Forty years have passed since the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and proceeded to wipe out nearly a quarter of its population. The anniversary goes largely unmarked as the overriding strategy to deal with the trauma is largely to pretend it never happened.
Phnom Penh (dpa) – Remembrances were sparse on Friday’s 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.
That day brought the ultra-Maoists to power after years of civil war. The new regime set the calendar back to “Year Zero” and immediately began the evacuation of the capital to establish an agrarian society built on forced labour.
“It was the beginning of the genocide,” said Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a non-government organization that researches and documents crimes from the Khmer Rouge era.
Its victims, who represented nearly one-quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time, were remembered in a traditional Buddhist ceremony organized by the opposition Friday at Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, one of the sites known as the Killing Fields, where Khmer Rouge victims were killed and buried.
Skulls of thousands of people killed there fill a shrine at the site. Bones and scraps of clothing poke up from across its grounds.
The ceremony there drew a crowd of a few hundred people, and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) did not hold any event for the anniversary.
April 17 has not always passed so quietly. It was once a government holiday called Victory over American Imperialism, during which students were given the day off and national broadcasts from the Killing Fields were shown on television.
After the 1989 withdrawal of the Vietnamese, who had defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the holiday was removed from the national calendar.
Youk said subsequent generations do not know the holiday ever existed. Today, it goes largely unheeded because of a mixture of denial and government policy.
Ou Virak, human rights activist and former chairman of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, pointed to government officials’ Khmer Rouge ties as a reason for the lack of 40th anniversary ceremonies.
“Many of the people high up within the CPP are themselves former Khmer Rouge,” Virak said. “Many of them only left the ranks in 1977 or 1978.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen himself was a Khmer Rouge commander before he fled to Vietnam to escape internal purges. He returned to Cambodia as a leader of the Vietnamese-sponsored rebels and government that replaced the Khmer Rouge.
Virak said the CPP wants to be credited and remembered for “saving” the people and highlighting the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period, during which an estimated 1.7 million to 2.2 million people were killed, would have a “double-edged effect” for it.
“They don’t want a population that starts to ask too many questions, digging deeper into the whole truth,” he said.
This lack of discussion surrounding the events of April 17 is a factor in why there is minimal recognition of one of Cambodia’s biggest days in history, said Michael Hirsch, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Parents do not often talk to their children about the Khmer Rouge regime or share stories on the topic.
Hirsch, who arrived in Cambodia two and a half years ago, said it has not had the same post-traumatic recovery process as some Western countries who have experienced atrocities.
“There are so little resources, so few people operating as counsellors or as trauma specialists who are able to provide support for people, and one of the most common ways of dealing with trauma is to deny it,” Hirsch said.