minister Hun Sen and others liberated the country from Pol Pot’s regime and gave a second life to the Cambodian people.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and four of his comrades – Nuch Than, Nhek Horn, Sou Kimsreang and Va Por Ien – went to Vietnam and asked for help from the Vietnamese government to organise a resistance movement.
“At that time it was difficult and I had to make a decision,” Mr Hun Sen says in the video.
“At 25-years-old I was far away from my country due to the emergence of murderers. Those tears were for my country before I crossed the border.
“There were four choices – one was that I would commit suicide. I always had 12 needles with me to thrust into my throat in case I was seized and sent back to Cambodia.”
However, former opposition lawmaker Ou Chanrath said the ruling party was only trying to get the support of the public for the upcoming general election by playing up their achievements over the past 30 years.
Fight for freedom
Mr Hun Sen, speaking during celebrations of the 38th anniversary of January 7, 1979, said it was an historic victory for the Cambodian people when Pol Pot’s regime was overthrown.
He added that Pol Pot’s genocide was the darkest period in Cambodian history and after the regime fell it ushered in a new era of independence, freedom, democracy and social progress.
“The January 7 victory saved the lives of the remaining people in a timely manner and returned the people’s rights and freedom,” he said.
“That revived every Cambodian spirit and material values that had accumulated for thousands of years, while making an active contribution for peace and security in the region.
“This is the historic truth that no force could twist, exaggerate, forget, or destroy.”
He added that these historic changes arose from correct political leadership with determined will, and active participation from the people in implementing rights and building solidarity.
He said there were also sacrifices, both physical and mental, made by every level of officials and the armed forces in rendering services for the nation and people, in accordance with the principle of liberal democracy and pluralism.
“These are major factors of the victory and historic lessons learned that we all should be aware of and keep them always in order for such bitter history not to recur in our motherland,” Mr Hun Sen said.
At home with his friends, Mr Sok hopes to live out his days in peace.
“I am old enough, I don’t want to see civil war again. Our leaders have to try to serve in as peaceful a way as possible. It’s what I want to see before I die.”