Today is called the Day of Remembrance in Cambodia, formerly called (in English) the National Day of Hatred, which is a mistranslation of the Khmer name ទិវាចងកំហឹង – Ti Veer Jrong Komhuoeng — which literally means “Day of Tying Anger” but is perhaps better translated as “Day of Maintaining Rage” that is, a day for maintaining the sense of anger at the genocide against Cambodians perpetrated by Pol Pot. The day has changed names, and fluctuated in importance over the years since Pol Pot was formally defeated by communist Vietnamese, because the Khmer Rouge has maintained a continuous presence in Cambodia, with waxing and waning fortunes. The Day of Remembrance (as I shall refer to it), was first launched in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) on May 20th 1984. The commemoration was initiated by a September 12, 1983 conference in Phnom Penh of around 300 intellectuals and clergymen. The date was selected since it marked the initiation of mass killings in Democratic Kampuchea on May 20th 1976. It was also the date that the Khmer Rouge had initiated forced collectivization in southern Takéo in 1973.
Under the PRK, the full title of the event in English was ‘Day of Hatred against the genocidal Pol Pot-Ieng Sary-Khieu Samphan clique and the Sihanouk-Son Sann reactionary groups’. The Day was an important holiday in the PRK, and the Kampuchean United Front for National Construction and Defense mobilized Kampuchean mass organizations to ensure popular participation. Under the PRK, the policies of the United States (dubbed as imperialist) and the People’s Republic of China (dubbed as expansionist) were also targets of dislike during the Day of Hatred. The 1983 conference had made as the objective of the National Day of Hatred the mobilization of international public opinion against the Khmer Rouge, their allies and their foreign backers. In particular, the issue of the representation of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea in the United Nations was highlighted.
The Cambodian genocide killed somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodian people from 1975 to 1979. In 1976, the Khmer Rouge changed the name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea. In order to fulfill their goals, which were a particular blend of nationalism, Stalinism, and Maoism that was designed to create a monoethnic and deliberately uneducated agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities and forced Cambodians to relocate to labor camps in the countryside, where mass executions, forced labor, physical abuse, malnutrition, and disease were prevalent. This resulted in the death of approximately 25% of Cambodia’s total population. People perceived as the opposition were taken to the Killing Fields, where they were executed and buried in mass graves. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia ended the genocide by defeating the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Things did not end there, however, because the Khmer Rouge remained an active presence for many years, and were recognized internationally as the legitimate ruling party, while the world turned a blind eye to the genocide.
The Vietnamese were especially troubled by the Khmer Rouge because their genocide targeted ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia. The border between the two countries has always been fluid – especially around the Mekong Delta because control of that region is critical for trade and defense. On December 3, 1978, Radio Hanoi announced the formation of the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS). This was a heterogeneous group of communist and noncommunist exiles who shared an antipathy to the Pol Pot regime and a virtually total dependence on Vietnamese backing and protection. The KNUFNS provided the semblance, if not the reality, of legitimacy for Vietnam’s invasion of Democratic Kampuchea and for its subsequent establishment of a satellite regime in Phnom Penh.
In the meantime, as 1978 wore on, Cambodian bellicosity in the border areas surpassed Hanoi’s threshold of tolerance. Vietnamese policy makers opted for a military solution and, on December 22nd, Vietnam launched its offensive with the intent of overthrowing Democratic Kampuchea. A force of 120,000, consisting of combined armor and infantry units with strong artillery support, drove west into the level countryside of Cambodia’s southeastern provinces. Together, the Vietnamese army and the National Salvation Front struck at the KR on December 25th. After a 17-day campaign, Phnom Penh fell to the advancing Vietnamese on January 7th, 1979. Pol Pot and the main leaders initially took refuge near the border with Thailand. After making deals with several governments, they were able to use Thailand as a safe staging area for the construction and operation of new redoubts in the mountain and jungle fastness of Cambodia’s periphery, Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders regrouped their units, issued a new call to arms, and reignited a stubborn insurgency against the regime in power as they had done in the late 1960s.
For the moment, however, the Vietnamese invasion had accomplished its purpose of deposing an unlamented and particularly violent dictatorship. A new administration of ex-Khmer Rouge fighters under the control of Hanoi was quickly established, and it set about competing, both domestically and internationally, with the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia. Peace still eluded the nation, however, and although the insurgency set in motion by the Khmer Rouge proved unable to topple the new Vietnamese-controlled regime in Phnom Penh, it did nonetheless keep the country in a permanent state of insecurity. The new administration was propped up by a substantial Vietnamese military force and civilian advisory effort.
