For more than a decade and a half, April 17 was considered a national day of celebration in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge marked April 17 as a reminder of their hard-fought victory in 1975, when they marched into Phnom Penh and launched a regime that would leave 1.7 million Cambodians dead by January 1979.
The Hanoi-backed government of former Khmer Rouge fighters that toppled Pol Pot that month in 1979 continued to observe April 17 as a day of triumph, though it was more broadly interpreted as the day that Cambodia’s revolutionized peasantry triumphed over imperialism and Lon Nol’s US-backed forces.
It was not until 1991, when peace talks succeeded and would culminate two years later in UN-organized elections, that April 17 was abandoned as a day of national rejoicing.
Today, 31 years later, April 17 is largely considered a national day of mourning, though it is still unofficial.
“April 17 is a day of killing, crime, evacuation of people from towns, and it brought Cambodian disaster,” said Kong Korm, deputy president of the Sam Rainsy Party, who was previously a senior member of the CPP.
Kong Korm was a teacher in Kompong Cham province when the area was declared a liberated zone by communist forces in the early 1970s. And though he served as a senior official during the 1980s People’s Republic of Kampuchea, Kong Korm said that there has never been anything for Cambodians to celebrate on April 17.
“There was nothing proud for me [on that day]. It was the day when families over the whole nation were separated,” he said.
Early in the morning of April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge forces entered Phnom Penh. This marked the end of a civil war that had pitted Lon Nol’s forces against the Khmer Rouge, and cost the lives of thousands of civilians. The US war in Vietnam had spilled over the border, and the US had dropped nearly 258,000 tons of explosives on the Cambodian countryside, targeting what they believed to be hidden communist bases.
During the fighting, people had taken refuge in the capital, swelling its population from about 600,000 to more than 2 million. But within weeks of their takeover, the Khmer Rouge would turn Phnom Penh into a ghost town, evacuating Cambodians to the countryside, from which many would not return.
The fighting prior to 1975 was a heroic struggle for national independence, freedom and sovereignty, said Pen Sovann, a former prime minister of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea who had previously worked with top Khmer Rouge leaders in the early 1970s.
But then the Khmer Rouge treated their own people as enemies, he said. “April 17 should be marked as the date Cambodia lost its national identity,” he said.
It was Vietnamese administrators in Phnom Penh who decided that April 17 should remain a day of celebration, but one that marked the victory of Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese over the “US and their corrupted henchmen,” Pen Sovann said.
“We were under their control, I could not deny them,” he said, adding that the April 17 anniversary marks the “bitter day” when the country’s leaders cheated their own people and treated them as their enemies.
Pen Sovann himself fell victim to the shifting sands of Cambodian politics and was purged and jailed for 10 years for reproaching the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia in 1981.
The April 17 holiday was dropped over 15 years ago when Cambodian politicians of all factions started negotiations to restore peace and national unity, said Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith.
“April 17 was a happy day for rural people but a sad one for city dwellers,” Khieu Kanharith said
—the Khmer Rouge targeted city people for hard labor and extermination while they praised farmers in their rhetoric.
Nowadays, January 7, the day that Pol Pot’s regime was toppled in 1979, is a holiday, though it is not a “festive” national holiday, Khieu Kanharith said.
Yim Savin, who was a Khmer Rouge soldier in Anlong Veng—the district in Oddar Meanchey province where the Khmer Rouge were based from 1993 to 1997, and where Pol Pot died in 1998—said that neither April 17 nor January 7 should be celebrated.
Cambodia’s fractious past should remain in the past, as neither April 17 nor January 7 were victories for ordinary Cambodians, Yim Savin said.
“All of them should be eliminated. They should end it and let the past disappear,” he said. “They should not call April 17 or January 7 anniversary days for any victory.”