It is 47 years ago today since the Khmer Rouge began to impose its extremist ideology of the communist revolution against on its own people. Forced collectivisation was followed by mass killings in 1973 in southern Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, came to power on April 17, 1975.
No one knows for sure how many Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge, in the three years, eight months and 20 days before the Khmer Rouge was toppled by Cambodian defectors supported by the Vietnamese on Jan 7, 1979. Estimates put it at about 2 to 3 million men, women and children.
Imagine, if you can, one in four people you know, your family, your friends, your co-workers, even the performers you watch on television or listen to on the radio, disappearing forever.
And with those victims went the educated and the educators – engineers, scientists, teachers, doctors and healthcare workers. The very people a nation depends upon for its growth and prosperity. Instead of reviving their vision of the great Khmer Empire, the Khmer Rouge betrayed the nation and almost destroyed it.
Many even lost their identities to become just nameless bones in the more than tens of hundreds of killings fields throughout the country, preventing full closure for their families who remain, the survivors.
That unforgettable tragedy led the Cambodian survivors to launch the first National Day of Hatred in 1984 in what was then known as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Later it was known as the National Day of Remembrance, while others later called it the Day of Tying Anger, in literal English translation, or The Day of Maintaining Rage.
As one of those survivors, to me, no matter the day was called, the content and context of it remains unchanged. Such horrible memories continue to linger in my head and will traumatise my heart indefinitely although years have passed.
And I am not alone.
Nothing can change the past. By remembering its horrors, by remembering that it was not caused by a foreign invader, but by Cambodian against Cambodian, divided by hatred and manipulated by anger, maybe we will learn not to repeat that tragedy.
Today, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook replayed the footage of when he had to make painful decisions, Cambodians leaving their homeland, their pregnant wives in tears, as they departed while their much-loved children remained in the deadly labour camps under the watchful eyes of the guards of Pol Pot’s henchmen.
In 1978, Mr Hun Sen, who was to become the world’s longest-serving Prime Minister, then led a small number of Khmer Rouge defectors from the headquarters of the Khmer Rouge Region 21 Regiment in the eastern province of Kompong Cham, which shares a land border with Vietnam.
Led by Mr Hun Sen, the defectors silently sneaked out of their military bases into the dark night and trekked through deadly forests filled with poisonous snakes as monsoonal thunderstorms raged, making their way along the legendary Ho Chi Minh trail until finally crossing the land border into Vietnam’s Song Be province.
On his Facebook page, viewed by tens of thousands of people, he recalls how he sought assistance from Vietnam to liberate his country from the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge.
Cambodia’s dark chapter under Pol Pot, inspired me to write more than just the history, the bald facts, and bad experiences; I also penned a novel, Fight the Enemy, Find Love, which allowed a broader canvas to tell the story.
I did this because I want to refresh the past memories of bad experiences so that young people of the world, not only limited to Cambodia and Vietnamese, can learn about the past. I therefore transformed partial facts into the fiction of romance, emotional and love story. I really want the young generation to clearly understand that while they cannot change the past they can learn from it and how to avoid repeating the mistakes that damaged our people and their nation.
Many foreigners need to be aware that after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodia faced many difficulties throughout the 1980s. On one hand, the country tried to prevent the return of the Khmer Rouge to power and on the other hand, the Cambodian people had to rebuild their nation from scratch.
The essential arteries of the nation, roads, bridges, railways, telecommunications, had been utterly destroyed. Little essential infrastructure remained. Yet Cambodia persevered, united, and set to the task.
Once, Cambodia was known for its Killing Fields and decades of civil conflict and war, but this is not the case anymore.
Today, Cambodia’s image has changed from that drawn by its past dark history to a now-prosperous nation with a level playing field on all fronts.
Cambodia has reached this level not as a result of the hands of God, or mere luck, but the remarkable and pioneering efforts of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his people.
The premier has sacrificed himself since Day One of the Cambodian conflicts in the 1970s to rescue the Cambodian nation and its peoples from the bloody hands of Pol Pot, and his efforts resulted in the ousting of the Khmer Rouge from power in January 1979.
The win-win policy championed by Prime Minister Hun Sen in 1998 put an end to the political and military organisation of the Khmer Rouge, which was followed by mass defections of the Khmer Rouge rebels who then joined the Royal Government led by the premier himself.
This win-win policy finally brought about real national reconciliation, followed by peace, justice, and development.
Today, the average GDP per Cambodian citizen is more than $1,560 and this is expected to rise to more than $2,000 by 2023.
Cambodia has set the target to become a middle income country by 2030 and to become a high income country by 2050. “We need to create jobs and increase income sustainability for the long haul” says Mr Hun Sen.
Cambodia is now recognised as the 6th Tiger in Asia. The Kingdom is very much on the investment radar of the region. Over the period from 2014 to 2018, Cambodia approved hundreds of investment projects worth billions of dollars. The country achieved an economic growth rate of 7.7 per cent a year.
Cambodia, today, under the great leadership of Samdech Techo Prime Minister Hun Sen, is showing the world that the kingdom of Wonder has so much to tell in all fields from trade to tourism. Social and economic developments are more than expected: the skyscrapers, the tens of thousands new-built roads and bridges, and numerous achievements in every corner of this southeast Asian nation, and much more.
Cambodia, however, also felt the pain of other countries facing post-war torn conditions.
The United Nations has praised Cambodia’s peace keeping forces for its work overseas with the United Nations. Cambodia, despite being a poor nation, makes a significant contribution to UN international peacekeeping programmes. To date it has already dispatched more than 5,000 Cambodian peace-keeping troops to operate under the UN umbrella in Sudan, Central Africa, Lebanon and other nations.
Today, as we remember the darkness through which Cambodia passed, we can feel pride in how far we have come since then, and use that to look forward and ensure the future is bright.
Ek Tha is the standing vice-chairman of the Royal Government Spokesperson Unit, adviser to the Ministry of Information, spokesman of the Office of the Council of Ministers