Youk Chhang can’t remember the exact day the Khmer Rouge left, but rumors that their end was nigh were rife in the Cambodian village to which he had been forcibly evacuated and put to work more than three years before.
“We were told that the Khmer Rouge village chiefs with black uniforms had left the village, and there was a rumor that if you got to the highway, you would see liberation army troops and they would take you home,” he told Anadolu Agency on Saturday, the 38th anniversary of the fall of the ultra-Maoist regime.
Chhang is the executive director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia — a repository for thousands of documents related to the Khmer Rouge years — and was around 16 when the regime finally fell to advancing Vietnamese troops that began advancing into Cambodia at the end of 1978, liberating different pockets of the country as they went.
Today — the anniversary of the Jan. 7, 1979 liberation of the capital, Phnom Penh — the date is marked as an annual holiday; touted by the ruling party as one of its greatest triumphs [some of its founding members defected from the Khmer Rouge and were part of the liberation wave] and others as a day of reflection.
Chhang doesn’t know how long it took him, but he walked — barefoot — the approximately 400 kilometers (248 miles) back to Phnom Penh, from where he had been caught up in the April 17, 1975 forced evacuation of the city by Khmer Rouge soldiers.
“I never thought of dying or of losing hope, but I’ve heard from friends, they are amazed how I walked barefoot from [he northwestern province of] Banteay Meanchey to Phnom Penh city,” he said.
“I drive it now and I can’t imagine. You jump from hell, and suddenly you’re in heaven.”
Interpretations of the importance of the day vary.
Sam Rainsy, exiled leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, wrote on Facebook on Saturday that the day was “a military and political show organized by the communist Vietnamese”.
“If the communist Vietnamese did not help the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s there would be no 17 April 1975,” he said, in reference to the day that the Khmer Rouge sacked Phnom Penh.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party holds an event every year at its headquarters to extoll the virtues of those who were part of the liberation front.
For others, Chhang said, it’s a quieter day of reflection.
“It’s been a long struggle for everyone here in Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and I think the reflection is rather personal now,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s no longer significant, but it’s been some time.”
For three years, eight months and 20 days, the Khmer Rouge — whose forces had toppled the previous Lon Nol regime following a bitter and bloody civil war in the early 1970s — set about implementing an agrarian regime that pushed people to breaking point.
During the period, at least 1.5 million are estimated to have died or been executed.