Cambodian-Australians protest in Melbourne against Hun Sen’s legacy of January 7, 1979, attended by the ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, Koy Kuong. Photo: Meng Heang Tak, Victoria MLA

Early this month as Cambodia marked the 40th anniversary of the Vietnamese invasion that overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime, members of the diaspora in Melbourne and Sydney launched coordinated protests condemning the imposition of the so-called “Victory Day” commemorating January 7, 1979.

The events were marked by the attendance of Cambodian Ambassador Koy Kuong and some of the regime’s associates who were recently named and shamed by members of the Australian Labor Party as “criminal and thuggish.”

In the past, January 7 was marked and celebrated by the ruling regime for its “gratitude to Vietnam,” which was instrumental in the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge 40 years ago. It only became officially recognized recently, in what has been seen as another attempt by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen to legitimize his legacy.

Had Cambodians been given the right to express their opinion freely against the ruling regime, most would have taken to the streets and condemned the Hun Sen government’s love affair with Vietnam, including the monuments built across the nation’s 24 provinces to honor Cambodia-Vietnam friendship.

Hun Sen justifies the celebration of January 7 as “Victory Day” as that was the date when Cambodia was “freed” from Pol Pot. But for most Cambodians, it was part of a historic expansion by the Vietnamese that would see its suzerainty over Hun Sen, who was trained by Pol Pot.

Overall, “Victory Day” marks a “win-win” for Hun Sen and Vietnam. Hun Sen gets to be a dictator for life, with his leadership secured and passed on to his offspring with the help of Vietnam, which in turn gets to see its formerly condemned expansionism through its invasion of Cambodia in 1979 being glorified and inscribed in stone monuments built by Hun Sen.

Stripping Cambodians of their democratic rights and then coercing people to honor a “Victory Day” is no different from forcing them to accept an illegitimate parliament, after a rigged and internationally condemned election last March.

The celebration of January 7 as “Victory Day” represents an extraordinary treachery by Hun Sen and his regime. The truth is that a modern Cambodia was envisaged not by the Vietnamese invaders in 1979 but with the assistance of the international community and the United Nations after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.

Yet aid continues to pour into Cambodia as Hun Sen is free from his responsibilities, leaving the international community to feed impoverished Cambodians.

A win for Vietnam

Cambodians have been acutely aware of the policy of expansionism engineered by the Vietnamese government. As much as Hun Sen learned to evolve from communism to dictatorship, so has Vietnamization in Cambodia.

Once upon a time, it was actual violation of national sovereignty through territorial occupation. Under Hun Sen’s newly found international cooperation, with political opposition banned, Vietnamization takes the form of economic, political and military “cooperation” – free of accountability, transparency and criticism.

The late US senator John McCain had a foreboding foresight of Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia at the time Hun Sen mounted a deadly coup d’état in 1997, as he addressed the US Congress:

“The visit by Hun Sen to Hanoi immediately prior to his takeover of Phnom Penh sends a chilling message to those of us concerned about the region’s future. Whether Vietnam is culpable in the events in Cambodia is an issue that demands, and presumably will receive, serious attention.”

An independent study by a London University researcher, Steve Heder, confirms what most Cambodians already knew but affirms McCain’s insight: “In January 2016, the director of Vietnam’s National Defense Academy explained that helping make Cambodia strong with regard to its domestic ‘political security’ helps ‘protect the security of Vietnam.’”

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy perfectly summed up the marking of the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Khmer Rouge thus: “The real owner of January 7 is the Vietnamese government.”

A culturally and politically divisive legacy

In normal daily dialogue, every Cambodian avoids any reference to that date, January 7. It is an extremely sensitive and contested issue, both culturally and politically divisive. The issue of Vietnamization remains fresh and raw. Cambodians still feel the loss of former territories in the lower Mekong Delta, known as Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam.

Another factor is the fact that the Vietnamese diaspora in Cambodia has been accorded full privileges and first-class treatment by Hun Sen’s regime. Most heads of ministries, tycoons and generals are either  descendants or remnants of the occupying Vietnamese forces who did not leave Cambodia in 1989. Likewise the Vietnamese language and associations are allowed to prosper under Hun Sen’s rule.

The opposite could not be said for the Khmer Krom, who have been subjected to human-rights violations by the Vietnamese authorities. Another source of resentment is that neither the Hun Sen regime nor Cambodia’s king has ever made representations to Vietnam regarding ill-treatment of theKhmer Krom.

What was successfully prevented by successive Cambodian kings and leaders since the French protectorate was established in 1863, and the objectives of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, have now been totally trashed by Hun Sen as he has successfully and victoriously integrated Vietnam’s internationally condemned invasion into Cambodia’s cultural, national, social and political identity.

‘Win-win’ strategy to sustain dictatorship

Hun Sen is acutely aware that if given the chance, Cambodians would vote overwhelmingly to reject his superficial legacy declared by a condemned invasion. As one protester in Melbourne commented, “Most Cambodians consider January 7 as ‘Invasion Day,’ [when] the Vietnamese came to Cambodia.”

In 1996 Hun Sen raised the issue of marking January 7 as an official national holiday, but the late King Norodom Sihanouk doggedly refused to comply with a Royal Decree. Instead the late king, unlike the current “compliant and quiet king,” instructed Hun Sen: “In order to avoid some difficult political issues, I am of the view that issuing a circular by the government is better than a Royal Decree.”

In fact, Hun Sen reportedly used the same style of “win-win” policy last year, shortly before he used Cambodia’s Supreme Court to dissolve the main opposition party, telling opposition commune councillors that they could hold on to their jobs if they defected to the ruling party.

“This is a win-win policy,” he said.

And if anyone opposed his proposal, he warned, “It means that they are allies of the Pol Pot regime. If they oppose January 7, they are in alliance with the Khmer Rouge and the genocidal regime.”

But the problem is that Hun Sen is still is a Khmer Rouge cadre, except he is now a ruthless and merciless dictator who is obsessed with violence.

Hun Sen’s legacy internationalized

Fearing that Hun Sen’s legacy is internationalized, notably with the regime’s nefarious activities on Australian soil, members of the Cambodian-Australian community protested the presence of Cambodia’s ambassador, Koy Kuong.

While Hun Sen is free to create his legacy in Cambodia, the diaspora demands that it should remain there. For the West, including Australia, is not an outlet to produce dictators-in-waiting like Hun Sen’s son Hun Manet nor is it a place for inciting hatred based on a superficial legacy.

Cambodian-Australians protest in Melbourne against Hun Sen’s legacy of January 7, 1979, attended by the ambassador to Australia and New Zealand, Koy Kuong. Photo: Meng Heang Tak, Victoria MLA

Sawathey Ek

Sawathey Ek, a lawyer based in Sydney.

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