Conflicting historical narratives are divisive

An op-ed published in Khmer Times.

By Kimkong Heng

Cambodian people have been divided, so divided over their differing interpretations of their country’s historical events. Some historical facts such as the liberation day on 7th January has been over-politicised. Two conflicting narratives prevail and dominate the social and political discourses in the Kingdom.

As a matter of illustration, 7 January is officially considered as the “Victory Day” or “Liberation Day” when Cambodians, thanks to the assistance of the Vietnamese army, were liberated from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime which decimated almost two million Cambodians until its collapse in 1979.

However, despite this historical fact, there exists another interpretation, commonly held by the opposition supporters and the ruling party’s detractors, that 7 January in fact marked the invasion and occupation of Cambodia by Vietnam.

Given the current political development, these two divergent narratives over this contentious day are here to stay and, whether one likes it or not, will further divide the Cambodian people for years to come.

Likewise, in the case of the loss of Kampuchea Krom to Vietnam, there are also two different versions of historical interpretations. One group tries to put the blame on Khmer Kings who reigned Cambodia in the 19th century, whereas the other argues that Kampuchea Krom was lost in the late 1940s during the French colonization of Cambodia and blames the current Cambodian government for its inaction to try to take back what was lost.

These two different interpretations, whether a reality or historical mistake, are set to continue to cause tension and doubt among Cambodians, especially when the incumbent government seems to show indifference towards this critical issue.

It is important to note that these binary historical narratives have created division rather than unity in Cambodian society; they are barriers to the success and sustainability of the culture of dialogue seen as the hope for the future of Cambodian politics; and they act as barricades to any initiatives aimed at improving Cambodia-Vietnam relations.

In fact, different arguments over history advanced by Cambodian politicians and supported by their followers are not healthy for Cambodia and Cambodians.

Besides political gains, there seems to be nothing else socially beneficial. These conflicting narratives are more likely to undermine harmony and peace while encouraging hostility in the country.

No doubt it is time for Cambodians, particularly the politicians, to move beyond these contrasting narratives of historical events and find common ground to maintain continued peace and stability and bring about more prosperity to Cambodia and its people.

Cambodia is now a small country sandwiched by its larger and more powerful neighbours. The country has experienced tragedy, loss, and atrocities. The hard-earned peace over the last two decades has paved the way for high and sustained economic growth, effectively bringing down poverty rate in the country from over 50 percent in the early 2000s to below 10 percent in 2019.

The country has seen remarkable transformation and is now set to embark upon its long journey for an inclusive, progressive, and sustainable society. Although this seems to be too ambitious a goal, with continued peace and stability such a vision is not beyond the realms of possibility.

To achieve that end, however, it is important that the Cambodian people and especially political leaders settle their differences and work together in unity to move the country forward.

Cambodia’s ambition to become an upper middle-income country by the next decade and a high-income economy by 2050 can be meaningfully realised only when Cambodians are able to work hand in hand to build the nation together.

If politicians continue to point the finger at each other and fail to unite, the chance and prospect of developing and transforming Cambodia into an inclusive and sustainable society are slim, if not impossible.

In the era of considerable geopolitical uncertainty and fast-changing multipolar world order, Cambodia as a small and open country is faced with both challenges and opportunities caused by great power rivalry as well as tensions in the region and beyond. While the Cambodian leadership must engage in smart and flexible diplomacy to successfully navigate Cambodia through numerous geopolitical challenges, great attention should also be paid to ongoing, conflicting historical narratives that have created division and disharmony in Cambodian society.

It is high time Cambodian people stopped arguing about the past so that more time and energy can be dedicated to improving the present and design a better future for younger generations of Cambodians. In other words, it is crucial that Cambodians remember the past and learn the lessons as they engage the present and contemplate the future.

Politicisation of historical facts is counter-productive to national unity and development.

Cambodians must remember the old adage that goes “United we stand, divided we fall”.

Kimkong Heng is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland and a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

Published by Kimkong Heng

A student, teacher, educator, and researcher

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