A young black-clad man stood holding a replica AK-47 assault rifle at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center yesterday morning, awkwardly agreeing to the requests of a growing audience to take selfies with him.
Ten minutes later, he had traded his reluctant smile for a vicious snarl as he took up his role as a Khmer Rouge cadre, leading three shrieking young girls away and ordering them to kneel before pretending to club them to death with a hoe.
Another group of youngsters was then dragged away after being caught picking bananas, while a recording of piercing cries blasted through crackling speakers.
The theatrics marked the “Day of Anger,” a government-organized event first staged in 1984 as a way of venting the trauma inflicted on much of the population by the brutality of the Pol Pot-led communists. More controversially, it also serves as a commemoration of the liberation of the country in 1979 by Vietnamese-backed defectors who still form the nucleus of the current government. As always, hundreds poured into the grounds of the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, better known as the Killing Fields, to watch the dramatization of Cambodia’s darkest period.
“My mother told me about the Khmer Rouge. They even killed babies by hitting them against trees and adults were killed by slitting their throats,” said Keo Sreyhong, a 17-year-old from Phnom Penh.
“I came here today so I can learn about how they killed the Khmer people,” she said.
After about 20 minutes of mock executions and screaming over a backdrop of warbling vocals and eerie keyboards, Salvation Front soldiers entered the fray and quickly dispersed the Khmer Rouge cadre.
“Cambodian people were killed very cruelly. They had their throats slit, stomachs slit; they were beaten with sticks, hoes, axes, bamboo sticks…. Life was like that of an animal,” said a recording of a female voice that echoed out across the field.
While recalling the history of the Khmer Rouge regime, the event is also highly politicized, lauding Prime Minister Hun Sen —a former Khmer Rouge soldier who defected to Vietnam—and other senior members of the CPP for their roles in overthrowing Pol Pot. The CNRP and their supporters prefer, instead, to focus on the nine-year Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia that followed the liberation, and their allegations that Cambodia’s eastern neighbor still wields too much influence in their country’s halls of power.
“Under the correct leadership of Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, he has made Cambodia achieve peace and political stability…. One hand has made efforts to cultivate, while the other hand has prevented the return of the genocidal regime,” the recording said.