They still remember
Reeling from recent violence and the suppression and killing of five young striking textile workers, and the harassing of opposition politicians, Cambodia is looking more and more like something from George Orwell's 1949 masterpiece, '1984.'
The country's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the former Communist Party, was today celebrating the 35th anniversary of the 7th January, 1979, ousting of Pol Pot's forces from the capital, Phnom Penh, by the invading Vietnamese Army. Brass hats of the Vietnamese communist party and armed forces are in attendance alongside the local political big shots.
Vietnam invaded Cambodia on 25 December, 1978, after dozens of brutal Khmer Rouge cross-border incursions over the previous months and, having captured Phnom Penh, went on to drive the murderous Khmer Rouge forces on 17th April up against the Thai border, and even into Thailand itself.
The latter date is celebrated as the 'Day of Hatred,' against the Khmer Rouge (just as denizens of 1984's Orwellian dystopia had their own 'Week of Hatred,' as noted on the first page of the author's prescient novel).
Today's 35th anniversary is strictly a CPP and Vietnamese comrades’ affair, this year being held on the spacious man-made Koh Pich (Diamond Island) on the edge of the rolling brown Mekong River instead of some dusty hall in Phnom Penh.
I was in a small party of six journalists, among the first allowed in to visit liberated Phnom Penh in mid-1979. We were permitted to fly in in with six American congresswomen in a small plane, and were there only a day - but that proved enough to take in the horrors. The only pleasing note was the eccentric American congresswoman who continually smoked a clay pipe.
I managed to escape our government “minders” at a relatively lavish lunch at Pol Pot's former HQ, and on to the street saw shabby, emaciated Cambodians on their knees picking up individual grains of rice. When I photographed them they seemed to cringe with embarrassment, as if ashamed to look the way they did, after almost four years of unremitting slavery and gut-wrenching fear under Pol Pot's killers.
Vietnamese troops came past in vehicles pulling heavy artillery pieces. Then we were taken to Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge interrogation and torture center where 16,000 prisoners were lashed, questioned and killed. The blood on the floor of the torture rooms was still relatively fresh. About 1.7 million Cambodians died during the Pol Pot terror that started as Year Zero.
The present Prime Minister Hun Sen, formerly foreign minister, and two of the other former Khmer Rouge of that time are still running the country. Hun Sen has been prime minister for over 28 years and is still just 61. They still run this woebegone nation, whose forests have been hacked down, and where land-grabbing by CPP bigwigs is endemic .
When they first arrived, the Vietnamese army was looked upon as saviors by the Cambodian people after years of exhaustion and terrible deprivation. But as the years rolled by the Vietnamese showed no sign of leaving, even though their reputation in the developing world had suffered from their colonial-like mastership of Indochina.
It soon became clear that they intended to stay for good, with Cambodia and Laos members of an Indochinese 'federation' headed by Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh's ideal of freedom and independence apparently didn't apply to Vietnam's neighbors.
The PLO's late leader Yassir Arafat once asked me during an interview in Beijing how his old friend King Norodom Sihanouk was keeping. I told him he was wondering he still supported the Vietnamese occupier of Sihanouk’s country. Arafat, to his credit, looked aghast.
"The situation is irreversible," the late Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach, liked to say. In spite of that, Thach was witty and personable and got on well with journalists, he called British photographer Tim Page 'Dr Ganja,' with good reason. Then Thach was dumped when Hanoi titled to China - now it has tilted back again.
Then the unthinkable happened. The slow collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and East Europe finally did for the occupiers when the arms and funds stopped arriving for Hanoi from Moscow.
In the end, the Vietnamese reluctantly withdrew, and I was present to see them make their final ceremonial march around a square with some sitting on tanks - and I noticed the same soldiers seemed to be coming round again and again. Finally, they did all leave, after 10 years of occupation, even if their influence of Vietnam has lasted until now on Hun Sen and others.
Big Brother is still watching everyone here, even though the scales have fallen from people's eyes. At least Cambodians KNOW they have been bilked of their lives, country and freedom, though it took a long for the penny to drop. One thinks that things will never be quite the same for Big Brother.(James Pringle is a veteran foreign correspondent and regular Asia Sentinel contributor. He lives in Cambodia.)