Tens of thousands converged on Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium on Wednesday to view and participate in a lavish celebration hosted by the ruling CPP to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Government officials and CPP faithful alike were treated to a spectacle bursting with pomp, pageantry, and politics—with a heavy emphasis on the latter.
Organizers said about 50,000 people came out for the celebration, which kicked off with a lap around the stadium’s football pitch by the CPP big three: Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, who waved to a cheering crowd from a convertible Mercedes that inched around the stadium track.
A good third of the stadium had been given over to students dressed in white CPP caps and T-shirts, their uniform outfits creating a backdrop for the placards many held up to create giant images of doves or slogans written in Khmer.
Addressing the crowd, Chea Sim, who is also the president of the CPP, gave a quick history lesson of the events leading to the overthrow of the Democratic Kampuchea regime by a combined Cambodian and Vietnamese army on Jan 7, 1979. He went on to tout the role of the CPP in developing the country over the next three decades and exhorted the crowd to assist the party in facing the challenges that lie ahead.
“Dear compatriots, in the last 30 years, the January 7 spirit has always stayed with our people of all ages while acting as a guiding post for us to go through various stages of insurmountable difficulties with great successes, and transforming us into an invincible force in building and defending the fatherland,” Chea Sim declared.
The Senate leader also gave his thanks to the “Communist Party, government and people of Vietnam” for their assistance in toppling the Khmer Rouge regime.
The entry of Vietnamese forces onto Cambodian soil in 1979 and their subsequent decade-long presence in the country has long been a sticking point for those outside the ruling party.
Opposition leaders have made plain that their parties consider the intervention of Vietnam to be an invasion rather than a liberation and that they have no intention of celebrating the anniversary of Jan 7, 1979.
Opposition politicians usually cite October 23, 1991, the date of the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, as the day that should represent Cambodia’s renewal after years of conflict.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith stressed that January 7 is a holiday of significance for all of the people of Cambodia.
“January 7 is a public holiday and it is not only a CPP event,” he said by telephone, but added that Wednesday’s celebration at Olympic Stadium was organized and paid for entirely by the ruling party.
Chea Sokhom, secretary-general of the government’s committee for organizing ceremonies, also said that the CPP paid for the entire event, including renting out the stadium.
With the iconic venue at their disposal, the CPP spared no effort in adorning the stadium with party imagery.
Rising from the center of the football pitch was a colossal statue of a deveda—the CPP symbol—which slowly made quarter turns on its pedestal so all in the crowd could get a view.
A parade that followed the day’s speeches was virtually bathed in the party’s signature blue, as floats for each province and thousands of marchers circled the sport track, CPP flags in hand.
Khieu Kanharith said the military and police personnel that took part in Wednesday’s ceremony were all CPP supporters that had volunteered to join the event on their day off, and had not been ordered to do so.
In all, the spectacle was leagues beyond the more modest annual commemoration the CPP typically holds at its Norodom Boulevard headquarters—but the cost of Wednesday’s ceremony was one the party was glad to bear in order to mark a landmark anniversary, Khieu Kanharith said.
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