When Peace Is Controversial: Cambodia Celebrates “Victory over Genocide Day”

On Monday January 7, 2019, Cambodia held large celebrations to commemorate “Victory Over Genocide Day.” The celebrations took place in the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, where Cambodians celebrated the overthrow of Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was a communist regime which held power in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. The celebrations pay tribute to the end of the genocide led by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot’s leadership, in which 1.7 million Cambodians were killed.

Cambodia was deeply affected by the Vietnam War, especially since its shared borders with Vietnam caused large areas of Cambodia’s countryside to be bombed by the United States. Moreover, the United States also became involved in Cambodian politics in an effort to promote the rise of a pro-west leader in the country. Cumulatively, events such as these between 1970 and 1973 led to a civil war in Cambodia and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

The group originated during the late 1960s in the jungles and mountainous areas of the north-eastern regions of the country. The Khmer Rouge later capitalized on the United States’ actions in Cambodia to recruit followers and came to share governance after a military coup in 1970. Cambodia’s civil war continued until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge gained control of the capital and became the sole governing power within the country. Their rise to power was supported by the North Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao, increasing the attraction of many Cambodian followers .

The group’s main ideology and policies were based on the idea that Cambodia was tainted by western influence, outside ideas and western capitalism, meaning that anyone believed to represent these ideas was targeted and killed. During the genocide, the Khmer Rouge primarily targeted educated citizens such as doctors, lawyers, police officers and members of the military. They also focused on Christian, Muslim and Buddhist citizens. In addition, commune living was also enforced as a way to create a “no competition” society for people to work towards a common good. Citizens were placed in re-education camps to force them to adopt the commune lifestyle. Starvation, torture and heavy labour were used as methods to control the population.

The invasion of the Vietnamese army on January 7, 1979 led to the overthrow of Pol Pot and the end of the genocide. However, the celebrations held on this date are fraught with controversy; whilst many see the date as marking the liberation of Cambodians and end of violence, many others view it as the beginning of a historical enemy’s occupation and influence over country.

In 1985, Vietnam installed the current Cambodian leader, former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen, who defected and helped Vietnam overthrow Pol Pot. Cambodians were under Vietnamese rule during the 10-year occupation and the civil war therefore continued for another 20 years after Pol Pot’s overthrow. For these reasons, many Cambodians mark January 7th with mixed feelings and worry about the autonomy of the country.

The controversy over the January 7th celebrations indicate that the path to peace can be controversial and difficult. However, the journey to autonomy and stability must always continue and Cambodia’s continued efforts should not be forgotten.