Across the country, from the jungles of Kompong Cham province to the rooms of the royal residence, Cambodians who were able to get their hands on a radio in the first few days of 1979 listened attentively for news of a military advance against the Khmer Rouge in Eastern Cambodia.
Vietnamese troops with a small contingent of Cambodians-the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea, mostly disaffected Khmer Rouge soldiers who had only recently fled internal purges-launched their attack on Christmas Day 1978 and were making a rapid advance on Phnom Penh.
At the time, now-Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith was in a youth brigade in Kompong Cham and in charge of listening to radio broadcasts and making daily reports to the head of the labor camp, he said in a recent interview. Distant broadcasters told him of the front’s creation in early December and of the troops’ advance until he himself could hear their artillery shells.
“On 7 January, the Khmer Rouge radio went silent. On the morning of 8 January, I heard from [Voice of America] that Phnom Penh [had fallen],” Khieu Kanharith said.
In Phnom Penh too, foreign radio brought news of the Vietnamese advance.
“And it is thanks to these radio broadcasts that I am aware of the situation of our country: creation of the front of HE Heng Samrin [who led the UFNSK] and ‘liberation’ of wide swaths of the Cambodian national territory, in the South, South East, South West,” wrote Retired King Norodom Sihanouk in notes published on his Web site in December 2006.
“My son (the future King) N Sihamoni and I exchange in silence and with a wide smile of hope and joy the birth and expansion of the liberation front presided by HE Heng Samrin,” the retired King recounted.
Norodom Sihanouk did not get to see the fall of Phnom Penh. Just ahead of the thunder of approaching Vietnamese tanks, he was put on a plane to China on the night of Jan 6.
The following day, on Jan 7, 1979, the Vietnamese army and the contingent of Khmer troops entered an abandoned Phnom Penh without encountering much resistance.
They arrived in a desolate city that had been all but emptied of its residents since the Khmer Rouge’s takeover on April 17, 1975. The few leaders and workers that remained in the capital under the Khmer Rouge’s reign had left hurriedly.
In his book “Brother Enemy,” journalist Nayan Chanda describes banquets meant to celebrate a Khmer Rouge victory over the advancing Vietnamese left to rot while the famished workers who were about to eat them were forced to evacuate the city.
Photos of Phnom Penh at that time show a ghost town with trash piled up in the streets – the only sign there might have been humans there.
Garbage was just thrown behind roadblocks on secondary roads, according to Khieu Kanharith, who said he entered Phnom Penh about two weeks after the Khmer Rouge retreated.
Other streets were used as storage space, he said: plates and silverware were piled neatly in front of the current Ministry of Health on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard.
“And if you want to have clothes, it’s another area. If you want to have rice, it’s [the] Old Market,” Khieu Kanharith recalled. “Very clean, very in order,” he added.
Things weren’t so orderly outside the city; thousands of former city dwellers began slowly making their way back toward Phnom Penh but were kept out of the city. Vietnamese troops blocked the way and only those hired by the newly installed administration of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea could enter the capital.
Thun Saray, now Adhoc president and then a young father, was forced to accompany Khmer Rouge soldiers in their retreat through the forests of northern Kratie province. But Thun Saray’s family did their best to lag behind, under the pretense that the children and elderly could not follow and in the hope Vietnamese troops could catch up and free them. And they did.
Others, however, in the hundreds of thousands, were either forced, or fearing the Vietnamese, voluntarily accompanied the Khmer Rouge to the northwest, eventually crossing the Thai border and establishing massive refugee camps.
Free of the Khmer Rouge, Thun Saray made the perilous journey to Phnom Penh with his family aboard a small boat, pausing along the way to earn their daily rice and avoid remaining pockets of Khmer Rouge who were still holding out in the forested interior of the country.
When they eventually arrived, Thun Saray and his family was not allowed into the city, and outside Phnom Penh, he said, the atmosphere was that of a refugee camp, with too little food, water and medicine. With few resources or ability to feed a starving population just freed from the Khmer Rouge, the new rulers in Phnom Penh didn’t want to make the capital a magnet for the millions of newly displaced people that were now roaming the country.
