At the heart of Phnom Penh are two memorials celebrating Cambodia’s independence: the Independence Monument and Liberation Memorial. The former is a memorial commemorating the country’s independence from the 90-year rule of France in 1953. This very prominent structure of a Buddhist stupa resembling those in Angkor Wat was built in 1958 and inaugurated in 1962. On the other hand, the Liberation Memorial is the younger landmark, having been built in 1979 to commemorate the Vietnamese capture of Phnom Penh and the end of the bloody reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge army.
Just a simple Stalin-style marker, the Liberation Memorial is not as impressive as the Independence Monument. For one, the Cambodian people or Khmers do not give much regard to it since their history under the Vietnamese was not very pleasant. In fact, the locals neglected the memorial for 20 years and turned it into a convenient urinal. Yet, the Khmers are forever thankful to the Viet Cong for freeing them from Pol Pot’s iron hands.
Below is a quick history of the Vietnamese influence over Phnom Penh.
In the 1970’s just as the Vietnam War broke, the North Vietnamese army or the Viet Cong moved to Cambodia and used its neighbor-country as base. This means that they already had a hold of parts of Cambodia, which include Phnom Penh, before Pol Pot began his rule of terror on April 17, 1975. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army did not like the rich and educated because they did not work in the farms. To Pol Pot, the rich and educated were lazy and serve no purpose towards his goal of revitalizing agriculture in Cambodia. So, he killed the “lazy” citizens, all 17,000 of them. He even invented his own customized tools for torture and death. He made 17,000 people with women and children march from Phnom Penh for 17 kilometers to the “Killing Fields” of Choeung Ek. There they were executed and buried in shallow graves. But those were not the only victims of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s great agrarian agenda did not work and as a result, scores of Cambodians died from sickness and starvation. Analysts and historians today peg the number of victims to about 2 million people. In the 70’s, Cambodia had a population of only 8 million. Today, almost everyone who survived the genocide lost a family member, relatives or close friends.
This was Cambodia’s darkest years in history, only four short years but with millions of lives lost. This is why Cambodia is thankful for the Viet Cong for pushing back the Khmer Rouge. Who knows what could have happened if Pol Pot had his ways for a few more years. Today, Choeung Ek is open for tourists to see and understand what happened to the country and how much it is now striving to move away from its dark history. The prison camp in Phnom Penh is also now maintained as a museum.
The Viet Cong took over in 1979 and the first thing they did was build the Liberation Memorial. Although not getting much respect, this Vietnamese memorial becomes especially popular on weekend evenings when multi-colored fountains are lit and music is played.