The government will today mark the 40th anniversary of the January 7 Victory Day, the turning point of war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-backed forces of Prime Minister Hun Sen in 1979. Two of his soldiers reminisce over the day Mr Hun Sen left for Vietnam to form an alliance and overthrow the Khmer Rouge.
Tboung Khmum province, Memot district – On this day decades ago, even before the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, Memot district’s Koh Thmar village supported North Vietnam by supplying rice and medicine.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was a Khmer Rouge cadre at the time, frequented the area as he plotted to overthrow his own leaders.
In a book detailing the lead up to the invasion, Mr Hun Sen recalls how his two former comrades from the village; Chem “Mann” Saroeun and Tuom Sum, were like family.
“I thank our people here for their amicability, which was not for one or two days but for 47 years,” he says in the book. “I thank the people of Koh Thmar, who could be considered as my parents, brothers and nephews for fostering me with love from the very beginning.”
Mr Hun Sen says in his book that his forces fought South Vietnamese and American forces near the border.
He wrote that his forces of six lost to 600 American and South Vietnamese forces in 1970, years before the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces.
“I lost my way in deep forest. People thought I was killed. I made it in the end back to this place and saw they were organising a funeral for me – [everyone] thought I died fighting that night,” Mr Hun Sen wrote.
At a house built of sheet metal, Mr Mann recalls the day Mr Hun Sen returned to the village after the battle.
He holds an old photo of him and Mr Hun Sen and says that a funeral ceremony was prepared because no one in the village thought he would ever return.
“He [Hun Sen] returned to the village in the morning and I told him: ‘I didn’t think you’d survive,’” Mr Maan says. “We felt happy when we saw that our commander had survived.”
A skinny man with grey hair, Mr Maan doesn’t often reveal too much about his past, especially about how he became acquainted with Mr Hun Sen.
He says he’s tried to meet his old comrade-in-arms, but was blocked by Mr Hun Sen’s bodyguard.
“I didn’t want to get power from him, I only wanted to have a fun conversation with him,” Mr Mann says. “Even though he is the leader of this country, he is still the same man – a friend to all of his old comrades.”
“He’s also not as aggressive as before,” he adds. “He is now gentle.”
Mr Mann says he did not see Mr Hun Sen again for a long time after the civil war, not until 1993 during the inauguration of a school.
“He thought I was already dead,” he says. “When he said that, I was instantly taken back to that day we held that funeral ceremony in Koh Thmar for him.”
“He asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be his bodyguard,” Mr Mann says. “But he told me I was too old, I should take care of my family and live on a farm on behalf of the nation I care about.”
Mr Mann says he always knew that Mr Hun Sen would lead the Kingdom ever since the day he left for Vietnam. He also knew that the journey across the border would be perilous and uncertain.
“As I know, Prime Minister Hun Sen was planning to commit suicide if Vietnam did not support him,” Mr Mann says. “I never thought he’d make it back to Cambodia because he was a commander while Vietnamese forces were fighting Khmer Rouge soldiers.”
“I told him if one day he becomes a national leader, he shouldn’t forget us and we all agreed not to forget,” he adds. “That night we all slept holding each other.”
Muth Phoeun, the wife of Mr Mann, says her family’s financial situation has made it difficult for her husband to meet Mr Hun Sen.
“Local authorities keep the Prime Minister in the dark regarding my husband because we are poor and they think we will ask for money from him,” Ms Phoeun says. “We won’t do that, we just want to say hello to our old friend.”
Sok Sophoeun has lived in Koh Thmar ever since childhood. Mr Sophoeun says many things have changed since then.
What used to be a village covered in green has now become part of a rubber plantation. He says that an airport is being built and that a tree has been dedicated to Mr Hun Sen.
Mr Sophoeun says everyone knows the name Hun Sen. He says his home is only about 20 kilometres away from where the Premier crossed the border to Vietnam.
“After the war, he’s visited this place three times,” he says. “He has never forgotten about this place.”
Mr Sum, in his krama and worn-out shirt, says Mr Hun Sen’s name is now synonymous with Koh Thmar village precisely because of what happened since the day the latter departed to Vietnam.
“I missed him when he left the country, I was really happy to see him return after the war,” Mr Sum says “He asked me about what I do from day-to-day and we chatted about the things we went through 40 years ago.”
“He always asks for me when he comes to the village and people love him,” he adds, noting that he never asked for anything from his old comrade. “I’m happy enough that he even asked of me. I only want to have one day with him to reminisce – that’s enough for me.”
Becoming Hun Sen
In his book, Mr Hun Sen recollects making a decision on who to ally with in order to fend off Khmer Rouge forces.
