Thousands of soldiers, police officers and spectators will gather in the capital tomorrow to mark the 20th anniversary of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s win-win policy, a move that brought Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan to the table to discuss peace in the late 1990s.
The gathering will not only mark the anniversary, but the inauguration of the Win-Win Monument, a symbol of Mr Hun Sen’s achievements and an intended symbol of peace that has been under construction in Chroy Changva district’s Prek Tasek commune since 2016.
The 54-metre tall monument will serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made to end civil wars that seemed endless just decades ago.
General Y Chhean, secretary of state with the Defence Ministry and a former bodyguard of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, says the monument will be an important token for all Cambodians.
“Without concessions made by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the flames of war would never have ended,” Gen Chhean says. “He is the man that brought peace to Cambodia – people have to accept that.”
Gen Chhean, who defected in August 1996, says at that time he told his close confidant Prum Pat to express desires to negotiate with Mr Hun Sen’s forces. On August 5, 1996, Gen Chhean says he personally met with General Tea Banh, who was fighting for peace alongside Mr Hun Sen.
At the time, Gen Banh told Gen Chhean that if Khmer Rouge remnants threw down their weapons and surrendered, Mr Hun Sen promised that they would not be prosecuted and would be allowed to keep their jobs.
Eventually, Gen Chhean met with Mr Hun Sen to discuss the prospect of peace and the internal political situation at the time before reaching an agreement to defect from the Khmer Rouge.
“Everyone needs happiness and peace – they fought each other because they wanted happiness and peace,” Gen Chhean says. “So Prime Minister Hun Sen made concessions we needed so the fighting would end. We needed to accept the terms.”
“The reason why I trusted Prime Minister Hun Sen is that I learned of his activities, the things he said and his family background,” he adds. “I found out that he was an honest person who wanted to rescue the country from the flames of war. I found out that he came from a family of farmers and I decided to join him.”
Defecting to the other side made Gen Chhean a target for the remaining Khmer Rouge leadership, who sent Khmer Rouge commander Ta Mok to meet him in Pailin province in July 1996.
“Ta Mok went directly to me and told me to go to Malai district in Banteay Meanchey province, but I refused,” Gen Chhean says. “I think Ta Mok would have killed me had I agreed to go because they knew I was negotiating with the government in Phnom Penh.”
The war between government forces and the Khmer Rouge was a complicated matter, he adds. It took efforts from both sides to end it.
“One thing that made it much more difficult was bringing people together to reach an agreement,” Gen Chhean says. “But Prime Minister Hun Sen was able to do that.”
The Khmer Rouge carried out a genocide against its own people in the 1970s until a Vietnamese invasion halted their insidious agenda, influenced by the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
Their members depopulated cities across the Kingdom and forced Cambodians to march to their deaths for camps located in rural areas.
It has been estimated that about 1.7 million people died under the Khmer Rouge. They executed political opponents, people who were educated and suspected western sympathisers.
General Yim Phanna, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who became deputy commander of an army unit, represented the Khmer Rouge during the negotiations to draft the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
Today, Gen Phanna says it wasn’t easy for him to muster up courage to meet with his former opponents and discuss peace.
“It was hard for me at first because I was afraid that if I failed, they would kill me,” he says. “But I was lucky that Prime Minister Hun Sen was committed to end the war.”
“I thought to myself: if we didn’t end the war, we would be losers,” Gen Phanna adds. “Everyone would be losers because every Cambodian was somehow involved.”
He says that even by attending negotiations, he was accused of being a traitor by the Khmer Rouge.
“It was very hard for me during that time,” Gen Phanna says.
However, he believed in Mr Hun Sen’s promise that Khmer Rouge cadres would not be prosecuted and would be allowed to retain their positions.
He was also promised that Anlong Veng, the last Khmer Rouge stronghold in Oddar Meanchey province at the time, would remain untouched by government forces.
“I can say that without Prime Minister Hun Sen, the war would never have ended,” Gen Phann says. “I am proud of my decision. Now Anlong Veng has become well-developed.”
“Building the Win-Win Monument is a good decision,” he adds. “Now the younger generation will know the stories of the past and ensure this country’s peace.”
Mr Hun Sen wrote in a book commemorating the overthrow of Pol Pot’s regime that it was not a resistance carried out in haste, but a carefully crafted one.
“I may ask: was it necessary for us to organise national salvation if situations were like today? National salvation is the backbone of the Cambodian people,” he says in the book. “Back then, we weren’t able to campaign for elections, or ask for freedom and democracy.”