As events in the 1980s progressed, the main preoccupations of the new regime were survival, restoring the economy, and combating the Khmer Rouge insurgency by military and by political means. The UN General Assembly voted by a margin of 71 to 35 for the Khmer Rouge to retain their seat at the UN, with 34 abstentions and 12 absentees. The seat was occupied by Thiounn Prasith, an old colleague of Pol Pot from their student days in Paris and one of the 21 attendees at the 1960 KPRP Second Congress. The seat was retained under the name ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ until 1982 and then ‘Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea’ until 1993. Pol Pot continued as nominal ruler of Cambodia until 1997, and died in 1998.
On 2 January 2001, the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, to try the members of the Khmer Rouge leadership responsible for the Cambodian genocide. Trials began on 17th February 2009. On 7th August 2014, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted and received life sentences for crimes against humanity during the genocide. As of 2009, the Cambodian NGO Documentation Center of Cambodia has mapped some 23,745 mass graves containing approximately 1.3 million suspected victims of execution. Direct execution is believed to account for roughly 60% of the full death toll during the genocide, with other victims succumbing to starvation or disease.
The effects of Pol Pot’s policies, including, but not limited to, genocide cannot be overstated, and have left an enduring legacy in Cambodia. Virtually the entire urban population was displaced, educational and religious institutions were ravaged, and the whole culture was turned upside down. On the surface, Cambodia seems like other SE Asian cultures to the casual visitor, but if you live there for any length of time it is obvious that the culture is far from “normal.” There is still a general undercurrent of suspicion of strangers, particularly foreigners, and key institutions, such as universities and temples, are still essentially rudderless and ill staffed. It will take at least a generation before Cambodia can be said to be a stable nation.
All that said, Cambodian cuisine marches on regardless. I’ve talked about Cambodian dishes several times already, and given my usual caution that for authentic dishes you need to travel to the country. As the chameleon cook, I routinely cook Cambodian dishes at home because the ingredients are readily available and I know the basic principles. Sour and spicy/hot are the most common elements along with sweet/fruity, salty, and bitter (not unlike the Chinese ideal, although the flavors are different.
Kuy teav (គុយទាវ) is one of my favorite morning dishes whether I make it at home, or get it from a market stall. It’s better at market stalls because they have constantly simmering vats of broth that are enriched over the morning with the ingredients that are cooked in them. Kuy teav is a noodle soup consisting of rice noodles with pork stock and toppings that is generally assumed to be of Chinese origin. In Khmer, kuy teav is formally pronounced IPA: [kuj t̪ieʋ] but is often elided to IPA: [kə t̪ieʋ] (Romanized as k’tieu, katieu, kateav, etc.) due to the sesquisyllabic nature of the Khmer language. It is impossible to learn Khmer pronunciation from books. When I learn a new phrase and then practice it on the streets, all I get are puzzled looks, because I am putting too many syllables and consonants in. You almost never hear a final consonant, even though it is there in the written text and complex vowel sounds and diphthongs are drastically simplified from what books teach.
Kuy teav is prepared with partially dry thin squarish rice noodles cooked by quickly immersing the noodles in boiling water. The noodles are then strained, placed into a bowl, and moistened with a nutty, caramelized garlic oil. After dressing with a sticky brown liquid made of oyster sauce, soy sauce and a pinch of sugar, the bowl is then filled with a clear broth made from pork bones, dried squid, and sugar, and seasoned with a bit of fish sauce. Then the meat toppings are added, which may include a variety of different types of meat, such as pork loaf, minced pork, pork belly, duck, seafood or offal. When I order from a market stall I just ask for a little of everything on offer. It usually varies from day to day. Only once in a while will I ask for one ingredient only. This is not unheard of, but is not normal.
When the dish is served, you have a wide choice of garnishes and aromatics to customize the dish. The pork broth is tasty and complex, but also subtle, so you add what you want to adjust it to your taste. I usually add the Cambodian trinity of garlic, fresh lime juice, and hot peppers. Garnishes can include lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, fresh herbs (sawtooth coriander and holy basil), crushed black kampot pepper, and chopped green onion.