He says he initially had two choices: Thailand or Laos. However, upon further consideration, he says that Vietnam would serve as a better ally due to its proximity to Cambodia.
“Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk also asked for help from Vietnam to help liberate the country,” Mr Hun Sen wrote. “Lon Nol asked South Vietnamese and American troops to fight inside Cambodia, why can they do this? Many leaders have asked foreign countries to help fight their wars.”
“Vietnam also asked for help from Cambodia,” he says. “You may remember that at the time there was war in Vietnam, our people in Koh Thmar sold them rice and medicine along the border.”
At the time, many in the country were not confident that Hanoi could be swayed to help overthrow the Khmer Rouge because delegations in the past were either killed by Vietnamese forces or sent back to Cambodia.
Mr Hun Sen says in his book that an alliance with Vietnam was necessary in order to help liberate the country.
“It was not only Hun Sen who had to leave the country. I asked for help from Vietnam and it was not the wrong decision,” he says. “Without help from the Vietnamese, would we have been able to liberate the country? It was not a fairy tale.”
Heng Samrin, National Assembly president, says in his own book that forming an alliance with Vietnam helped topple Pol Pot’s regime.
“Without the support from the people, the United Front could not have fought for 35 days to topple Pol Pot,” Mr Samrin says.
Following the takeover of Cambodia in 1975, Pol Pot installed the Democratic Kampuchea government and immediately depopulated cities.
An estimated 1.7 Cambodians died under his Khmer Rouge, about 25 percent of the population at the time.
Their army recruited forces in the eastern jungles of Cambodia in the late 1960s and was initially supported by the North Vietnamese and Laotian governments.
Victory with DIFID strategy
In a book entitled “The DIFID of Techo Hun Sen of Cambodia”, Senior Minister Pol Saroeun wrote in order for the Khmer Rouge to be overthrown, their ranks must be divided, isolated, finished, integrated and developed.
It means that high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials were given the option to join forces with Mr Hun Sen during extended periods of negotiations in the 90s.
Even though the regime was effectively pushed back to their last few remaining strongholds after the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnamese forces, skirmishes between government forces and Khmer Rouge insurgents continued to occur in the rural parts of the Kingdom.
By implementing the DIFID strategy, Hun Sen’s regime was able to absorb the Khmer Rouge’s soldiers and high-ranking officials.
“This DIFID strategy created the win-win policy with three main points: to ensure survival, protect assets and to maintain their job positions,” Mr Saroeun said.
The Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit has produced a film entitled “Marching Toward National Salvation” to acknowledge that Mr Hun Sen liberated the country by overthrowing Pol Pot’s regime.
The official story is Mr Hun Sen, along with Nuch Than, Nhek Horn, Sou Kimsreng and Va Por Ien, crossed the border to seek for help from the Vietnamese.
“At the time, it was a difficult decision that I had to make,” Mr Hun Sen says in the film. “At 25-years-old, to be so far away from the country due to the emergence of a murderer. Those tears were for my country before I crossed the border. “
“We were left with a handful of choices, of which being suicide,” he says. “I always had 12 needles with me to thrust into my throat in case I was seized and sent back to Cambodia.”
Fight for freedom
During last year’s celebration of victory day, Mr Hun Sen said he and his forces ended one of the darkest periods in Cambodia.
Over the years, he has said that he had ushered a new era of independence, freedom, democracy and social progress.
“The January 7 victory quickly saved the lives of the people that remained and returned their rights and freedom,” Mr Hun Sen said. “They revived every Cambodian spiritual and material values accumulated for thousands of years, while actively contributing to peace and security in the region.”
“This is the historic truth that no force can twist, exaggerate, forget or destroy,” he added. “These are major factors that made victory happen. These are lessons learned that we should be aware because such a bitter history should not occur once again in our motherland.”
As for today’s event, Mr Hun Sen is not the only one gearing up for the anniversary celebration. Many around the country are playing their part in the marking.
The Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia has organised for a concert to be held at Wat Botum. The line-up includes some of Cambodia’s most famous pop stars and singers.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, says the younger generation needs to know about how the Khmer Rouge rose to power in April 1975 and why it happened.
Mr Chhang says today there are five million survivors of the brutal regime, noting that even the perpetrators are living among us.
He says after the collapse of the regime in 1979, the government will hold its first victory day celebration in the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge in Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district.
“The celebration will mark the liberation and healing of our surroundings,” Mr Chhang says. “Our surrounding lands are filled with former battlefields and bitter memory.”
“It serves as a lesson to former Khmer Rouge cadres living there of what is peace and what is defeat,” he adds.