The close of Khmer New Year leads some Cambodians not forward, into the future, but backward, to 1975.
April 17, 1975, the day Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, was the dawn not just of a new year but of a radical new epoch.
“Every New Year, people remember April 17 1975 because less than 48 hours after greeting the New Year deity, the Khmer Rouge began treating the Khmer people as their enemies,” said Pen Sovann, former prime minister of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.
Pen Sovann said April 17th should not be forgotten, lest the errors of the past be repeated.
“The day should not just be dropped,” he said. Forgetting the past, he added, “could help bury justice for people killed under the Khmer Rouge regime.”
But the question remains how best to remember it.
“The way politicians interpret April 17th is not consistent,” said political observer Chea Vannath.
“It’s not like Cambodia’s independence from France. It’s not so cut and dry,” she said.
One sign of the unsteadiness of Cambodia’s history can be found in the halting progress of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, Pen Sovann said, urging that government officials “find justice and don’t cause obstacles.”
The Sam Rainsy Party plans to double the size of its annual April 17th ceremony honoring the dead at the Choeung Ek killing fields this year in an attempt to push the tribunal to move forward.
“We want to appeal for justice for the Cambodian people because the Khmer Rouge tribunal is stuck,” SRP cabinet chief Ly Srey Vina said.
Tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath said the government, as well as Cambodian and international judges, were all working hard to make sure the court moves forward, and he promised good news on the long-delayed adoption of the court’s internal rules in the coming days.
“We understand everybody’s concern,” he said.
Until the UN-brokered peace accords of 1991, April 17th was considered a national day of celebration, which marked the victory of the Cambodian people over Lon Nol’s US-backed forces and imperialism.
These days, reconciliation, not victory, resonates most strongly in former Khmer Rouge areas.
Pailin municipal Deputy Governor Mei Makk said Monday that since Ieng Sary, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, defected to the Phnom Penh government 1996, former Khmer Rouge in Pailin have not celebrated April 17th.
“We have to live in peace. We don’t do what contradicts the majority,” he said.
Some still look back on April 1975 as the dawn of a hopeful new era of Cambodian independence; for others, it was the beginning of a period of despair that has still not found closure.
Douk Khim, 62, now a vendor in Phnom Penh, grew up in Kompong Cham province’s Koh Sotin district, in Damnak Svay village, which she said sympathized with the Khmer Rouge beginning in 1970 and fell under their control in 1973. She remembers New Year 1975 as a time of traditional games and simple pleasures. At the time, she worked in a communal kitchen.
“I believed the revolution was good,” she said. “During New Year’s 1975 I was happy because I thought the war was over and we would be able to eat separately in families again,” she added.
In Phnom Penh, New Year’s in 1975 was overshadowed by the exigencies of war, namely securing food and clean water and staying alive. Besieged by rockets, few left their homes to go to the pagoda.
Chea Vannath, who lived near Phsar Thmei, remembers the days leading up to April 17th as quiet, except for the sound of bombs and heavy artillery.
“We did not have time to think about New Year’s,” Chea Vannath said. She remembers huddling around a radio with her family, listening to the Voice of America.
She awoke on April 17 to a fearsome new world.
“On the 17th, the streets around Central Market were black with Khmer Rouge soldiers, men and women all dressed in black. There was one dead body right on the street,” she said.
She and 23 members of her family piled their belongings into five cars and began to inch their way out of the city.
Her brother, who suffered from acute arthritis and had trouble walking, decided to stay behind, she said. They left him with rice and dried fish to eat. She never saw him again.
Dealing with the memory of the missing is harder than dealing with the memory of the dead, she said. Her brother would have been 60 this year.
“I try to imagine if he was alive,” she said. “He must have white hair. I always look for him.”