PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Thousands of Cambodian survivors of the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields” marked 30 years Wednesday since the fall of Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist regime, blamed for the deaths of 1.7 million people.
Up to 80,000 people packed into the capital’s Olympic stadium for a rally organized by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), descendant of the puppet government installed by Hanoi after its troops ousted Beijing-backed Pol Pot on January 7, 1979.
“We have always remembered those who sacrificed their lives to save us from genocide,” aging CPP President and former guerrilla Chea Sim told the cheering crowd.
Despite international and domestic repugnance at the Khmer Rouge and their disastrous attempt to create an agrarian utopia, a significant minority of Cambodians mourn January 7 as the start of a 10-year occupation by their hated Vietnamese neighbors.
Political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a one-eyed former Khmer Rouge commander who has been in charge for the last 23 years, frequently label him a Vietnamese stooge, a charge he rebutted in typically blunt style this week.
“Whoever is against the day of victory is either Pol Pot or an animal,” he told a crowd Tuesday at the inauguration of a bridge south of Phnom Penh, now a bustling city of 2.5 million far removed from the derelict ghost town of 1979.
Skyscrapers springing up on the banks of the Mekong, land prices rivaling Bangkok’s and a stock exchange planned for this year all attest to an economy shaking off its past, thanks to growing domestic and Asian investment over the past decade.
Communist Vietnam also marked the anniversary, with official papers running a series of articles portraying the invasion as a mercy mission and the 10-year occupation as necessary to prevent a resurgence of the Khmer Rouge.
“Wherever our army went, it was welcomed by cheering and helpful Cambodian people,” the Tin Tuc daily said.
With the Cold War’s “domino theory” occupying the minds of Western policy-makers, many in Washington took a very different view at the time, fearing Vietnam’s march on Phnom Penh was a precursor to a wider assault on U.S. ally Thailand.
After fleeing into the jungle along the Thai border, the remnants of Pol Pot’s black-shirted guerrilla army resisted the Vietnamese and Hun Sen until their final surrender in 1998, the same year the movement’s ‘Brother Number One’ died.
Pol Pot’s top surviving henchmen, all of them aging and infirm, are only now being brought to justice, although ordinary Cambodians are growing increasingly frustrated at the interminable delays to a joint Cambodian-United Nations tribunal.
“The spirits of my relatives will not be calm without prosecuting those killers,” said Thay Srey Khon, who lost eight relatives under the regime.
The court admitted this week that Cambodia’s prosecutor was blocking a bid by her international counterpart to go after more than the five top cadres now in custody on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Human rights groups said the admission confirmed long-held suspicions Hun Sen was manipulating the court to ensure it did not dig too deep, for fear it unearthed dark secrets about some of the senior Khmer Rouge figures inside his administration.
The government has denied any such attempt.
Those in custody are ‘Brother Number Two’ Nuon Chea, former President Khieu Samphan, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, his wife, Ieng Thirith, and Duch, head of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng, or the “S-21” interrogation and torture center.
They all face life in jail if convicted.
(Additional reporting by Ho Binh Minh in HANOI)
Editing by Ed Cropley and Paul Tait