Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Days ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen had a strong message for his people: you are either with me or against me.

Invoking embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the devastating war being fought by ISIL and other rebel groups, Hun Sen drew parallels between Islamic fighters in Syria, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime - which he helped to topple 36 years ago - and his domestic political opponents.

Those opposing the Syrian president had strengthened the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, said Hun Sen, and those who oppose his own government are, similarly, modern-day supporters of the equally radical Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen's tirade came just ahead of Wednesday's "January 7" anniversary that marks the day in 1979 when Vietnamese forces, and members of Hun Sen's government, deposed Pol Pot.

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime started in 1975 and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people through starvation, execution, and overwork.

"Any acts that weaken Assad help strengthen ISIS ... so it means the same here," Hun Sen said in a speech broadcast on local TV and radio on Monday

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen [AP]

"You loathe the Pol Pot regime but you also oppose those who overthrew Pol Pot. So, what does it mean?" Hun Sen said. 

"It means that they are allies of the Pol Pot regime. If they oppose January 7, they are in alliance with the Khmer Rouge and the genocidal regime."

Opinions divided 

January 7 is a contentious commemoration in Cambodia.

Traditionally, it is a partisan affair celebrated by members and supporters of Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which first came to power on the back of the Vietnamese victory over the Khmer Rouge.

Critics see January 7 as the day Vietnam invaded to install a government sympathetic to Hanoi, and which remains in power and indebted to the Vietnamese to this day.

This month also marks Hun Sen's 30th year at the centre of power. He was first appointed prime minister in 1985 by the country's then-communist government.

"It's a very sad day for Cambodia when we continue to label the victims of the Khmer Rouge as perpetrators," Mu Sochua, a prominent member of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), said in response to Hun Sen's comments.

Referring to Hun Sen's position as a mid-level Khmer Rouge military commander before defecting to Vietnam in 1977, Sochua said it was ironic the person labelling others as Khmer Rouge sympathisers was himself a former member of the regime, and so were many members of his current government.

"We know who the Khmer Rouge were, and who came out of the Khmer Rouge," she told Al Jazeera. "The prime minister cannot hide the truth."

'Old agenda'

Hun Sen's equating of January 7 detractors with Pol Pot allies comes after many voters turned away from his long-ruling party in the 2013 national election, and unprecedented protests against Vietnam in Phnom Penh last year. Hun Sen's CPP now controls just 68 seats in parliament to the CNRP's 55 seats.

Access to the Vietnamese Embassy was blockaded for several days during the protests by hundreds of Cambodians, including a vocal contingent of Buddhist monks, who hurled abuse and burned Vietnamese flags.

Vietnam's alleged transgressions were both historic and contemporary: loss of border territory, continuing influence over Cambodian politics, and unchecked migration of Vietnamese citizens to Cambodia.

"January 7th is a very old agenda," said Ou Ritthy, a blogger, youth activist and founder of the popular weekly public discussion forum known as Politikoffee.

Young people "don't care much" about January 7, Ritthy said. "It's about the past, and we have a lot of issues now." 

More important issues for young people are economic development, improving governance, and ending corruption.

Invasion or liberation?

Politically, January 7 is polarising with supporters and detractors generally adopting diametrically opposed views, said Ritthy, adding young people have a more nuanced understanding.

"It was clearly a liberation from Pol Pot, but it was also an invasion from Vietnam," he said.

Roeun Kosal cut a lonely figure marching on the streets of the Cambodian capital late last year.

His one-man protest saw him slog for hours through rainstorms and flooded streets to reach the courthouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where two former leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement are on trial for atrocities committed during their regime.

Kosal carried a black umbrella on his long march to the war crime tribunal. To it he had affixed paper placards naming the culprits he blames for the mass killings, including his parents, during the Pol Pot years.

None of those he named were Cambodian, however.

The Khmer Rouge's Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea
[Reuters]

Pol Pot, who died in 1998, was not one of the names on the protest placards. Neither were the two surviving senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge currently on trial: Nuon Chea, the regime's second in command, and Khieu Samphan, its former head of state.

"Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea - they did not kill even one person," Kosal, 44, said this week.

"The one to blame is the Hanoi government ... they killed the people," he said, recounting a conspiracy that goes as follows: the Khmer Rouge movement was infiltrated by the Vietnamese, along with treacherous Cambodians with "Vietnamese minds", who engineered genocide against the Khmer race.

Blaming Vietnam

Kosal is not alone in his belief.

A surprising number of Cambodians entertain suspicions, or ardent beliefs, that the mass killing during the Khmer Rouge years was not carried out by Pol Pot and his followers.

It's not a new rendering of revolutionary history.

Craig Etcheson, a scholar who has researched the Khmer Rouge for decades, said public assertions by the Khmer Rouge that it was the Vietnamese who had committed mass crimes date to 1979 and were a propaganda response to Vietnam's intervention in Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge popularised the slogan "Khmer do not kill Khmer", said Etcheson, who spent six years investigating Pol Pot-era crimes at the co-prosecutors' office at the UN-backed war crimes tribunal.

It was Vietnamese who killed Cambodians. Everything was under the control of Vietnam - even the cooks were Vietnamese.

- Nuon Chea, Khmer Rouge official

"Since the Cambodian people clearly knew that there had indeed been a lot of killing, this slogan begged the question of just who then did all that killing. For the Khmer Rouge, an easy answer was close to hand: it was the Vietnamese. They have stuck with that line ever since.

"The bottom line is that it is the opposite of the truth," he added.

Ongoing tribunal

On Thursday, the Khmer Rouge tribunal will restart hearings in the second case against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, which includes the charge of genocide against ethnic Cham Muslims and Vietnamese people. Both men were convicted of crimes against humanity in their first case, and sentenced to life in prison in August.

Giving testimony in 2011, Nuon Chea used his time in the dock to warn the youth of Cambodia of the dangers posed by Vietnam, and blamed all the crimes during his regime - even scarce meals prepared - on the Vietnamese. As Cambodians are devout Buddhists, the Khmer Rouge could not have committed the acts they are accused of, he said.

"These crimes - war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide - were not from Cambodian people," Nuon Chea told the court, according to the Cambodia Daily.

"It was Vietnamese who killed Cambodians. Everything was under the control of Vietnam - even the cooks were Vietnamese."

Additional reporting by Van Roeun

Follow Kevin Doyle on Twitter: @doyle_kevin

Source: Al Jazeera