Neak Loeung, Prey Veng province – Standing in the center of town, the statue of Cambodian and Vietnamese soldiers embracing and marching ahead seems too simplistic.
After all, Neak Loeung’s violent history has seen thousands of slain Vietnamese wash up on the banks of the Mekong River.
It has seen war-battered Vietnamese tanks and helicopters pass through on their way to the capital.
It has seen a Vietnamese-backed government order thousands of its young Cambodian men to the northwest to die by malaria, bullets and land mines.
And today the bustling hub that intercepts National Route 1 from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City is sometimes called “New Saigon” because of its dominant Vietnamese business class, as the countryside remains saddled with chronically low rice yields.
But men like Kon Yoeun, 61, say their feelings of gratitude toward the Vietnamese are as solid as the friendship statue that stands outside his restaurant.
“The Vietnamese troops took the fright from my life,” he said. “Before [Jan 7, 1979], we did not have freedom to move. After, we had freedom.”
“We are still grateful to them,” he said.
Twenty-five years ago, Voice of the Kampuchean People radio in Ho Chi Minh City said a liberation day was coming.
Today, the debate over what those broadcasts portended marks the country’s most significant political dividing line.
Jan 7 is a national holiday, but it runs a far second in importance to Independence Day on Nov 9. Many say it shouldn’t be a holiday at all.
“It is confusing for the Cambodian people,” said Thun Saray, president of the human rights NGO Adhoc and a leading scholar on Cambodian culture. “On one part, we can consider it a day of liberation. But then there’s this other part, about how Cambodian society became under the foreign troops.”
In Phnom Penh, students and anti-CPP groups rally against government ties to Vietnam. They say Vietnam dictates the political and economic policies of Prime Minister Hun Sen, its “puppet.”
They cry out against controversial border treaties and say Vietnamese interests run roughshod over poor Cambodians. They say Jan 7, 1979, was the beginning of Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia.
“Only the people who support the CPP support the celebration. For me, it is not a national celebration,” said Kem Sokha, a former Funcinpec parliamentarian and director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“We were liberated from the Khmer Rouge, but then Vietnam occupied. Cambodia was not free yet,” he said.
The CPP is also cautious of celebrating Jan 7. In the last few years, the government officially renamed it, from Liberation Day to Victory Day Over Genocide.
This year, television stations—widely believed to be under the control and influence of the government—will broadcast a few public concerts. There will be a celebration at CPP headquarters.
It is far from the fanfare of Jan 7 celebrations in the 1980s.
Minister of Information Lu Laysreng, who opposed the forces of then-president Heng Samrin in the 1980s, says he will not celebrate.
“Never,” the Funcinpec member said. “I am going to the beach.”
Backed by a Vietnamese army outfitted with modern weaponry and years of training, a group of Cambodians in exile and Khmer Rouge defectors were to throw off the yoke of Khmer Rouge rule.
General Chu Huy Man of the Vietnam People’s Army officially kicked off the campaign Dec 24, 1978, across the border from Kratie province. By Jan 4, 1979, the Vietnamese forces held the seven provinces east of the Mekong.
Three days later they entered and took Phnom Penh, pushing the Khmer Rouge into the northwest.
Fighting was particularly fierce in Neak Loeung. Khmer Rouge told the people to flee the Vietnamese advance, destroying bridges and roads on their escape westward.
The Khmer Rouge “told us they would saw our heads off with palm leaves,” remembered Chum Horn, 63, who lives a few kilometers outside Neak Loeung. Another villager said he was told he would be disemboweled and stuffed with hay.
Spurred by fear, Chum Horn walked as far as Kompong Speu province, she said. Her brother disappeared in the fighting and never returned, she added.
As troops moved in, they told the people left behind that the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation would care for them. They said Heng Samrin and Chea Sim were their new leaders.
They gave out packages of noodles and Vietnamese cigarettes, villagers recalled, and told them to return home to tend to their emaciated cows and spent rice fields.
Today, Chum Horn still looks after cows and rice fields, and her luck has changed little, she says. Irrigation projects have largely failed to bring good harvests to Prey Veng, one of the country’s poorest provinces.
