Speaking on May 20, the National Day of Remembrance, marking the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had this to say: “In order to make sure this regime never returns, we must participate in maintaining peace.” Talk of the Khmer Rouge returning may seem perverse. It was overthrown in 1979. It finally laid down its weapons in the late 1990s. The average Cambodian is aged around 25, so the vast majority never lived through the genocidal times, and most were born after the Khmer Rouge gave up its arms. The tribunal set up to prosecute the last surviving leaders of that regime ended last week.
Yet, Hun Sen’s message has been the same for decades. His explicit claim is that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, saved Cambodia from an era of barbarism. (The CPP was formed out of the “Salvation Front” that overthrew the genocidal regime.) Hun Sen’s implicit message, however, is that Cambodian society and its people are so unruly they need his autocratic leadership to rescue them from their own (apparently innate) brutality. However much he may disagree, Hun Sen has a deeply cynical, almost Hobbesian view, of his own people. Cambodia found salvation in 1979, he says, but only he can save it from the damnation that’s just around the corner.
For much of the country’s opposition movement, though, 1979 was another year of national damnation: the year that the Vietnamese, the bete noire of Cambodian nationalists, took over their country. (The Salvation Front was assisted by Vietnamese troops in overthrowing the Khmer Rouge.) Many believe Hanoi still pulls the strings of Hun Sen’s authoritarian government that needs to be removed from power in order for Cambodia to prosper. For them, Cambodia is still in search of salvation. In 2012, Cambodia’s two opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, finally agreed to merge their respective political parties together. It was a long process. Talks began at least five years earlier. The party is now banned, having been forcibly dissolved by the authorities in 2017 over spurious accusations of plotting a U.S.-backed coup. Hun Sen says this was done to preserve the peace and avoid another damnation.
The name they chose for their new party was a testament to how they saw history: The “Cambodia National Rescue Party” (CNRP). Or should that be the “National Salvation Party”? The Khmer words being used are “sangkruos cheat” (sometimes romanized as “songkruos cheat” or “sangkruoh cheat”). “Cheat” refers to “the nation” and “sangkruos” can be translated as “salvation” or “rescue.” Some commentators have suggested the CNRP was so named in an unsubtle nod to their opposition to the political rupture caused in 1979, when Khmer Rouge defectors, including Hun Sen and grandees of the current ruling CPP, returned alongside Vietnamese troops to overthrow the genocidal regime. That force was called the United Front for National Salvation of Kampuchea (FUNSK, or the “Salvation Front”). In “Strongman of Cambodia,” their hagiography of Hun Sen, Harish Mehta and Julie Mehta claim that he suggested the name. Sebastian Strangio, in “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” wrote that the CNRP’s name “cleverly echoed” that of the Salvation Front. The ruling CPP, the heir of the Front, reckons it’s their term. Sar Kheng, the interior minister, claimed in 2018 that the CNRP “stole” it from the FUNSK. When asked why he decided upon the term, Sam Rainsy simply told me: “The word is so common and has been used in different periods.”
Indeed, it has – but it comes with a lot of historical baggage. In 1970, Cambodia’s ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk was out of the country when two of his most anti-communist politicians, Lon Nol and Sirik Matak, instigated a coup. The National Assembly stripped Sihanouk of his powers, expelled the monarchy, and created the new Khmer Republic. Lon Nol, who became president, called his new administration a “government of national salvation.” The same year, a Committee of National Salvation was established. “Our formula of national salvation is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Lon Nol said in 1973.
The same year, in his book “My War With The CIA,” the deposed Sihanouk, brooding in Beijing, used the term for his own purposes. “The Cambodian people are deeply conscious of the fact that they are shedding their blood not only for their own national salvation but also for that of other oppressed peoples,” he wrote. The term was clearly in the Cambodian ether in the 1970s. A newspaper called “Sangkruos Cheat” operated until the Lon Nol government closed it down in 1972. Sihanouk in his aforementioned book must have believed most Cambodians understood its meaning, as he included it in his final sentences, his cri de coeur to the Cambodian masses.
According to one interpretation, Cambodia’s recent history is a dialectical battle between salvation and damnation. For Lon Nol, his coup against Sihanouk in 1970 was a moment of “national salvation.” As he saw it, only a dramatic coup would rescue Cambodia from the damnation of being eaten up by Vietnamese communists. For Sihanouk, though, the downfall of Lon Nol’s Republic and his own return to the political throne would be a moment of salvation. For Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge defectors who formed the “Salvation Front” and then the CPP, it was their ousting of the genocidal regime that cemented the country’s salvation. As such, they were also consciously playing on Lon Nol’s terminology; the damnation unleashed by his “national salvation” coup in 1970 led to the Khmer Rouge’s takeover.
“Most Cambodians acknowledge that progress and international prestige would never have been achieved without the United Front for National Salvation of Kampuchea,” wrote Heng Samrin, a co-founder of the Front and CPP grandee, in his autobiography “The People’s Struggle.” (However, that salvation isn’t secure, as Hun Sen likes to say.) And, in 2012, when Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha took “national salvation” as the name of their new party, they were continuing this historical narrative.
One problem, though, with talk of salvation is it presumes that one’s opponents aren’t just illegitimate but the harbingers of damnation. Whatever fear-mongering Hun Sen likes to engage in, Cambodia is not about to drift back to the anarchy and brutality of the Khmer Rouge years had the CNRP not been dissolved. What he’s worried about is democracy. For the CNRP and opposition movement, it’s easy to argue the narrative that Cambodia has gone through a cycle of damnation since 1970, and only they can save Cambodia from the historical process that began with the coup against Sihanouk. That presumes Cambodia doesn’t just need salvation from Hun Sen’s government but that government is the latest in Cambodia’s apparent arc of damnation. One might argue that this teleology is holding Cambodia back.