May 20, a day which must survive

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May 20 was the revolutionary transformation of a vibrant society into the depths of mass starvation, illness and exhaustion. Heng Chivoan

May 20 is no ordinary date in Cambodia. It is a day of potential; an annual memorialisation of the national past, an opportunity to deepen the peace we share today and, ultimately, to imbed into the national consciousness the principal of reconciliation established 14 years ago by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. It is a day central to Cambodia’s experience with war and peace. But it is essential to our future, too. Hand in hand with memorialisation is transmitting to next generations the fundamental values of rule of law and human rights. Only through this process, symbolised by May 20, will the lessons of the Khmer Rouge atrocities grow roots and flourish.

What we now call National Day of Remembrance on May 20 originated with the so-called National Day of Hatred started in 1984 by the post-Khmer Rouge government, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The day was to remind people of the ousted regime’s infamous nationwide collectivisation begun on May 20, 1976. It was the central episode in upending a thousand year tradition of Cambodian life and community.

Society was torn apart at the most basic levels; family bonds were broken in a brutal campaign to reorganise the population for labour, separating households to undertake massive cooperative schemes. May 20 was the revolutionary transformation of a vibrant society into the depths of mass starvation, illness and exhaustion. It was the end of the individual and replacement by a mass misery where the only goal was survival.

The profound nature of this revolution extends from the stories of arbitrary executions to its ultimate toll of a wrecked society in which nearly two million perished in less than four years. That toll, though, has a rolling impact. Millions of survivors emerged from 1979 alive but traumatised by Cambodia’s darkest chapter and in need of recognition. Reconciliation was needed for the nation to win its peace. But recognition – not just of the survivor experience, but appreciation of how the tragedy happened – was necessary rebuilding a nation that would never repeat its past.

The PRK understood the need for recognition. But it picked May 20, and adopted the harsher term of Hatred, for a more specific purpose. Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and his genocidal clique were still alive. Khmer Rouge elements were cowering in border areas, but still active. The PRK used the date to intensify propaganda against the ongoing rebellion, to encourage each locality to act against and condemn the former regime.

According to the book, Reconciliation Process in Cambodia 1979-2007 Before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, commemorations of May 20th “was intended to bridge divides between former adversaries, allow people to unleash their grief and anger in a peaceful way, and remind people of the DK regime’s atrocities, thus increasing their vigilance against any kind of Khmer Rouge psychological warfare, doctrine, or ideology during the civil war”. The date was also commonly marked by speeches reminding people of tragic years under the Khmer Rouge yoke and, in some communities, effigies of Khmer Rouge leaders were dragged, beaten and burnt in a public release of anger.

May 20 was regularly observed throughout the 1980s before it was renamed Day of Remembrance. The softening of the name was a compromise after haggling between the government and Prince Norodom Sihanouk of the tri-party of Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). It was perceived, more or less, as an effort to entice any remnant of the Khmer Rouge to participate in peace talks to end the civil war.

After a deal was inked on October 23, 1991, the Day of Remembrance transitioned from a direct incitement against the enemy to an annual memorialisation of grief and sufferings. Events shifted to symbolic sites like Cheung Ek as a public space for mourning those who died during the Khmer Rouge regime.

With the establishment of the Khmer Rouge tribunal (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC) to bring to justice “senior Khmer Rouge leaders and those most responsible” for the regime’s crimes, May 20 was legally acknowledged as one element in the reparation to survivors. That all-important official sanction, though, didn’t last. In its sub-decree No 112 of August 2, last year, the government announced National Remembrance Day was no longer a public holiday. The implication, of course, was that, under the country’s changed circumstances, May 20 had outlived its usefulness. The Khmer Rouge was beaten, its leaders dead or behind bars. So, why drag up old wounds every year?

Yet, National Remembrance Day hasn’t been rendered irrelevant by the tribunal or its results. It has a greater significance that merits an ongoing tradition of annual commemoration. Yes, the beast is gone – hopefully forever. But “forever” is never guaranteed. Remembrance – of victims and survivors, but also of the pathways which led to the evils of 1975-1979 – is crucial to the very genocide education which will safeguard Cambodia as the period sinks further beyond today’s horizon. It is for our children and grandchildren.

Cambodians have honoured their shared history for 41 years. May 20, even as it evolved over time, was core to that sense of unity and cohesion. Time will inevitably diminish its role as reparation to remaining survivors. But as a symbol for future generations to maintain appreciation of their past, May 20 must never go away.

Ly Sok Kheang is the director of the Anlong Veng Peace Centre, Documentation Centre of Cambodia. The views expressed are his own.