Cambodia's ruling party on Monday celebrated the 40th anniversary of the country's liberation from the Khmer Rouge regime. Prime Minister Hun Sen hailed January 7 as Cambodia's "second birthday" at a ceremony in Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium.
"Today we celebrate this ceremony in order to recall unforgotten memories of the most heinous crimes of Pol Pot's group," Hun Sen told the crowd, and thanked Vietnam for saving the country.
On January 7, 1979, Khmer Rouge's 4-year-long reign of terror came to an end when Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, led Vietnamese forces into the capital to expel the murderous regime.
The regime, led by Pol Pot, was an ultra-communist autocracy that sought to transform Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. Their plan failed entirely and resulted in the deaths of at least 1.7 million people, who died of starvation and sickness or were murdered.
Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesperson, says the country can never forget the Khmer Rouge rein of terror. "Everyone remembers it. It is important that the ruling party commemorates it every year," Siphan told DW.
In November last year, a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh found two former Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of genocide, ruling that the men were responsible for targeting Cambodian minority groups during the regime's reign of terror between 1975 and 1979. The ruling marked the first and only genocide conviction against the Khmer Rouge.
The convicted Khmer Rouge leaders, 87-year-old Khieu Samphan and 97-year-old Nuon Chea, are the only living members of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's inner circle.
Read more: Cambodian war crimes court says Khmer Rouge committed genocide
A new era
Keo Rathana, 24, is one of the many Cambodians who understand the significance of January 7. "This day reminds us how much we have achieved in all these years. Now we can tell the world that we are a peaceful nation," Rathana told DW.
But not all Cambodians share Rathana's views. Many young people, especially those born after 1979, don't feel intensely about the Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Read more: Khmer Rouge genocide in the minds of Cambodian youth
On the other hand, the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party believes that January 7, 1979, was the beginning of Cambodia's occupation by Vietnam.
Many, including Sam Rainsy, the Cambodian National Rescue Party's leader, are of the view that the Khmer Rouge regime was defeated by Vietnamese troops that had the backing of Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge official who had fled to Vietnam in 1977.
In 1985, Hun Sen came to power with help from Vietnam. He has been in power since then, winning last year's controversial elections by a landslide.
Phay Siphan says Cambodia's liberation would not have been possible without Prime Minister Hun Sen's contributions.
Post-Khmer Rouge authoritarianism?
Hun Sen often refers to January 7 in his speeches, emphasizing that without his Cambodian People's Party, the country could once again fall into the realm of terror and violence. Although it is a popular message for Khmer Rouge survivors, political observers say Prime Minister Hun Sen uses Khmer Rouge atrocities to legitimize his "authoritarian" rule.
"January 7 is actually a reminder of the fact that it has been 40 years since Cambodia's liberation and the same party, the same person has been in power since then," Sophal Ear, a Cambodia expert and an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at the Los Angeles-based Occidental College, told DW.
"How long will this continue? Cambodia's ruling party believes the country is forever indebted to it," he added.
The expert is of the view that the Cambodian People's Party can claim some credit for liberating the country from the Khmer Rouge regime, but it itself has since become an authoritarian regime. "Hun Sen can't win a free and fair election," he said.
Read more: Cambodia's opposition condemns election 'climate of fear' as strongman Hun Sen declares victory
The ruling party's supporters do not agree with this opinion. "In the first 20 years after 1979, we were still recovering from the war, but Cambodia has seen immense progress in the last 10 years," said Keo Rathana, a ruling party supporter.
Ate Hoekstra (Phnom Penh)
The Czech Republic: Memorial for the victims
Seven bronze sculptures stand on a white stairway at the foot of the Prague Petřin Hill. Inaugurated in 2002, the memorial was originated by sculptor and former political prisoner Olbram Zoulbek. In the inscription of the pedestal it is not only dedicated to those, "imprisoned or executed but also for all those whose life was ruined by totalitarian despotism."
Germany: Hohenschönhausen Memorial
More than 11,000 people were imprisoned between 1951 and 1989 in the remand center of the GDR secret police (Stasi). Previously the grounds, in the Berlin neighborhood of Hohenschönhausen, were used by the Soviet occupying power as a special camp for alleged regime opponents. From there, the prisoners were transported to the Nazi-built concentration camp Sachsenhausen.
Romania: Remembrance of the resistance
Since 2016, this 20-meter-high memorial made up of three wings by the sculptor Mihai Buculei has stood on the pedestal of a torn-down Lenin statue in Bucharest. It is situated in front of one of the most important buildings from the Stalin era, at Free Press Square. The initiative was the idea of the Association of Former Political Prisoners.
Albania: "House of Leaves"
In Tirana, the first memorial after the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes was opened in 2017. During the Nazi era, the German occupiers had used the building as a prison. After the Communists came to power in 1945, people were tortured and killed here. Later the secret police used the "House of Leaves," which got its name because of the climbing plants on the exterior of the building.
Georgia: Museum of Soviet Occupation
In Gori, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator still enjoys hero status in the museum named after him – 65 years after his death and 27 years after Georgia regained its independence. Currently there are plans to overhaul the exhibition. The crimes committed under Stalin have only been a central issue at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi since 2006.
Kazakhstan: Victims of the famine
Around 1.5 million Kazakhs fell victim to the famine of 1932/33, caused by mismanagement and forced collectivism. The sculpture ensemble in Astana is dedicated to the dead. It was inaugurated on 31 May 2012, the national day of remembrance to the victims of political repression.
Latvia: The Freedom Memorial
"Milda" is the nickname given to the 19-meter-high obelisk of a woman’s enthroned figure in Riga. It was erected in the 1930s, before the Soviet occupation in 1940. The statue is the central memorial for Latvians for their will to freedom and self-determination. In past decades it has repeatedly served as the starting point for protests and resistance.
Mongolia: Victims of political repression
Located between Russia and China, Mongolia suffered under foreign occupation and exploitation for nearly all of the 20th century. For a long time, it was both politically and economically dependent on the Soviet Union. The museum to the memory of the victims of political repression was opened in 1996 in Ulan Bator; a year later, the memorial was added.
Korea: "Bridge of Freedom"
The bridge over the Imjin River, erected at the beginning of the 20th century, is the only bridge connecting North and South Korea. It was of great military importance during the 1950-1953 Korean War. On the southern side via a wooden pier you can reach the border. Many visitors leave flags and personal messages at this place.
Cambodia: Victims of the Khmer Rouge
An estimated 2.2 million Cambodians were killed during the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge. That was approximately half of the population. After the invasion, also by communist troops from Vietnam, human remains and skulls were publicly exhibited, in order to document the crimes. Even today, many mass graves have yet to be discovered.
USA: Goddess of Democracy
This statue in Washington DC, inaugurated in 2007, is a replica of the "Goddess of Democracy" erected by Chinese students in 1989 during their fatal protests on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Local politicians worked alongside eastern European freedom fighters such as Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałesa to erect this memorial in the US capital.
USA: The victims of Katyn
In 1940, Soviets murdered around 4,400 Polish prisoners of war – mainly officers – in a forest near the Russian village of Katyn. In Poland, the massacre is synonymous for a series of mass killings. The initiative for the memorial in New Jersey, which is dedicated to all the victims of Soviet communism, started with Polish migrants in the US.