On this date, the Cambodian People’s Party – then called the National United Front for the Salvation of Kampuchea – deposed the brutal Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge (the ultra-communist party) in Phnom Penh with the backing of Vietnamese troops, beginning a decade-long occupation of Cambodia by Vietnamese armed forces. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established three days later on January 10, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge retreated back into the jungle.
The Cambodian government refers to this day as “Victory Over Genocide Day.” Colloquially, the day is referred to as either “Liberation Day” or “Occupation Day”, depending on political standpoints on Vietnam, which some, especially the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party, see as having “invaded Cambodia” on that day. Thousands of people participate in this national holiday to remember those who perished in the genocide under the Pol Pot regime.
In 1985, Pol Pot officially retired but remained the effective head of the Khmer Rouge, which continued its guerrilla actions against the government in Phnom Penh. In 1997, however, he was put on trial by the Khmer Rouge after an internal power struggle ousted him from his leadership position. Sentenced to life in prison by a “people’s tribunal,” which critics derided as a show trial, Pol Pot later declared in an interview, “My conscience is clear.” Much of the international community hoped that his Khmer Rouge “captors” would extradite him to stand trial for his crimes against humanity, but he died of apparently natural causes while under house arrest in 1998.
On 7 August 2014, a special tribunal in Cambodia handed down life sentences to two former Khmer Rouge leaders. Nuon Chea, the right-hand man of Pol Pot, and Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state, were sentenced to life for forced evacuation of people and other crimes against humanity. In handing down the heaviest possible penalty, the court said it is evident that they were deeply involved in the decision-making of the Pol Pot regime.
The special tribunal was set up in 2006 by the United Nations and the Cambodian government to bring those responsible to justice. Nuon Chea, aged 88, and Khieu Samphan, aged 83, are the first top Khmer Rouge officials to be convicted by the tribunal.