January 7 is an anniversary that every Cambodian knows. Some will say it is a day etched in their hearts. A new birthday when life was given back to them. January 7, 1979 is the day the Vietnamese tanks and Khmer resistance forces entered and took control of Phnom Penh away from the Khmer Rouge. The war was not over, it did not end until 1998, but it was a significant step.
It is a day much like the day President Bush flew to the aircraft carrier with the big banner “Mission Accomplished” over his head. The war was not over; my wife was not freed until a few months later. However, it remains a significant day in Cambodia. On January 7, 1979 Cambodia was in a state of utter destruction. Soldiers were living out of 1500 year old temples because they had better “facilities”. Every house was destroyed. There was no electricity. Every road destroyed. Every concrete building scared with bullet holes or laying in a pile of rubble. Every institution had collapsed. Every temple, church and mosque was abandoned or demolished. All were defiled. Every school building was demolished. The contents of every house in Phnom Penh (the capital city) was spoiled, burned or dumped in the Mekong river.
That is what it looked like on the day of victory! January 7! Today, the same leaders continue to rebuild the nation. Hun Sen was a young man in his 20’s commanding a resistance army. Now he is the longest-serving prime minister in the world. I would say he is the greatest leader. . . ever. . . of Cambodia. (I know some would disagree, but this is my blog!)
Phnom Penh today is a new city. It is rapidly growing. The traffic jams are horrendous. . . something unimaginable in 1979 or even 1989. If you want to see nice cars in Asia you should come to Phnom Penh. You can get your fill of late-model Lexus, Mercedes, Cadillac or even Lamborghini, Bentley and Rolls Royce. Yes, in Phnom Penh.
Yet, victory is not yet complete. There are some 14,000 villages in Cambodia. Most of which still look like they did in 1979 or 1000 AD for that matter. No electricity, no infrastructure and no opportunities. On January 7 we celebrate the fall of the Khmer Rouge, but we also look forward to how much more work needs to be done.
Happy January 7 to you all! Chey Yo! (Victory)
* Photo of Vietnamese troops by Richard S. Ehrlich