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Day of Remembrance, 20 May 2020: NEVER FORGETTING

Un Sodavy / Share:
US Ambassador Patrick Murphy, Photo by Un Sodavy, Wat Sngoun Pich, Phnom Penh, Wednesday. Documentation Centre of Cambodia

The memory of genocide is not fleeting, forgettable, or forgiving. Whether you are a survivor, the family member of a victim or survivor, or the great-grandchild of this generation, the memory of mass atrocities transcends circumstances, time, and endeavour. Many survivors have sought to bury their past, only to be reminded that their past is always a part of their present identity and many young people born after the Khmer Rouge regime have sought to understand how was it possible that such atrocities could be committed, or maybe they doubt whether such atrocities really occurred. The memory of genocide will always be a part of Cambodia’s identity now and for countless generations in the future.

The Cambodian holiday associated with May 20 is important, if not as a national holiday, then as a personal day of remembrance and commitment. The day represents an opportunity to remember that one’s past or one’s family, community, or country’s history, can be an opportunity for learning and teaching the next generation.

In 1984, May 20 was designated the “Day of Anger”. The day was designated partly as a symbol of defiance against the United Nations. Between 1982 to 1983, there were about 1 million people who provided their thumbprints and signatures in a petition submitted to the United Nations through the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. The purpose of the petition was to act as a protest to the United Nations, which continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge regime as legitimate representatives of the Cambodian people to the United Nations General Assembly. Samdech Heng Samrin sought to take the Cambodian seat on the United Nations away from the Khmer Rouge and give it to the Cambodian people. Ultimately, the action was blocked.

In 2018, the Royal Government of Cambodia approved the sub-degree to change the name of the day from the Day of Anger to the “National Day of Remembrance”. Since 2018, May 20 became an official national holiday in Cambodia, allowing all Cambodian people to take rest from work and commemorate the victims who sacrificed their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime. The day was important not only as a day of rest but an opportunity for learning and prayer ceremonies. Teachers, students, civil servants, monks and the public could get together to pray at their nearest memorial monument. The holiday was also intended to serve as a moral and collective reparation of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). In 2018, the ECCC recognised the Cambodian government’s establishment of this day as a judicial reparation for civil parties in Case 002/01.

However, for May 20, 2020, and future years going forward, the day will no longer be a public holiday in Cambodia. Despite this change, there are still reasons to commemorate this day. Yesterday, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), the US Ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, and distinguished staff from the embassy of the United States in Cambodia came to hold a prayer ceremony in Snguon Pech pagoda to commemorate the victims who lost their lives. Snguon Pech pagoda is in Snguon Pech village, only afew kilometres away from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s premises.

According to research and personal accounts collected by DC-Cam, in 1976, the Khmer Rouge used Snguon Pech pagoda as a prison and a place to execute people. This prison is the largest prison in Angk Snuol district. During the Khmer Rouge regime, there were approximately 400 to 700 people who died in this pagoda. The Khmer Rouge executed people in areas surrounding the pagoda, specifically, in a canal in front of the pagoda, in a lake near the pagoda, and west of a nearby school. The people that were executed were accused of being immoral, or they were falsely identified as police, soldiers, spies or infiltrators from the Soviet Union or the United States. The victims were from different ethnic origins. Many victims were of Chinese, Cham, and Khmer backgrounds. The Khmer Rouge were indiscriminate in who they killed. They executed people who were young and old and both male and female. Many executions occurred in late 1978 and early 1979. Nowadays, we can see the construction of a memorial monument to preserve the remains of those victims who lost their lives in Snguon Pech pagoda.

The memory of genocide is neither comforting to remember, nor is it easy to forget. Whether May 20 is a public holiday or not will not change the significance of this history for victims and survivors, loved ones and generations born after the Khmer Rouge regime. The day must stand as a personal and collective day for remembrance, so that the lessons of history are not forgotten for Cambodians or the world.

Un Sodavy, researcher, Documentation Center of Cambodia

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