Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, during a lavish ruling party celebration Monday to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the bloody Khmer Rouge era, called for “wider political dialogue” in his country, but fell short of including the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
During an event attended by more than 60,000 people at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, Hun Sen thanked Vietnam for “aiding the struggle to liberate Cambodia and her people from the genocidal regime,” under whose 1975-79 rule an estimated 3 million people are believed to have died.
“The timely Jan. 7  victory saved millions of Cambodian lives who otherwise would have been subjected to death,” he said, suggesting Vietnam had merely aided the Cambodian National Salvation Front in overthrowing the Khmer Rouge, rather than invaded and taken control of the country.
“That day reintroduced and revived values, both spiritual and material, of the Khmer nation, brought to an end a dark chapter of Cambodia’s history, and opened a new era for the country—one of independence, freedom, democracy and social progress for its pitiful citizens. We have since provided Cambodian citizens all kinds of rights and freedoms for them to have true control over their own fates.”
After Vietnam marched on Phnom Penh, Hanoi administered the country for more than a decade, appointing Hun Sen prime minister and maintaining tens of thousands of troops on the ground.
After facing heavy international pressure and enduring significant military casualties, Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in September 1989 and two years later became a signatory to the Paris Peace Accord, which paved the way for the country to become a democracy.
During Monday’s event, Hun Sen also vowed to open Cambodia up to “wider political dialogue between all parties, civil society, and all progressive circles,” but fell short of mentioning the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was banned by the Supreme Court in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
The court decision, which also slapped a five-year ban on the political activities of 118 of the CNRP’s senior officials, allowed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to effectively run uncontested in Cambodia’s July 29 general election and win all 125 seats in parliament.
Hun Sen said Monday that his government would promote wider political dialogue “to collect intellectual input and human resources from all sources, without discrimination, and to increase the total force for nation-state building and development.”
However, he warned against “a history that we cannot let resurface, as it causes national division due to the ambition of politicians who use our citizens as their tools to attain their personal interests without thinking about the fate of the nation.”
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service after the ceremony, senior CNRP official and former lawmaker Um Sam An rejected the idea that Hun Sen is seeking national reconciliation.
“Even if he intends to promote comprehensive dialogue, he will not hold talks with all political parties—particularly the CNRP or civil society organizations that work transparently, fairly, and independent of the government,” he said.
“He only will hold dialogue with minor political parties that serve as his puppets.”
When asked for clarification about Hun Sen’s statement, CPP spokesperson Chhim Phal Vearun told RFA that it should not be taken as an invitation to dialogue with the CNRP.
“This doesn’t suggest that [dialogue] will be held with the now-defunct party—Hun Sen referred only to parties with legal status under Cambodian law,” he said.
Veteran political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA that Hun Sen was continuing to isolate himself from the international community by refusing to reinstate the CNRP and restoring political rights to its officials.
Since the election, the U.S. has announced visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course, and the European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, has said it will drop a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
Meanwhile, Soeng Sen Karuna, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, applauded Hun Sen’s promise, noting that civil society has faced difficulties in working with the government at all levels, and has even been accused of staging a revolution for campaigning on behalf of human rights and efforts to ensure free and fair elections.
“We welcome his remarks, but we don’t know from now on whether they will be effectively implemented,” he said.
“The Interior Ministry has already issued a notification to open the space for civil society, but in practice, things have not been improving. For instance, we were obstructed from holding an event to celebrate International Human Rights Day on Jan. 3.”
Liberation or invasion
Hun Sen’s remarks about Vietnam also drew condemnation on Monday from observers who called Jan. 7 is a day of “invasion,” rather than liberation.
Acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of convictions by courts seen as beholden to Hun Sen, called the prime minister a “usurper” who was first “installed by the invading Vietnamese Communist army in 1979.”
“He has since clung to power through election manipulation, terror and violence,” he said, in a message posted to his Facebook account.
Ly Srey Sros, a youth political analyst, told RFA that Jan. 7 is a day “with both good and bad connotations” for Cambodia’s youth.
“Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia can be considered a success story for Cambodian citizens in that they were able to escape the genocidal regime, but we must admit that based on international law, such an intervention was a violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty,” she said.
Sophal Ear, associate professor of World Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, called Vietnam’s intervention “both a liberation and catastrophe for Cambodia.”
“It brought liberation from the Khmer Rouge, but it also brought to power a group of individuals who, 40 years later, are still in power,” he said.
“In that time, Cambodia went from a Vietnamese colony to a Chinese colony,” he added, referring to Beijing’s increasing influence in the Southeast Asian nation.
In the lead up to Monday’s celebration, hundreds of ethnic Cambodians living in Australia and the U.S. staged “anti-Jan. 7 Day” protests over the weekend, referring to the anniversary as a “day of grief” marking a “foreign occupation” of Cambodia.
Animosity between Vietnam and Cambodia goes back centuries, but was heightened by the Vietnamese war in 1979, and accusations over the demarcation of the border between the two countries have become a prominent feature in Cambodian politics as Hun Sen’s opponents have attempted to paint the strong man as a tool of the Vietnamese.
Hanoi’s state-run Vietnam News Agency reported that the two countries held a ceremony on Jan. 4 in the Vietnamese capital to mark the “victory of the southwest border defense war and the joint victory on January 7 of Vietnam and Cambodia over the genocidal regime.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.