National Assembly President Heng Samrin on Wednesday led a celebration to mark the 36th anniversary of the day the Vietnamese Army and a band of Khmer Rouge defectors overthrew Pol Pot’s regime and created the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
Mr. Samrin, whom the Vietnamese installed as Cambodia’s head of state in 1979, was joined by other ruling party leaders who rose to power under the new regime, including Prime Minister Hun Sen.
However, CPP President Chea Sim was absent from the event, which he traditionally presides over. Mr. Sim, 82, has been in poor health for the past several years. He has made ceremonial public appearances but otherwise has remained largely out of sight.
CPP officials could not be reached for comment on their party leader’s absence, but Nhiek Bun Chhay, the secretary-general of Funcinpec, who also attended the ceremony, said Mr. Sim was “not healthy enough” to be there.
“He is ill and it is hard for him to read the speech,” he said.
Mr. Bun Chhay, who is now a government adviser with the rank of deputy prime minister, was one of the top military generals for Funcinpec during the civil war in the 1980s, when it was allied with the Khmer Rouge to fight the Vietnamese occupation.
In the 1990s, the then-powerful royalist party protested against enshrining the date as a national holiday. And even in 2004, Mr. Bun Chhay said he considered January 7 “the day the Vietnamese invaded the country.”
However, on Wednedsay he attended the CPP’s commemoration and offered flowers along with Mr. Samrin and Mr. Hun Sen.
“I acknowledge that Vietnam helped to fight and topple Pol Pot’s regime,” Mr. Bun Chhay said after the ceremony. “If we don’t acknowledge that, it means that we support the Khmer Rouge.”
In his speech, Mr. Samrin defended the legacy of January 7, which is still criticized by the opposition CNRP as a day that marks the start of a prolonged Vietnamese military occupation of the country.
“The only enemy of the spirit of January 7 is Pol Pot’s genocidal regime,” Mr. Samrin told his audience. “Hence those opposing the spirit of January 7 are the lovers of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime and opponents of national progress.”
Mr. Samrin also defended the Vietnamese military’s prolonged occupation of Cambodia, explaining that it was necessary to ensure that Pol Pot could not return to power.
“If there was no resistance of the Cambodian people, Vietnam’s support would not have come,” he said.
“This support was a contribution to liberate the Cambodian people from killers and to protect the revival of Cambodia, opposing any attempt for Pol Pot’s group to return.”
“Vietnam’s volunteer army were sent back to their home country step-by-step starting in 1982 and were completely returned…by September 1989 when Cambodia’s forces were capable of protecting themselves,” Mr. Samrin said.
“Therefore, those who are bad-minded people must stop inventing history, which provokes extreme nationalism and revenge between the two nations.”
CNRP public affairs director Mu Sochua declined to discuss the opposition’s objections to the January 7 commemorations.
“Enough has been said on this already,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns and Van Roeun)