Cambodia marks 39 years since fall of brutal "killing fields" regime

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Cambodian dancers attend a ceremony to mark the 39th anniversary of the toppling of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 7 January 2018.

Cambodian dancers attend a ceremony to mark the 39th anniversary of the toppling of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 7 January 2018.

web_photo_khmer_rouge_celebration_07012018

Cambodian dancers attend a ceremony to mark the 39th anniversary of the toppling of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 7 January 2018.

Cambodian dancers attend a ceremony to mark the 39th anniversary of the toppling of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 7 January 2018.

PHNOM PENH - Cambodian premier Hun Sen led a huge rally on Sunday marking the anniversary of the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, seizing the opportunity to burnish his reputation as the saviour of the nation.

Tens of thousands of people attended the event organised by Hun Sen&39;s ruling Cambodia People&39;s Party (CPP), which has dominated the country since it was installed by the Vietnamese forces that toppled Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot on 7 January 1979.

READ: Jolie in Cambodia to showcase her Khmer Rouge film

The gathering -- which had a much larger turnout than in previous years -- comes as Hun Sen&39;s control over Cambodia is firmer than ever following the systematic removal of his rivals before a July election.

The crackdown culminated in the dissolution of the main opposition party in November, a move lambasted by Western democracies as a naked power grab by the strongman, who is determined to extend his 32-year rule.

Speaking before a sea of supporters on Sunday, Hun Sen took credit for the stability and growth his government has overseen since the Khmer Rouge era. At least 1.7 million Cambodians died during the regime&39;s fanatical Maoist rule from 1975-79.

Most died through execution, starvation or overwork during the group&39;s attempts to transform the country into an agrarian utopia.

Ultra-nationalist rhetoric

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre who later defected and joined the resistance, frequently reminds the public of Cambodia&39;s horrific past and warns that fresh unrest could break out if his government is ousted.

In the lengthy address, Hun Sen also cheered the recent crushing of the opposition, saying it "evaded a new disaster for the nation, and will ensure the growth of democracy, human rights and rule of law in Cambodia".

Rights groups strongly disagree, saying the move plunged Cambodia&39;s fragile democracy into peril.

The US and EU have withdrawn support for the July election due to the ruling, saying the vote would not be legitimate without the now dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which enjoyed significant public support.

Hun Sen has responded by ramping up his ultra-nationalist rhetoric, reiterating on Sunday that "Cambodia does not bow to external pressure".

His self-styled reputation as the rescuer of the impoverished kingdom was also on display in the past week in a new documentary recording his role in the toppling of the Khmer Rouge.

But while the premier boasts about the stability and economic growth nurtured during his time in office, critics point out the myriad rights abuses and endemic corruption that have flourished under his watch.

Some Cambodians have also criticised the celebration of the 7 January anniversary, saying it represents the start of a decade-long occupation by Vietnam rather than a day of liberation.