Motorbike taxi driver Mom Chantha, 32, sat astride his vehicle Sunday, considering the significance of the day. He looked right and then left, but found no answers in the blank faces of the six people standing around him in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district. “Today is Sunday,” was the best he could offer.
Meanwhile, out at the Choeung Ek killing fields, several thousand people and 300 monks gathered for the annual government-sponsored commemoration of the day formerly known as the “Day of Hate.” Actors dressed in the black uniform of the Khmer Rouge, red and white kramas tied around their hips, reenacted scenes of torture as actors playing victims knelt in the grass, pleas for mercy written across their anguished faces.
May 20 has meant many things over the years, and now, 28 years after the Khmer Rouge lost power, some say the occasion needs to be revamped: Cambodians need justice, not hatred, say critics.
Even the CPP has changed its tune, re-christening the holiday as a “Day of Remembrance.” Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong said Sunday that “there is no need to cherish anger against the Khmer Rouge.” The government has helped calm people’s hatred through its policy of national unity, he added.
Politics in Cambodia have changed since the People’s Republic of Kampuchea created the occasion in the early 1980s, and with time, the vehemence of the day has waned.
Until the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, people across the country gathered at factories, schools, hospitals and local memorial sites to condemn Pol Pot, thank the Vietnamese for their help in liberating the country and hear survivors recount their horror stories, according to Racheal Huges. A former fellow at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, in 2000 Huges wrote an article about the history of May 20 for DC-Cam’s magazine, “Searching for the Truth.”
May 20 is generally thought to mark the day Pol Pot decided in the 1970s to enforce his policy of total agrarian collectivization, which some believe tipped the revolution from an ideologically progressive movement to an extremist regime. But confusion over the historical details persists, and remembrance is now split along political lines, officials said.
Chea Soth, a CPP lawmaker who presided over the ceremony at Choeung Ek, said May 20 is a day to remember the horrors of the past so they won’t happen again and to help victims’ relatives ready themselves for the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun, also a CPP official, put things more starkly. “The ceremony was to help us remember who rescued us and who killed us,” he said.
But SRP leader Sam Rainsy said April 17, the day in 1975 that Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, is the right day of remembrance, not May 20. Sam Rainsy claimed that May 20 is used by the CPP to instill in Cambodians the fear that without the ruling party, the Khmer Rouge could come back.
DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said the time has come to stop quarreling about the past and look to the future. He proposes a new national holiday, a “Day of Justice,” which would commemorate the first day of hearings at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. “That day would be for all of us,” he said.
As for Mom Chantha, he doesn’t celebrate either May 20 or April 17. “These two days are not religious days, they are political days,” he said.
His father was murdered by the Khmer Rouge, and Mom Chantha marks his passing on Khmer New Year.
“Today, I did nothing,” he said.