The Debate

January 7 in Cambodia: One Date, Two Narratives

Cambodian politicians should move beyond their arguments over history and find common ground to move Cambodia forward.

By Kimkong Heng for
January 7 in Cambodia: One Date, Two Narratives
Credit: Pixabay

On January 7, 2019, Cambodia celebrated the 40th anniversary of its “Victory Day” over the Khmer Rouge regime, which was overthrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese army, accompanied by a number of Khmer Rouge defectors. January 7, 1979 was a historic day that marked the end of a regime that killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. Despite its historic importance, January 7 has been interpreted differently, creating two dominant political narratives or myths in Cambodia: one supporting this historic day and another seeking to undermine it.

For the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen, January 7 is not only considered as either “Liberation Day” or “Victory Day” but also as a “second birthday” for the Cambodian people. However, for the ruling party’s detractors, particularly Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), January 7 is the day that Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia until 1989. Both political leaders and their followers have been at odds over their interpretations of this contentious day. They have viewed it alternately as the liberation or occupation of Cambodia by its traditional enemy and neighbor, Vietnam. The “January 7” rhetoric has dominated Cambodian politics since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge.

This binary political narrative no doubt does more harm than good to Cambodian society. It has created division rather than unity, hostility rather than harmony, and tensions rather than cooperation among Cambodians. The January 7 propaganda should in fact be removed from the top of the agenda of all Cambodian political parties, especially the ruling and main opposition party. As a paper by Future Forum, an independent think tank, observes, “Cambodian politics remains locked in a battle of myths that leaves very little room or constructive discussion or legitimate dissent from either side.” This observation reflects the Cambodian political landscape where major parties are “stuck” in their own narratives of “January 7” and where familiar names like Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy have been attacking one another with historical claims and counterclaims.

Supporting the argument of the paper from the Future Forum, this article suggests that Cambodian political leaders should move beyond the two conflicting January 7 narratives. That is, it is time for Cambodian politicians to find common ground, build consensus, and recognize flaws in their own interpretations of this historic day. Hun Sen and his ruling party, for example, should not continue to dwell on political rhetoric that has been around for four decades. Instead, the CPP should focus its attention on addressing more relevant and pressing social issues facing contemporary Cambodia such as corruption, land-grabbing, human rights violations, illegal immigration, environmental degradation, crime, and traffic accidents. Moreover, reform policies targeted at key sectors including agriculture, education, health, and justice should be the CPP’s major political propaganda, not the controversial narrative of January 7.

Hun Sen’s CPP has to be realistic and forward-looking rather than boasting about past achievements and being myopic, if the ultimate goal is to gain popular support from Cambodians, the majority of whom were born after the Khmer Rouge regime. After all, the CPP’s January 7 narrative does not seem to appeal to the younger generation of Cambodians, who have not experienced first-hand the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Although Hun Sen’s strategic and tactical use of control, coercion, and co-option for political domination has worked effectively for him and his party, there is no guarantee that the status quo will remain unchanged, given the evidence of the 2013 national election and the 2017 local election. Thus, Hun Sen and his political elites should seek to build their political credentials beyond the repeated use of the “January 7-as-a-second-birthday-for-Cambodians” rhetoric, or they will be seen as “backward-looking” in the eyes of the new generation of Cambodians who make up a large portion of the Cambodian population.

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Not unlike their political rival, CNRP politicians and supporters, especially Sam Rainsy himself, should also move beyond the January 7 narrative. Even though Sam Rainsy was reported to believe that the January 7 rhetoric is no longer an effective means to proselytize younger Cambodians, he still continues to incite anger and hate against Hun Sen and the CPP elites on the grounds of their past involvement with the Khmer Rouge. Further, he has always argued that January 7, 1979 marked the invasion and occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam, not the second birthday for Cambodians as promulgated by the CPP.

In fact, the counterclaims regarding January 7 made by Sam Rainsy and his party members against the CPP, easily seen as their exploitation and reignition of the deep-rooted anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Cambodians for political gain, have detrimental impacts on Cambodian society, at least in the long run. They result in furthering division among Cambodians, provoking violence against the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia, and damaging the already strained relations between Cambodia and Vietnam.

It seems that one of the CNRP’s major drawcards has been its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. This is understandable, given the widespread anti-Vietnamese sentiment in the Cambodian population; however, Sam Rainsy and the CNRP politicians should no longer seek to undermine Hun Sen and the CPP by inciting hatred among Cambodians toward their Vietnamese counterparts at the expense of Cambodia’s relations with its eastern neighbor and unity in Cambodia.

The CNRP, like the CPP, should place at the top of their political agenda a plan to address common social issues in Cambodia. Political propaganda of both major parties, although the CNRP has been dissolved, should be directed toward fulfilling the needs of the majority of Cambodians. It is time for Cambodia to move forward, not dwelling too much on past events and exploiting the anti-Vietnamese sentiment, and for Cambodians to work in unity to realize the Cambodian dream – achieving greatness as their ancestors did in the Angkorian era.

To move beyond the January 7 narratives and find common ground between parties and among Cambodians will require politicians, in particular, Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy to realize that their own version of January 7 is similarly inadequate. January 7 should be remembered as both the historic day that Vietnam liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and the day that Vietnam placed Cambodia under a decade-long occupation. It is not possible to have one without the other.

January 7 is a historically important day that has to be remembered and commemorated as part of Cambodia’s modern history. However, this special day should no longer be understood in its current meanings, motivated by conflicting political rhetoric, which tends to divide the nation. Instead, it has to be regarded as the day when Cambodia and its people could have another chance to live, unite, and work together to achieve the Cambodian dream.

Cambodians should not forget the past as they design the future, but they should not let the past negatively affect their future either.

Kimkong Heng is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship. He is currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the School of Education at the University of Queensland.