Near her village, a rock quarry pounds a percussion that reminds her of bombs.
“Even now when I hear that noise, I feel scared,” Chum Horn said.
Whether Vietnam invaded or liberated Cambodia, it is certain that the hardships did not end in 1979.
War continued, and the Vietnamese-backed government set to building fortifications against rebellious factions along the Thai border. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were conscripted through the 1980s for perilous labor at the so-called K5 project.
Carrying out tasks such as clearing land, mining and de-mining, digging trenches and transporting equipment and ammunition, tens of thousands of forced laborers succumbed to malaria or were maimed or killed by land mines.
Prey Veng was a major source of conscripts. Kong Yoeun chopped trees and brush in territories littered with mines. He said he saw many men die.
“I was lucky,” he said.
Prey Veng villager Nhanh Nary, 46, remembers how she struggled to harvest enough rice as her husband worked at K5.
He returned with unkempt, shoulder-length hair, and a fatiguing illness that persists today, she said. “The sun makes him weak,” she said.
At the end of a riverside street, lined with hairdressers, hostels and groceries, sits Nguyen Van Ninh’s bamboo hut.
He runs a cockfighting ring in Neak Loeung. A white board with the house rules—“We are not responsible if the rooster dies”—is written in both Khmer and his native Vietnamese.
Nguyen Van Ninh, 52, arrived in Cambodia for the second time 10 years ago. The first time was as a Viet Cong soldier, battling the soldiers of Lon Nol’s army. He has a 15-centimeter scar where he was shot through the abdomen.
Even then, before the Khmer Rouge set about killing the Vietnamese, the waters of the Mekong carried their blood. In 1970, Lon Nol urged the mass killings of thousands of innocent Vietnamese, their corpses dumped in the river.
Like Nguyen Van Ninh’s scar, those wounds have healed, at least superficially. “We have no problems here,” he said.
“Without the Vietnamese troops to stop Pol Pot’s regime, all the Cambodian people would have died,” he said. “There may have been only 1 million Cambodians left.”
But down the road, an 11th-grade student says he doesn’t believe the liberation stories. Loek Samnang, 21, says he only knows the reality of the present in Prey Veng, where Cambodians work in the countryside and the Vietnamese trade in Neak Loeung.
“They steal our jobs,” he said. “They liberate us, but then they occupy us for a long time.”
For the CPP, Jan 7 has become a double-edged sword, implying the end of atrocities and the beginning of unpopular connections to Hanoi.
The party has tried to downplay those relations. When opposition newspapers report that high-ranking CPP officials are in Vietnam, their advisers say they don’t know. The political relationship between the two countries is cloaked in secrecy.
Critics of the government suggest that Hanoi is still pulling the strings in Phnom Penh.
“We know that when there is a problem here, [Vietnam] invites out leaders to Hanoi. And when our leaders come back, they do something,” Kem Sokha said.
Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec politicians harp on CPP ties to Hanoi, warning that the country is ignoring widespread Vietnamese immigration. In the run-up to this year’s parliamentary elections, opposition party officials said illegal Vietnamese in Cambodia could number as many as 2 million.
“I have learned from books that Vietnamese came to liberate Cambodia, but how can we know?” scoffed Khat Ran, a 21-year-old in Prey Veng.
Yet the 1979 campaign and freedom from the Khmer Rouge is rooted in the memories of many of the country’s older generation. The CPP receives their gratitude. In Prey Veng, for instance, the party won seven of 11 parliamentary seats this year.
The government’s critics today “were not in Cambodia during that time. We understand the importance of this day,” said CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith. “We’re trying to keep the memory alive.”
But for some, that memory is not about civil freedoms or the birth of democracy. Living under the horrors of the Khmer Rouge set a standard against which the small liberties, such as enjoying music, are enough.
In that respect, the Jan 7 holiday is not a celebration of liberation, but a commemoration of survival.
“Maybe if Cambodia did not have the killing fields, we would not need Vietnamese troops,” said Khieu Kola, who lived through the Khmer Rouge regime and worked as a journalist through the 1980s. “But for me, if Vietnam did not intervene, I would have died.”