Tourists look at a portrait of a victim of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh on Aug. 24, 2015. The Khmer Rouge killed up to two million people during their 1975-79 reign. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
As Cambodians ushered in 2019 with fireworks and dance parties, a profound celebration was underway on the northern outskirts of capital Phnom Penh.
On the Chroy Changvar peninsula, connected by a bridge of the same name, thousands marked the 20th anniversary of the end of 30 years of civil war that left this country in tatters.
There was an unprecedented turnout of top brass for the unveiling of a freshly minted war memorial complete with historical records aimed at ending confusion as to the date major hostilities were formally over.
The written records hold that Cambodia's civil war did finally come to an end on Dec. 29, 1998.
On that day, surviving Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and surrendered.
Some fellow ultra-Maoists, who imposed a regime of terror from 1975 until a Vietnamese invasion at the end of 1978, continued to conduct a low-level insurgency, but the official stance is that this was of a lower order than war.
In November 2018, both Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted of genocide and given additional life sentences to terms already being served for crimes against humanity.
False dawns and Pyrrhic victories
The 20th anniversary of three decades of tragic bloodshed and hardship comes in the context of Cambodian historic days denoting military milestones that began with a call to arms by the Khmer Rouge in 1968.
Their victory seven years later with the backing of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and China was supposed to mark the end of war along with the communist annexation of South Vietnam and Laos. It was the first of many false dawns.
Instead, Pol Pot and fellow fanatics initiated a self-styled agrarian pogrom that crushed their own people with forced labor camps and extermination centres such as the infamous killing fields, singling out Vietnamese and Muslim Chams for their ethnicity and religion.
After the Vietnamese invasion in late 1978, peace remained elusive.
United States-led Western countries and China, as well as some of Cambodia's Asian neighbors, continued to back insurgent factions dominated militarily by the ousted Khmer Rouge.
The prospect of peace gained momentum as the Cold War ended, with international lobbying leading to the so-called Paris Peace Accords being signed in 1991.
To this day the Paris agreement is touted as a success story. United Nations peacekeepers arrived, US$2 billion was injected into the local economy, refugees went home and elections were held. Living standards were finally on the up but the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot were once again proving difficult.
Their refusal to disarm ensured a low-intensity civil war was fought for most of the 1990s.
The communist insurgents were arraigned against a power-sharing government headed jointly by Prince Norodom Ranariddh of Funcinpec and strongman Hun Sen and of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Hun Sen still rules to this day.
However, in 1997 relations soured between Hun Sen and Ranariddh, who began exploring options that included a potential alliance with the Khmer Rouge. An outraged Hun Sen retaliated, routing Ranariddh, and hundreds were killed.
Government amnesties were offered to the Khmer Rouge in return for their defection as more troops were dispatched and surrounded their last strongholds along the Thai border.
A split within Khmer Rouge ranks and the death of Pol Pot in April 1998 aided the defections and on Dec. 29 his surviving henchmen — Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan — gave up their 30-year war that had cost millions of lives.
An unheralded end
Given the false hopes and broken promises, journalists, academics and, more importantly, Cambodians should be forgiven for treating their surrender with a good deal of skepticism.
Most failed to realise the war was actually over and rumours persisted for years that the Khmer Rouge remained armed and dangerous. In its report on the last days of war, The New York Times headlined its story: "Cambodian leader resists punishing top Khmer Rouge."
Lingering disputes over demobilisation and re-integration of Khmer Rouge cadres, and a decision to allow senior leaders to remain at large while the framework for prosecution was established, meant the the shadow of the brutal Pol Pot regime would continue to haunt the wider population.
Their twisted logic was also reflected in the media.
Khieu Smaphan said: "Yes, I am very sorry … let bygones be bygones." Nuon Chea said he was "... sorry as well for the lives of animals endangered during the war."
Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who ran the S-21 torture and extermination site, had become a born-again Christian. When asked about the war crimes tribunal, Duch responded: "I don't worry. It is up to Hun Sen and Jesus."
It was not until the mid-2000s, when the genocide tribunal had begun in earnest, that Cambodia's prayers were answered and its worst fears finally laid to rest. Duch is also serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity.
Anniversaries of Pol Pot's disastrous legacy, such as the Vietnamese intervention (the 40th commemoration was marked recently) and the Paris Peace Accords, dominated war remembrance commemorations.
The actual formal end of the long-running conflict was overlooked until after the tribunal's genocide verdict in 2018.
Peace in our time
Two decades of peace have been far from trouble-free, including a 2008 border conflict with Thailand. None of the three major political parties have ever accepted defeat at the ballot box amid widespread allegations of cheating, political killings and the recent return of a one-party state.
Independent publishers and broadcasters have left, the leader of the opposition remains under house arrest and a flood of conspiracy theories about insurgencies — real or otherwise — have done little for the anxieties of a nation.
But underpinning the predictably of Cambodian political chaos is the inescapable fact that Hun Sen did defeat the Khmer Rouge, and the security that followed did provide economic stability, which has lifted living standards to unparalleled levels.
An estimated five million land titles have been handed out. At the new war memorial, "spit and polish" soldiers spoke freely and in excellent English about their time as U.N. peacekeepers in Mali, Sudan other parts of troubled Africa and the Middle East.
These are points Hun Sen — roundly criticized for his human rights record — wants to drive home.
In a smart piece of propaganda, the fireworks over the new war memorial lasted much longer and were twice as grand and loud as the simultaneous display over the capital some 10 kilometers away that heralded in the new year.
And like a communist playbook of old, it emphasised the importance of occasion while burnishing the leader's credentials as a national savior — a bitter pill for Hun Sen's many critics.
Luke Hunt is an opinion columnist with UCA News.