“If we could have done that, I would not have organised armed resistance to liberate the country,” Mr Hun Sen adds. “I wouldn’t have had to demand freedom from Pol Pot, let alone the freedom to express, travel, participate in politics, or even the right to life.”
He says in the book that in 1971, people who had sheltered him in what is now Tboung Khmum province’s Memot district, organised a funeral ceremony for him after he had lost a battle against South Vietnamese and American forces.
“I lost my way in deep forest. People thought I was killed. I made it in the end to this place and saw they were organising a funeral for me [because] they thought I died in the fight.”
Mr Hun Sen writes in an inscription on the Win-Win Monument that Cambodians joined to fight together because all Cambodians have an obligation to their country.
“Before June 20, 1977, I was just a soldier who received orders from his superiors,” he writes. “But from then until now, I have been a leader that has ensured Cambodia’s national process forever without taking breaks.”
He notes that it all began with five people, but now there are millions who are fighting with him for the sake of the Kingdom.
“The win-win solution was drafted by victims who were seeking peace for their country,” Mr Hun Sen says.
As for Gen Banh, who is now Defence Minister, he says the monument celebrates Mr Hun Sen’s achievements in winning peace for the nation by bringing Khmer Rouge leaders to the table in the 1990s.
“The Win-Win Monument, is primarily meant to celebrate Hun Sen’s win-win policy that allowed Khmer Rouge cadres to keep their military positions in exchange for defecting to the government, thus ending decades of civil war,” Gen Banh says. “The structure will become part of Cambodia’s heritage for future generations. Prime Minister Hun Sen began his true journey in life after the night of June 20, 1977. He then sought to rescue the nation from Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.”
To ordinary people, war is often a distant thought. Ending a war is not an easy feat.
The Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit last year produced a 90-minute video entitled “Marching Toward National Salvation” to tell the story of Mr Hun Sen.
The film tells a story of Mr Hun Sen and his four comrades Nuch Than, Nhek Horn, Sou Kimsreang and Va Por Ien.
It begins with the five making their way into Vietnam to ask the Vietnam’s government to organise the resistance for national liberation.
“At that time, I had to make difficult decisions,” Mr Hun Sen says in the film. “To be 25 years old and to be far from the country because of murderers. The tears I shed before I crossed the border were for my country.”
“There I was left with only a handful of choices and suicide was one of them,” he says. “But I would rather do it in Vietnam. I always had twelve needles with me in case I was seized and sent back to Cambodia.”
General Nem Sowath, director-general of the policy and foreign affairs department at the Defence Ministry, says the story of the win-win policy will be included in future curriculum and that the site will become a national archive.
“This Win-Win Monument represents Samdech Techo Hun Sen’s heroic role in bringing peace and development to the country,” Gen Sowath says. “This place will be a major centre for Cambodian history.”
“Hun Sen is a hero,” he adds. “He risked his life to travel to Vietnam to ask Vietnamese forces to help overthrow Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.”
General Pol Saroeun, Senior Minister, has also penned a book about the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and Mr Hun Sen’s role.
In the book, titled “The DIFID of Techo Hun Sen of Cambodia”, he says that the Khmer Rouge needed to be divided, isolated and dissolved before its members can be integrated and developed.
He says that though the Khmer Rouge regime, also known as Democratic Kampuchea, were not completely uprooted, the “divide and conquer” plan worked on Khmer Rouge soldiers and even for high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadres.
“This book clearly states that someone who loves peace and seeks peace for the nation can overcome hardships,” Gen Saroeun says. “This DIFID [divide and conquer] strategy created the win-win policy with three main points: ensure survival, protect assets and maintain positions.”
Former opposition party adviser Kong Korm says the policy played a major role in toppling Pol Pot’s regime.
Mr Korm says it allowed Cambodia to hold elections and have multiple parties participating.
“Win-Win Monument commemorates the end of the civil war and the policy completely finished off Pol Pot’s party structure,” he says. “This is a historical lesson for the younger generation. To me, I have to accept the achievements of the Cambodian People’s Party in this regard.”
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, says December 29 will mark the end of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“On that day years ago, Khieu Samphan urged Cambodians to let bygones be bygones,” Mr Chhang says. “Nuon Chea said leave the deaths in the history books. This is an old story, just leave it in the past.”
“The past will never die. In fact, it continues to resonate in all of us and what we do,” he adds. “All of us bear a duty to not forget it and the monument is evidence of this legacy.”