Inside Story

Cambodia at a crossroads

Do celebrations marking the fall of the Khmer Rouge mask a growing discontent against decades of authoritarian rule?

Last updated: 08 Jan 2014 13:12
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Cambodia's longtime leader is facing the biggest challenge in years to his authoritarian rule, as the southeast Asian nation remembers one of the darkest chapters in its history.

Thousands of survivors have been marking the 35th anniversary of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.

In less than four years during the 1970s, one in five of Cambodia's population died from overwork, starvation and execution, in the so-called Killing Fields and death camps under the regime led by Marxist revolutionary Pol Pot.

For the older generation who survived from war, what they have now compared to zero is better. Everything is better than zero. Because of that, all they wanted to have was their life. But for us younger generation, we need more than that. We need a life that will make us smile, happy and proud.

Souathana Neang, from the Youth Wing of the Cambodia National Rescue Party

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for three years, eight months and 20 days from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot believed in an 'agricultural utopia', and wanted to take the nation back to 'Year Zero'. Cities were emptied and millions forced to work on communal farms in the countryside.

The Khmer Rouge killed anyone thought to be intellectual, including those who wore glasses. Estimates suggest up to three million lives were lost in what was described as the Cambodian genocide.

Thirty-five years on, thousands have attended a rally organised by the ruling Cambodian People's Party, marking the fall of the Khmer Rouge with music and dancing.

But the mood of celebration is set against a backdrop of strikes, anti-government protests and calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

At least four people have been killed in a government crackdown on garment workers who are demanding higher wages.

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Al Jazeera correspondent Scott Heidler, says: "As the ruling party puts on a show for the 35th anniversary of its Victory Day, some members are questioning their loyalty. That’s because of how the government is dealing with the growing opposition and its violent crackdown on striking workers."

Thida Khus, a civil society analyst in Phnom Penh, told Al Jazeera: "We are at a new crossroads. Whether we can move toward a modern society where democratic systems function or go back to the dark days of the communist era."

Cambodian leader Hun Sen is one of the world's longest serving prime ministers. He has been in power for more than 28 years, and has vowed to stay on for another 13 years, until he is 74.

Hun Sen was educated by Buddhist monks, later joining the communist party, and then the Khmer Rouge. He fled to Vietnam during Pol Pot's regime in the late 1970s, deserting the Khmer Rouge and joining the rebels.

Following the Vietnamese-backed overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Hun Sen returned to Cambodia as foreign minister. He went on to become prime minister in 1985, at the age of 33, but he has been accused by critics of being a dictator, who has used intimidation and corruption to maintain his power base.

So are the anniversary celebrations masking a deeper discontent? Is Hun Sen's 28-year rule under serious threat? Can protests and strikes be resolved peacefully? And can Cambodia shake free from the ghosts of the past and embrace a brighter future?

Inside Story presenter Laura Kyle is joined by Siphan Phay, Cambodia's secretary of state; Cheang Vannarith, a lecturer at Leeds University and senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace; and Theary Seng, a human rights activist, lawyer and writer.

"The election result proves that the majority still needs Hun Sen as their leader, because the majority already voted for him and they support him even though they call for him to step down before elections. So if we understand and respect the will of the people, no one should hijack the majority of the will."

Siphan Phay, Cambodia's secretary of state


Al Jazeera
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