On Dec 2, 1978, a group of Cambodians gathered in Kompong Cham province’s Snoul district to plan the rebuilding of the country once the Khmer Rouge had been ousted, an event that would happen a little more than a month later.
Naming themselves the Kampuchea United Front for National Salvation, the group’s central committee included the nucleus of today’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party—National Assembly President Heng Samrin, Prime Minister Hun Sen and Senate President Chea Sim.
Some rare photos of that meeting 30 years ago, and the Cambodian force that was being mobilized across the frontier in Vietnam for the coming assault on Phnom Penh to oust the Khmer Rouge are part of an exhibition that will open next week.
Organized to mark the 30th anniversary of Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers entering Phnom Penh on Jan 7, 1979—thus putting an end to the Pol Pot regime—the exhibition will be held Jan 5, 6 and 7 at Wat Phnom’s exhibition center.
Organized by the newly formed Cambodian Photographers Association, around 100 photos will be displayed during the exhibition, including snapshots of one of the border combat zones in late 1978 and post-Khmer Rouge recovery efforts in the 1980s, said Keo Nuon, the association’s secretary-general.
Also included in the exhibition are photos taken of a gangly 26-year-old Hun Sen talking to villagers in late 1978; the front’s female soldiers; and Cambodians celebrating the end of the Khmer Rouge regime with a march, flags and banners on Jan 25, 1979, in Phnom Penh.
Taken by Western, Cambodian and Vietnamese photographers whose names have been lost, the photos—many of which bear the quality of staged propaganda shots—are part of an archive that the association is building from various sources, Keo Nuon said Monday.
Keo Nuon said the Jan 7 exhibition will be educational, particularly for today’s young people.
“Some of them don’t believe that Khmer people killed Khmer people [during Pol Pot’s regime],” he said. If history is forgotten, he said, “Some day, this may happen again.”
Even three decades on, controversy surrounds whether and how the military victory of Jan 7, 1979, by Vietnamese soldiers and a relatively small Cambodian contingent, should be celebrated.
Politics of the time led the former Soviet Union to back Vietnam’s control of Cambodia in the 1980s while China and the US supported the anti-Vietnamese Cambodian forces on the Thai border, which included the Khmer Rouge, and enabled the Pol Pot regime to keep Cambodia’s seat at the UN.
Though they said they were only entering Cambodia to oust Pol Pot, Vietnamese military forces ended up staying in the country for 10 years—an occupation that is still resented by many to this day.
Politics aside, Keo Nuon said that Jan 7, 1979, was the start of his “second life.”
A university student in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot seized power in 1975, he was slated to be killed three times during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Without the Vietnamese troops, I would not be here talking to you today,” Keo Nuon said.