Thousands of people yesterday marked the National Day of Remembrance at Choeung Ek Genocide Centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to honour victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The National Day of Remembrance, formerly called the National Day of Hatred, was first launched on May 20, 1984. It became a national holiday last year.
Yesterday, a group of students from the University of Fine Arts re-enacted atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, and 207 Buddhist monks held a religious ceremony honouring victims.
After the ceremony, Pa Socheatvong, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal adviser, said the government will not allow conflict to return to the Kingdom.
“People with ill-intent cannot create a force to overthrow the government,” Mr Socheatvong said. “That is an act against the constitution.”
He then reiterated that Marshal Lon Nol was to blame for ousting Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, an act many see as the prelude to civil war and genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“If there was no coup, there may not have been Pol Pot’s regime,” Mr Socheatvong said. “Our country was unfortunate because we went through a genocide under the leadership of Pol Pot.”
“Other countries like Vietnam and Laos had regime changes, but a genocide did not happen like it did with us,” he added. “You see Thailand? They had dozens of coups, but millions weren’t killed.”
At the Killing Fields yesterday, people who attended the ceremony expressed their sadness regarding those who lost their lives years ago.
Yan Yat, 62, said he lost his father and three siblings during the Khmer Rouge era. Mr Yat said he comes to a stupa located within the compound of the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre to pay respect.
“I came here to pay respect and wish peace on the souls of the victims,” he said. “I will never forget the dark times in my life.”
He then expressed gratitude to the CPP and Vietnamese forces for overthrowing Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
“If January 7 didn’t happen, we would not be here today,” Mr Yat said. “It was a second birthday for us all.”
Prak Meth, a 67-year-old former Khmer Republic solider, said five of his relatives were killed by the Khmer Rouge after they were accused of being agents of the CIA.
“Today I brought my wife, three children and six grandchildren to the Killing Fields to watch the re-enactment,” Mr Meth said. “Even though it was a long time ago, it still hurts.”
“I don’t know why the Khmer Rouge killed its own people,” he added. “They said my relatives were members of the CIA; my relatives didn’t even know what the CIA was.”
Sam Srey Phkay, a 16-year-old student, said she has attended three Buddhist ceremonies at the Killing Fields.
Ms Srey Phkay said she learned a lot from books, and was told by her parents, about the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.
“I think today is very important because it can help the younger generation learn more about the history of the Khmer Rouge,” she said. “I want the next generation to learn about this tragedy and avoid repeating it in the future.”
Neth Pheaktra, a spokesman for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, yesterday said the tribunal helped with the National Day of Remembrance.
“The government has established a national memorial day holiday to be held annually on May 20 in remembrance of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979,” Mr Pheaktra said. “The day aims to pay respect to the spirits of victims, restore the dignity of the victims, provide reparations to victims, participate in national reconciliation and social harmonisation, and promote the knowledge on the Khmer Rouge with the objective of preventing atrocities.”
In a message yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on all Cambodians to maintain peace.
“The National Day of Remembrance is marked to remind of and pay respect to the souls of three million victims who died during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime,” Mr Hun Sen said.
“The majority of people are well aware of what Cambodia had been through for nearly three decades, the period of time when people’s eyes were filled with tears, when there were murders, destruction, evacuation and separation, when people were forced to over work without sufficient food and time to rest and when there was no rights, no democracy and rights to life,” he added.
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime ruled what was then called Democratic Kampuchea, after Marshal Lon Nol’s regime was toppled.
From 1975 to 1979, the regime ruled with an iron fist as it pushed its “Year Zero” agenda, a notion that led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians from forced labour, disease, starvation and executions.