May 20th has long been known at the “Day of Hate” in Cambodia, though for the last ten years, it’s been more frequently referred to simply by its date, Mphei Ousophea (May 20th). Rumored to have been the date either of Pol Pot’s Birthday (probably not) or the date the KR leadership decided to collectivize all agriculture (more likely), the Renakse Liberation Front decided to use this day to remind the populace of their claims to legitimacy, which rest largely on the destruction of the Khmer Rouge.
This is all well-trod territory, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the Renakse Front was Khmer-led, but Vietnamese controlled and backed. It was, as Penny Edwards once put it, “Doubly Post-Socialist,” which I think is not only accurate, but well-put. Not only that, but many of the members of the Renakse, including current Prime Minister Hun Sen, were themselves members of the Khmer Rouge at one point. It was incumbent on them, therefore, to find a way to preserve their socialist legitimacy while demonizing the communist KR they had supplanted. They did this primarily by labelling the KR ‘fascists,’ and by focusing not on the organization (“angkaa”) as a whole, but on a specific “fascistic” clique within it, the “Genocidal Pol Pot-Ieng Sary-(Khieu Samphan, sometimes as well) Clique.”
During the nineteen-eighties, the day was ‘celebrated’ and remembered by the entire country, but most especially in schools, where children read in their textbooks about the genocidal horrors. One is always forced to consider the juridical absurdities of the genocidal claim, since while it definitely applies to the later – i.e., nineteen eighties and nineties – KR violence against Vietnamese, it makes no sense to claim that the Khmer Rouge were trying to destroy the Khmer. Jean Lacouture attempted to persist with the ‘genocidal’ appelation by coining the completely ridiculous phrase ‘autogenocide.’ The students were inundated during this period with information about the horrors and crimes of the Evil Pol Pot-Ieng Sary Clique (and let’s not beat around the bush – insofar as evil actually exists, they qualify), and on May 20th, they were called into the school courtyards to watch re-enactments of Khmer Rouge atrocities, hear horror stories, and to destroy effigies of the ‘clique,’ primarily, according to my interviews, through beatings, as if a giant collective game of destroy the piñata were in play. Pol Pot never gave away candy, however.
As time passed, and the Vietnamese withdrew their support, Khmer Communism, never actually terribly sophisticated in its approach, began to embrace capitalism. This was as true of the Khmer Rouge as it was of Hun Sen’s government. The May 20th celebrations were ended, and the name “tngai chang komhoeng” (“The day to remain bound in anger” is a good translation, rather than the orwellian ‘Day of Hate’, though the practices were pretty similar) ceased regular expression.
Then, another decade passed, and the celebrations were revived, this time exclusively as a CPP Party event taking place at Choeung Ek, the famous ‘killing field’ where approximately 19,000 bodies of victims of torture prison S-21 were buried in an old Chinese graveyard south of Phnom Penh. Re-enactments were no longer performed. I attended 5 of these performances, from 2002 through 2006, and it was only in the last year that the re-enactments were brought back.
One academic I’ve spoken to about May 20th strongly felt that it was not so much a bid for political legitimacy as a threat. The weak version of the threat, as he interpreted it, was that the PRK (and now, the CPP) were all that stood between the Khmer People and the genocidal bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge. The strong version, again according to him, was that the government was capable (what government isn’t, might be a decent rejoinder) of unleashing this horror again on its population, and they better stay in line.
“I want the tribunal to start as soon as possible — I want to get justice before I die,” said 76-year-old Koun Thol, who lost four children under the Khmer Rouge.
I’m not necessarily convinced by this interpretation, though it has a lot to recommend it. One thing I will note briefly here is that since the tribunal has become a hotter and hotter issue, the CPP has gradually begun to lose control of the KR Justice story even at the level of public and international discourse (which were almost the only arenas it ever actually controlled this story). There are a great number of contradictions involved. It has become quite clear, and widely understood among the Khmer population at large, that the CPP is very interested in preventing a real tribunal from going forward, and that the current story is largely a waiting game – how many possible defendants can die before we actually go forward?
But even their own population, the CPP stalwarts and the villagers they control, are starting to call for a real tribunal, and functionaries like Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema are being forced to give voice to this desire, even in a perfunctory manner. The new re-enactments are a chink in the performed story that the CPP has tried to control for so long, and it will be fascinating to watch this develop in the next two years.