Preparations for a day to lionize Prime Minister Hun Sen as the country’s savior are gathering momentum, including the printing of thousands of pamphlets touting his story and a push to incorporate it in the national school curriculum.
Aside from being a romp of one-sided state propaganda, critics say the celebrations—marking 40 years since Mr. Hun Sen fled from the Khmer Rouge into Vietnam—could be an attempt to goad political opponents into rekindling their inflammatory anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and spark turmoil ahead of a crucial national election next year.
“The night of 20 June 1977, at the Koh Thmar location, is now a key point in history for Cambodia,” the pamphlet says. “It is the Day that Comrade Hun Sen started his journey leading to the overthrow of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime.”
A ceremony on Wednesday in Tbong Khmum province will be the premier’s first public event at the site of his crossing after defecting from his position as the Khmer Rouge’s deputy regimental commander in Region 21 of the Eastern Zone.
The pamphlet was created “because we want to fill in more of the real history of what happened,” said Nem Sowath, director-general of the Defense Ministry’s general department of policy and foreign affairs. “We want the next generation to know the actor at the time.”
The English-language version of the brochure includes a map of Mr. Hun Sen’s journey into Vietnam and recites key moments of his defection.
“Before stepping on Vietnamese soil, Comrade Hun Sen looked back toward Cambodia with tears and emotionally recalled, ‘At the age of 13, I left my hometown because there were no schools where I study, and at 25 I fled my country because of butchers,’” it says.
General Sowath said the pamphlet’s details on Mr. Hun Sen’s journey were gathered by Defense Ministry officials on trips to Vietnam over recent months. It has also been printed in Khmer and Vietnamese. In the future, it will be printed in Russian and French, he said, without elaborating on where they would be distributed.
“For my personal idea, this military history should be put in the curriculum,” Gen. Sowath said. “It would be more helpful when we have the military history and the country’s history” included in Cambodian education, he said.
Mr. Hun Sen helped organize the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea—made up of fellow defectors and supported by the Vietnamese army—in late 1977 before invading Cambodia and toppling the Pol Pot government on January 7, 1979.
Or Siem, director of the Education Ministry’s curriculum department, said that while he could not make the decision over what to include in the curriculum, he welcomed the idea.
“People who sacrifice for the nation are always included in the history curriculum,” Mr. Siem said. “It’s a good example for people to help each other.”
Ministry spokesman Ros Salin could not be reached for comment. Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said only that a special program on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime had already been in place in the national curriculum for more than 10 years.
Political analyst Cham Bunthet said that incorporating Mr. Hun Sen’s journey in the school curriculum would only serve political purposes and spark tumult in the country. He cited past turmoil between the parties over whether the country was won back in 1979 or handed to Vietnam for a 10-year occupation.
“That’s how the ruling party wins the politics. They do that so at the same time, the opposition will blacklist that way and hate them for being Vietnamese puppets,” he said.
Ouk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, echoed Mr. Bunthet’s interpretation of the curriculum suggestion’s political intent.
“If it is included in curriculum, I think it will be useless and it will only be to receive popularity for the prime minister,” she said.
“They should also include the times in history such as [the loss of] Koh Tral,” she said, referring to Phu Quoc island in Vietnam, which was a territory claimed by Cambodia. “Or when land and forests were lost in the past. Then the students will be able to analyze what has happened.”
Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” said the celebrations were a “mythologization of Hun Sen’s defection,” in line with January 7 commemorations of the Khmer Rouge’s fall and the “Day of Anger” ceremony held every year at the Choeung Ek killing fields.
“Hun Sen’s defection was an important event—and a brave action in many ways—but this is not history; it is propaganda, plain and simple,” Mr. Strangio said in an email.
“As for claims of including political agendas into politics, the CPP can rely on a simple double-standard: when your opponents do something it’s ‘political’; when you do it, it’s ‘fact’.”
(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)
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