Khmer Rouge cadres stomped around in black and red, waving AK-47s in an open field filled with smoke. They barked orders while torturing and executing sobbing civilians who begged for their lives. Limp bodies were strewn across the grass.
The scenes were of horror and brutality. A family of three was executed one at a time with a knife, including a small child. Another family was violently separated, the father dragged into the woods by his hair and never seen again.
All this took place just last week, at Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, on May 20 – as it does every year.
Every year, Cambodians gather at the historical site of the country’s worst mass executions. The day is meant to remember the killings. But here, memories are jogged in the most literal way: actors reenact scenes of forced labor, war, and massacres for enamored spectators.
And every year, the theatrical performance ends the same way – with the current ruling party saving the day and declaring victory over the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
The reenactment went on for almost two hours. At last, the regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese army with the help of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – the ruling party in Cambodia for over thirty years.
“I’m not just Khmer Rouge, I’m Pol Pot,” joked Nen Phearith, the actor who portrayed the regime’s leader, after the show. Under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated one to two million people between 1975 and 1979.
Phearith is a theatre student who has participated in the ceremony for several years. In the beginning, he was just a civilian extra, but has since landed the starring role.
“It’s so important for young people born after the Khmer Rouge who don’t know anything about it to also remember,” Phearith told VICE, explaining that he didn’t personally believe the horrible stories until he researched it himself for the role.
The event, originally called the National Day of Anger, has been rebranded to something more palatable – the National Day of Remembrance. It ostensibly serves to memorialize the victims of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge, but has always had ulterior political motives.
In its original form, the Day of Anger was a classic communist tactic of directing anger at a common enemy to consolidate power.
David Chandler, a preeminent historian on modern Cambodia, explained that it was first established by the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), a puppet government installed by the Vietnamese after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
After the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge, those who assisted Vietnam – Khmer Rouge defectors like current Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin – were rewarded with leadership roles in the subsequent Vietnamese-installed government. Much of the PRK’s power structures persist in today’s CPP, including high-ranking individuals like Hun Sen.
In an email, Chandler told Vice that the National Day of Anger was established to “mobilize anti-Khmer Rouge feelings in the population at large… [It has been] supported by the CPP ever since. Merely to show, as Hun Sen has decreed for thirty years, that the CPP overthrew the Khmer Rouge and we should never forget how awful the Khmer Rouge were.”
That historical legacy is more important than ever to the CPP today, as it struggles to maintain support amid a highly controversial political crackdown. Hun Sen has long branded himself as the savior of Cambodia to justify his 34-year grip on power, warning that only the CPP can deliver peace and stability.
At the event, Pa Socheatvong, head of the CPP in Phnom Penh, was a key speaker. He used this opportunity to antagonize the US and the pro-democracy Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – reprimanding the “superpower and ill-intentioned people” who tried to destroy Cambodia’s hard-earned peace.
Despite its authoritarian nature, the CPP does have many genuine supporters, including 67-year-old survivor Mey Mech, who sat facing away from the reenactment.
“I don’t want to see the show because it makes me remember how I had to work so hard and had so little to eat,” Mech said. But she agrees it’s important for young generations to see the atrocities their elders experienced. “It’s correct that the CPP deserves the credit. If they didn’t come, everyone would die.”
It’s a narrative that seems to be effective on some young Cambodians as well.
Despite the presence of CPP flags, speeches from party members, and the fact that defeating the Khmer Rouge has been a cornerstone of CPP rhetoric for decades, government supporter Ly Kheang denied the event was political.
The 34-year-old CPP member said detractors are the ones politicizing the event.
“For me I think we should just continue our effort to develop the country and prevent the Khmer Rouge regime from coming back,” he said.
But tides are also shifting.
With at least 65% of the population now under the age of 30, the narrative’s effect is starting to wane. CNRP surged to new heights in the 2017 commune elections, capturing 46% of the popular vote and increasing local representation by ten-fold.
The CNRP was later dissolved for attempting a color revolution, despite no evidence of such a plot, transforming Cambodia into a de facto one-party state.
Ney Leak, a 27-year-old supporter of the CNRP, said the CPP’s rhetoric is so overtly political she questions whether it’s even true that they rescued Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge.
Leak said rather than focusing on the past for its own political benefit, the government should look at the present and future.
“They should find new strategies to win support from young people by showing an effort to develop the country. Make us believe from what we can see rather than talking about what happened more than 40 years ago,” she said.
Not all survivors are convinced either, like Khmer Rouge refugee Sophal Ear, who condemned the government’s use of Cambodia’s great national tragedy for their own political gain.
Ear, who lost his father during the Khmer Rouge and now teaches diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in California, said the CPP’s politicization of the reenactments is “completely inappropriate.”
“Theater is important to have,” he said. “Political theater and theatrics is not.”
While the event may serve a purpose in educating youths or providing catharsis to survivors, Ear does not believe this is the CPP’s intention. “The event is merely a means to an end, which is political in nature: continued rule of the country by the CPP.”
During the reenactment’s finale, a procession of young, beautiful women marched out into the field beneath massive CPP flags while the narrator praised the “brightness” of the party in saving Cambodia.
All of this took place against a backdrop of a tower stacked with the skulls of real victims.