As the CPP put on a dazzling display of pomp and propaganda at its Phnom Penh headquarters on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge, acting CNRP President Kem Sokha paid a pilgrimage to the grave of slain political analyst Kem Ley in Takeo province.
The ruling party sees January 7, or Victory Day, as marking Cambodia’s rebirth after Pol Pot’s murderous rule, while many in opposition circles see it as the beginning of a decadelong occupation by Vietnam, which they say continues to exert undue influence on the CPP.
Presiding over the ruling party’s ceremony, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is also president of the CPP, delivered a speech heavy on nostalgia and warnings toward those who oppose his regime.
Mr. Hun Sen described January 7 as marking “the historic victory of the Cambodian people in overthrowing the regime of Pol Pot’s genocide, ending the darkest period in Cambodia and ushering in a new era of independence, freedom, democracy and social progress.”
To those such as opposition leader Sam Rainsy who see nothing to celebrate on January 7, Mr. Hun Sen said their message was clear.
“Only those who wish to have a genocidal regime return to Cambodia would use Cambodia for their own perfidious ends—without thinking of the life of Cambodian people—and oppose the January 7 victory,” he said.
The prime minister used the occasion to note the inextricable involvement of foreign powers in the disastrous history that unfolded in the 1970s, and said his party would ensure that such meddling would not be repeated.
“We resolutely oppose controversial actions, regardless of their source, that may divide Cambodia again,” he said, reciting a common refrain that the government would not tolerate a “color revolution” aroused by unnamed foreign provocateurs.
After finishing his speech, Mr. Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, the party’s honorary president, released white doves as hundreds of balloons floated to the sky along with a banner with the message: “The CPP brought peace, stability and development.”
Before departing, Mr. Hun Sen toured the crowd to shake hands and pose for selfies.
As the CPP was celebrating, Mr. Sokha, the acting CNRP president, visited Takeo province, where he prayed at the grave of slain political analyst Kem Ley and met with his family, posting photographs of the trip to Facebook.
“This is the first time that I have come to pay respect to the soul of Mr. Dr. Kem Ley at his tomb in his house,” Mr. Sokha wrote in an accompanying message, adding that the last time the two met, the conversation focused on commune election strategies.
“I wish the soul of Mr. Dr. Kem Ley rest in peace,” he wrote of the analyst, who was shot dead in July in what many believe was a political assassination. “I still continue to seek justice for mister doctor.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been officially exiled from the country, took to Facebook for what has become his own tradition on January 7, reposting a message from last year along with the same stereotypical cartoon of a Vietnamese man in a conical hat setting fire to a house in 1975 and returning to put out the fire in 1979.
“If the communist Vietnamese did not help the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s there would be no 17 April 1975. Therefore, the major events that took place over the last 50 years were actively initiated and organised by the communist Vietnamese in order to control Cambodia and to mislead the Cambodian people,” he wrote.
“Until now (2017) those who serve the interest of foreign aggressors continue to persecute Cambodian patriots—assassinating them or putting them in jail—in order to divide and weaken Cambodia so as to maintain our country under Vietnamese military and economic colonialism.”
In a paper released on Friday titled “Moving Beyond the January 7 Narrative,” the Future Forum think tank said the predictable debate over the meaning of January 7 was not only stale, but also preventing both parties from focusing on issues far more important to Cambodians today.
“Rather than establishing a viable policy platform, offering possible solutions to Cambodia’s many problems, the two sides have stayed within their mythological comfort zones, asserting decades-old historical claims and counter-claims,” the authors wrote.
“The guns may have fallen silent, but the old civil war rages on,” it said, referring to battles throughout the 1980s between the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh and resistance forces on the Thai border, which Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy were both part of.
Political analyst Meas Ny said on Sunday that outside of old ruling party leaders and patrons, there was little interest in January 7 among an electorate that was anxious to hear how politicians could improve Cambodia’s future.
“If the CPP continues to focus on this, they will lose supporters—young people have not interest,” he said, noting that the CNRP, apart from Mr. Rainsy, had given the CPP a pass this year, likely hoping to continue sensitive talks to release prisoners caught up in seemingly political cases.
However, Mr. Ny said the timing of Mr. Sokha’s trip to Takeo was no accident.
“They don’t want to say anything, but they spend time to visit Kem Ley,” he said. “It shows the public they care about Kem Ley and not January 7.”
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)