Cambodia recently marked “National Anger Day” with a live re-enactment of the savage atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, which the country’s current leader, Hun Sen, served before fleeing to Vietnam, reportedly in 1977.
With international media coverage, including Euro News and the BBC, focused on the “re-enactment” of past atrocities, the present leadership has successfully deflected attention from its own crimes. The re-enactment was provocative and carried a political message that is destructive to Cambodian culture and values.
Having transitioned from communism to its current dictatorship, Cambodia likes to put on a re-enactment show by marking a Remembrance Day for victims to perpetuate “anger” against the past generation. “Anger” and “hatred” have become the norm as people are being labeled as “dogs,” and ordinary citizens are being terrorized for exercising basic human rights, including freedom of association and speech.
In case local and international audiences missed out on this sinister re-enactment, they can always visit the remains of victims on display at a site known as Choeung Ek, one of the “Killing Fields.”
Cambodia is known as the Kingdom of Wonders, and indeed one wonders if tourists have received the correct translation of “Choeung Ek,” the name of a site that is supposed to be of national significance. The term means either “number one” or “the best.” In an ordinary context, the Khmer term choeung ek refers to an unbeatable contender or winner in a particular field.
In the context of atrocity, choeung ek carries a sinister connotation, praising the perpetrators rather than honoring their victims. Because the question is – who or what is “number one” or “the best” referring to – the human remains on display?
Cambodian values under attack
Why would tourists take pleasure in visiting a site displaying human remains? As for Cambodia, what about those 345 victims killed under this regime in 2010 during a stampede on an island reportedly owned by Hun Sen’s family?
Doesn’t the scale of the tragedy justify their inclusion in the national calendar for special mourning?
In Australia, there is a national Harmony Day. When it comes to “anger,” every section of the community works to manage it as opposed to empowering individuals to hold on to it. Holding on to anger is precisely what the regime wants to teach the younger generation.
If Cambodians are taught to hold on to “anger” against the Khmer Rouge, shouldn’t they also hold on to anger against Hun Sen, Vietnam and China for supporting that murderous regime in the first place? Without the support of the superpowers, the Khmer Rouge could not have won the battle of April 1975 that saw the fall of Phnom Penh.
But the mere thought of Cambodians showing “anger” against Hun Sen would brand them as traitors or members of a “color revolution,” which would see their rights and privileges stripped and land them in prison.
If Cambodians are taught to hold on to “anger” against the Khmer Rouge, shouldn’t they also hold on to anger against Hun Sen, Vietnam and China for supporting that murderous regime in the first place?
Likewise, had Cambodians held on to their anger against Vietnam or China as masters of Pol Pot’s murderous era, they would be accused of racism – a term the regime would use to justify its violations of human rights to sustain “peace and economic prosperity.”
Had Cambodia as a nation genuinely adhered to Buddhist principles, religious tradition would call for compassion and tolerance. No civilized nations would showcase the savagery suffered by victims, but in Cambodia the younger generation is urged to celebrate anger over past atrocities.
It is rare to find Cambodians free of familial or social links to perpetrators of past atrocities. Evidently, some of those members still serve Hun Sen. Urging the younger generation to hold grudges against past generations while at the same time aspiring to peace and development is destructive.
Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom HaShoah, in a somber mood. No re-enactment, just silence. That is how civilized nations mark their day of remembrance. With courage and the international community’s support, one can only hope that one day Cambodia’s younger generation will learn to denounce the values promoted by the current leadership.
After 30 years under one regime, a different discourse on the Choeung Ek site should take place. Tourists have a moral responsibility to help put victims to rest. A boycott of the site known as “Number One” or “The Best” is overdue.
Victims politicized to sustain dictatorship
The re-enactment is a perfect opportunity for the regime to deflect attention from its crimes, including cases filed before the International Criminal Court. The involvement of Cambodia’s ruling elite in widespread and systematic forced evictions and civilian population displacement stemming from land-grabbing has been well documented.
With the country’s rule of law serving only the powerful, ordinary victims are left to fend for themselves and seek justice in foreign jurisdictions such as Australia.
With one eye fixed on the “re-enactment” of Pol Pot’s crimes 40 years ago, the international community’s other eye expunges Hun Sen’s current destruction of Cambodia’s spirit as imprinted in the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
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A critical analysis of political motives of this re-enactment by Andrew Nachemson and Yon Sineat, noted, “The ruling party uses the memory of the Khmer Rouge for political gain – by constantly reminding Cambodians to pay homage to the politicians who helped end the killings.”
In 1998, when the United Nations secretary-general created the Group of Experts to examine the UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge Tribunal‘s different options, one of its founding members was former Australian governor general Sir Ninian Stephen.
A decade later this author and Sir Ninian met to discuss his hopes and expectations for the tribunal when he first became involved.
Besides providing justice for the victims, the tribunal was intended to provide closure for survivors and their loved ones. But this re-enactment defeats all the purposes of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
Hun Sen is happy to have the United Nations engage in the “bigger” picture, while the smaller “shows” soften his reputation as a strongman obsessed with violence.
Moving forward, the international community, including the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, can apply pressure by refusing to provide further aid until such re-enactments cease.
It makes no sense to send students overseas to be imbued with Western values if, once they return to Cambodia, they rejoin a society that views “anger” as a key element of its sense pf patriotism.
Every survivor has a story to share
Burning bright in their memories, every survivor has a near-death experience of being captured and detained or some other tragic story to share, including the author. Haunted by unspeakable suffering, survivors still have nightmares, so there is no need for re-enactments.
As a civilized nation, unless Cambodia learns from other countries such as the Israel how to deal with their past tragedies, it will forever be indoctrinated with “anger’ under the present regime, which is not interested in leadership but dictatorship.
We survivors live to share our experiences, not “anger.” History is repeating itself, but in a different way. An obvious case is the so-called Supreme Court being used to do the dirty job of dissolving the opposition party in November 2017 at the direction of Hun Sen.