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Forty years on, Khmer Rouge remains divisive for Cambodians

A dove is released at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium during official celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
A dove is released at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium during official celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Forty years ago Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge was ousted from power, when Vietnamese forces invaded and destroyed most of Pol Pot's army. While the regime is still a part of living memory, most of Cambodia's young population never actually lived through it.


On 7 January 1979, three years, eight months and 20 days of horror came to an end. Some 1.7 million Cambodians were killed under Khmer Rouge rule.

Cambodian intellectual and human rights campaigner Virak Ou, president of the Future Forum think tank in Phnom Penh, told RFI the deaths of so many people over such a short period have caused a generational void that is still very keenly felt by a population struggling to find its identity.

"Over the past 40 years, we haven't had a normal generational transition. We didn't have older teachers teaching the next generation. We've also had gaps of artists, singers, musicians and traditional dancers passing on that culture and those skills to the next generation," Ou explains.

"Many people born after the Khmer Rouge have not been able to learn from the older generation in all fields. There are hardly any role models, and this loss of knowledge, art and culture continues to affect Cambodia today."

Celebrations in the capital

"Victory Over Genocide Day", now a national holiday, was marked by celebrations at the Olympic Stadium in the capital Phnom Penh. Prime Minister Hun Sen – a former regime commander who defected and helped to overthrow the Khmer Rouge – gave a speech hailing 7 January as the day Cambodia was saved from a genocidal government.

It took place in front of national and foregn dignitaries, as well as thousands of Cambodian people, but it appears the fall of one of the 20th century's most heinous regimes isn't a cause for unanimous celebration. The end of the Khmer Rouge is one thing, according to Ou, but how it ended is the subject of much division.

"Some people saw it as the end of the killing fields and the end of the regime. But because it was done with the support of Vietnam – an historical enemy of Cambodia – many still view it as a plot by Vietnam to invade and occupy Cambodia," says Ou. "Because of those two narratives, the country cannot heal or move forward – and politics today seems to be all about the interpretations of what happened 40 years ago and not about the other issues that Cambodia is facing right now.

Interview: Virak Ou, human rights campaigner and president of the Future Forum think tank in Phnom Penh

Opponents of Hun Sen's government are adamant 7 January marked the start of an era of Vietnamese occupation. Among them is Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris. On his Facebook page, Rainsy says that on January 7, 1979, "Hun Sen was installed as a puppet leader by invading Vietnamese troops".

Fight for justice

History was made when the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal (officially the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia or ECCC) ruled the Khmer Rouge had committed genocide, but it's been a very costly process – and only three convictions have been made in more than a decade.

On the question of whether justice has been achieved, Ou is undecided. He points out the tribunal has been as much about offering answers as it has been about offering justice. And Cambodian politics, he adds, has unfortunately gotten in the way.

"For much of the Cambodian public, the facts and stories and evidence provided by the tribunal have not been that significant because of an obsession with conspiracy theories," Ou says. "People seem to trust these theories that are presented by well-known politicans much more than evidence provided in court, so I think the impact of the tribunal has been very insignificant. We can only tell what's going to happen in the next 20 years."

However the population is evolving. There's a growing middle class and along with that is a widening gap between rich and poor. Rampant corruption is fuelling growing public discontent, Ou says, adding that wealth inequality is so stark that many people are starting to question the government's development models.

Cambodians, it appears, are more focused on prosperity for themselves and their young families than they are on lauding Hun Sen and his heroics in overthrowing a brutal regime 40 years ago.

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