During the Maoist reign of terror, more than two million Cambodians died of hunger, forced labour, torture and mass executions. For Premier Hun Sen, 7 January represents Cambodia’s “second birth”.
Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – More than 60,000 Cambodians packed Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium yesterday to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.
In the elaborate ceremony (see pictures and video), Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for the past 33 years, described that day as the country’s “second birth".
Marching bands and traditional Apsara dancers (celestial nymphs) took part in the event organised by the government.
In his speech, Hun Sen thanked Vietnam for “aiding the struggle to liberate Cambodia and her people from the genocidal regime” and contributing to a new era of “independence, freedom, democracy and social progress”.
The prime minister also vowed to open Cambodia up to “wider political dialogue between all parties, civil society, and all progressive circles”.
However, he failed to mention 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.
Instead, he vowed to oppose "the actions of extremist opposition politicians and the foreign circle behind them".
In 1975, the Maoist Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot imposed a reign of terror during which more than two million Cambodians (estimated as one quarter of the total population) died of hunger, forced labour, torture and mass executions.
The regime collapsed four years later when Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge, and Vietnamese forces reached the capital in an effort to end their rule.
Supported by nearly 20,000 Cambodian deserters, some 100,000 Vietnamese soldiers found only 100 people in the capital after the Khmer Rouges evacuated the city.
Afterwards, Vietnam remained in control of the country for more than a decade, and placed Hun Sen as leader backed by tens of thousands of its soldiers.
Under international pressure and following significant losses (25,000 dead), Vietnam pulled its troops out in September 1989 and two years later signed the Paris Peace Agreement.
On 16 November 2018, a UN court sentenced two Khmer Rouge leaders to life imprisonment for "genocide": Nuon Chea Pol Pot’s deputy, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87, president of Democratic Kampuchea, the state founded by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
The Cambodian Catholic Church also suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The process of beatification of 35 martyrs – who died during the persecutions carried out by the Pol Pot regime – opened in 2015.
One of them was Mgr Joseph Chhmar Salas, the first local bishop, and 34 priests, lay people, women, catechists, and missionaries like Fr Pierre Rapin, a French priest.