[......] Jan 7 is a national holiday, but it runs a far second in importance to Independence Day on Nov 9. Many say it shouldn’t be a holiday at all.
“It is confusing for the Cambodian people,” said Thun Saray, president of the human rights NGO Adhoc and a leading scholar on Cambodian culture. “On one part, we can consider it a day of liberation. But then there’s this other part, about how Cambodian society became under the foreign troops.”
In Phnom Penh, students and anti-CPP groups rally against government ties to Vietnam. They say Vietnam dictates the political and economic policies of Prime Minister Hun Sen, its “puppet.”
They cry out against controversial border treaties and say Vietnamese interests run roughshod over poor Cambodians. They say Jan 7, 1979, was the beginning of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia.
“Only the people who support the CPP support the celebration. For me, it is not a national celebration,” said Kem Sokha, a former Funcinpec parliamentarian and director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“We were liberated from the Khmer Rouge, but then Vietnam occupied. Cambodia was not free yet,” he said.
The CPP is also cautious of celebrating Jan 7. In the last few years, the government officially renamed it, from Liberation Day to Victory Day Over Genocide.
Whether Vietnam invaded or liberated Cambodia, it is certain that the hardships did not end in 1979.
War continued, and the Vietnamese-backed government set to building fortifications against rebellious factions along the Thai border. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were conscripted through the 1980s for perilous labor at the so-called K5 project.
Carrying out tasks such as clearing land, mining and de-mining, digging trenches and transporting equipment and ammunition, tens of thousands of forced laborers succumbed to malaria or were maimed or killed by land mines.
The government’s critics today “were not in Cambodia during that time. We understand the importance of this day,” said CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith. “We’re trying to keep the memory alive.”
But for some, that memory is not about civil freedoms or the birth of democracy. Living under the horrors of the Khmer Rouge set a standard against which the small liberties, such as enjoying music, are enough.
In that respect, the Jan 7 holiday is not a celebration of liberation, but a commemoration of survival.
“Maybe if Cambodia did not have the killing fields, we would not need Vietnamese troops,” said Khieu Kola, who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime and worked as a journalist through the 1980s. “But for me, if Vietnam did not intervene, I would have died.”
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Pen Sovann, one of the founders of the front, and the former prime minister of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1981, said the Cambodian contingent alone were not strong enough to topple the Khmer Rouge and they needed Vietnamese support.
“The agreement was to establish friendships for mutual understanding, not to abuse the border, not to interfere with each other,” Pen Sovann said of the treaty between the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and Vietnam, which was signed on Feb 18, 1979.
“But, on the contrary, after the liberation, they abused the territory and they wanted this part and that part of Cambodia…. They wanted to colonize us and to control us,” Pen Sovann said.
Pen Sovann’s criticism of Vietnam’s long-term plans for Cambodia earned him a denouncement by his more compliant PRK colleagues, and he was eventually imprisoned for 10 years in Hanoi.
Indeed, Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia until 1989, a decade-long occupation during which a coalition of anti-Vietnamese Cambodian forces, including the Khmer Rouge, established bases inside Thailand and engaged in bloody civil war with the Hanoi-backed PRK government in Phnom Penh.
And January 7, 1979-the symbolic date of both the fall of Cambodia’s most cruel regime and the onset of a decade of foreign occupation-remains a point of serious contention 30 years later.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, then 26, was part of the front that ousted the Khmer Rouge, and his ruling CPP government, the latter-day incarnation of the PRK political heirs of January 7, made the date a national holiday in 1996.
“January 7 was a historical day. It gave us a new birthday, and I want everyone to remember it in their hearts,” CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said.
This year, the 30th anniversary will be celebrated with a “mass rally” at Olympic Stadium, which is expected to involve 20,000 students donated by their teachers from Phnom Penh’s high schools.
But the CPP-backed rally, and its use of school children, has sparked the ire of opposition leaders who say there is too much ambivalence about the meaning and history of January 7 to make it a day of national celebration. They prefer the anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Oct 23, 1991, which brought peace and democracy to Cambodia and was a national holiday until being suddenly dropped by the government in 2006.
CPP government explained their decision saying that there were too many national holidays, and the country already had January 7.
“April 17  and January 7  are inextricably associated: both of them are communist Frankensteins,” SRP President Sam Rainsy wrote in an e-mail.
“Celebrating January 7 without having in mind a broader historical perspective, is playing into the hands of the current Phnom Penh regime whose only raison d’etre was to ‘free’ the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge with communist Vietnam’s decisive but not unselfish help,” Sam Rainsy wrote.
“But it is worth realizing that without April 17, 1975 (date of the Khmer Rouge takeover and the beginning of the Cambodian genocide), there would be no need for January 7, 1979. And without the Vietnamese and Chinese communist massive intervention in the early 1970s to help the Khmer Rouge, the latter would not have been able to seize power and there would be no April 17, 1975,” he added.
Even 30 years after the fact, one’s position in the “liberation vs invasion” debate is a quick identifier of their political alliances.
Norodom Ranariddh Party spokesman Suth Dina once vehemently opposed the January 7 anniversary as former president of the ultra-nationalist Khmer Front Party. Now that the NRP has realigned with the CPP-led government, Suth Dina said he and his new party would no longer oppose the national holiday.
Probably only one this is for sure when it comes to understanding or imagining January 7 – it’s history is in the eye of the beholder.
“The overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime and the assumption of control of Cambodia by the Vietnamese in support of their Cambodian…is a notably ambiguous issue,” historian Milton Osborne wrote in an e-mail.
“Deciding where an observer stands on that issue determines how one describes what took place, and its significance,” he added.
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