“I slept on the ground for a few months because there were not enough houses. My entire family slept on the ground,” Thun Saray recounted of those early days after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago this coming week.
Finding provisions was difficult, but at least, unlike under the Khmer Rouge, families were now free to be entrepreneurial to survive, said Thun Saray, who earned rice for his family to eat by transporting people on his boat, bartering and taking a collection of odd jobs.
For Thun Saray, January 7 not only marks the liberation of Phnom Penh; it also represents the day of his personal liberation.
“January 7, to me and my family, signifies a liberation, the day of liberation from the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge. But seeing many Vietnamese troops, we also had the feeling that our country would be dominated by Vietnam,” Thun Saray said, adding that nonetheless, joy did overcome fear of the new regime.
Pen Sovann, one of the founders of the front, and the former prime minister of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1981, said the Cambodian contingent alone were not strong enough to topple the Khmer Rouge and they needed Vietnamese support.
“The agreement was to establish friendships for mutual understanding, not to abuse the border, not to interfere with each other,” Pen Sovann said of the treaty between the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and Vietnam, which was signed on Feb 18, 1979.
“But, on the contrary, after the liberation, they abused the territory and they wanted this part and that part of Cambodia…. They wanted to colonize us and to control us,” Pen Sovann said.
Pen Sovann’s criticism of Vietnam’s long-term plans for Cambodia earned him a denouncement by his more compliant PRK colleagues, and he was eventually imprisoned for 10 years in Hanoi.
Indeed, Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia until 1989, a decade-long occupation during which a coalition of anti-Vietnamese Cambodian forces, including the Khmer Rouge, established bases inside Thailand and engaged in bloody civil war with the Hanoi-backed PRK government in Phnom Penh.
And January 7, 1979-the symbolic date of both the fall of Cambodia’s most cruel regime and the onset of a decade of foreign occupation-remains a point of serious contention 30 years later.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, then 26, was part of the front that ousted the Khmer Rouge, and his ruling CPP government, the latter-day incarnation of the PRK political heirs of January 7, made the date a national holiday in 1996.
“January 7 was a historical day. It gave us a new birthday, and I want everyone to remember it in their hearts,” CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said.
This year, the 30th anniversary will be celebrated with a “mass rally” at Olympic Stadium, which is expected to involve 20,000 students donated by their teachers from Phnom Penh’s high schools.
But the CPP-backed rally, and its use of school children, has sparked the ire of opposition leaders who say there is too much ambivalence about the meaning and history of January 7 to make it a day of national celebration. They prefer the anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Oct 23, 1991, which brought peace and democracy to Cambodia and was a national holiday until being suddenly dropped by the government in 2006.
CPP government explained their decision saying that there were too many national holidays, and the country already had January 7.
“April 17  and January 7  are inextricably associated: both of them are communist Frankensteins,” SRP President Sam Rainsy wrote in an e-mail.
“Celebrating January 7 without having in mind a broader historical perspective, is playing into the hands of the current Phnom Penh regime whose only raison d’etre was to ‘free’ the Cambodian people from the Khmer Rouge with communist Vietnam’s decisive but not unselfish help,” Sam Rainsy wrote.
“But it is worth realizing that without April 17, 1975 (date of the Khmer Rouge takeover and the beginning of the Cambodian genocide), there would be no need for January 7, 1979. And without the Vietnamese and Chinese communist massive intervention in the early 1970s to help the Khmer Rouge, the latter would not have been able to seize power and there would be no April 17, 1975,” he added.
Even 30 years after the fact, one’s position in the “liberation vs invasion” debate is a quick identifier of their political alliances.
Norodom Ranariddh Party spokesman Suth Dina once vehemently opposed the January 7 anniversary as former president of the ultra-nationalist Khmer Front Party. Now that the NRP has realigned with the CPP-led government, Suth Dina said he and his new party would no longer oppose the national holiday.
Probably only one this is for sure when it comes to understanding or imagining January 7 – it’s history is in the eye of the beholder.
“The overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime and the assumption of control of Cambodia by the Vietnamese in support of their Cambodian…is a notably ambiguous issue,” historian Milton Osborne wrote in an e-mail.
“Deciding where an observer stands on that issue determines how one describes what took place, and its significance,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)
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