Seventy years ago this month, a Cambodian monk died in a French penal colony off the coast of Vietnam.
Had the monk lived, he might have been a major force in Cambodia’s independence movement.
Portrait of Hem Chieu at Wat Dambauk Mean Leak, a pagoda in his native village of Dambauk Mean in Ponhea Leu district in Kandal province
As an enduring symbol of that struggle, Hem Chieu’s death in December 1943 of either dysentery or cholera on the penal colony island of Poulo Condore remains potent to this day.
The arrest of Hem Chieu on July 17, 1942, spurred the first large demonstration against French rule in Cambodia, and “was a watershed in the history of Cambodian resistance to France,” historian David Chandler said.
“To a large extent,” the demonstration “marked the passage of Cambodia into modernity,” French historian Henri Locard said.
Pach Chhoeun, who led the demonstration to free Hem Chieu, was then the editor of the pro-independence newspaper Nagara Vatta.
A French military tribunal in Saigon found both men guilty and condemned them to death. Their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. While Hem Chieu would never leave Poulo Condore, Pach Chhoeun would survive his incarceration and find freedom in 1945.
Born in 1898, Hem Chieu was the son of the Ponhea Leu district chief in Kandal province. Sent to Phnom Penh by his father to study with Buddhist patriarch Chuon Nath, he was ordained at 20 at Wat Langka and graduated from the School of Advanced Pali Studies in 1921.
In the 1930s, the French authorities—who were running the country under the 1863 Protectorate Treaty—had established the Buddhist Institute and were supporting the school of Pali as a means to move the clergy away from Thai influences and to inculcate a strong Indochinese religious identity.
Thailand had held many northern provinces of Cambodia for centuries, and the lingering Thai influence over its colonial possession was a natural source of irritation for France. Part of the French strategy involved sending monks to preach Buddhism to Cambodian soldiers, police officers and the public.
Hem Chieu, who had previously been involved in efforts to expand pagoda-based schools in the Kampot area, was one of the monks sent to preach.
Also at that time, a dispute was raging in the Buddhist clergy between traditionalists and modernists, Mr. Locard said.
The modernists believed that the King and political leaders should have no authority over religious institutions, whereas the traditionalists recognized the King as the leader of the church to the extent of having him select texts to be read at pagodas.
The French Vichy regime—which controlled the King and the Royal Palace—supported the traditionalists and their worldview.
Hem Chieu believed in the separation of religion and state, and in Cambodians’ right to run their own country.
“He was a reformist, a modernist in his approach to religious institutions, and a modern regarding politics. And he lumped this together,” Mr. Locard said.
A charismatic speaker who preached without using formulas, “He was the ideologist of the time, [telling people]: ‘Wake up, you are not children. Take charge of your destiny, fight, take initiative,” Mr. Locard said.
Asked how Cambodians could win against the French colonial power, Hem Chieu would turn to the teachings of the Buddha and say that, by joining together, they could win independence.
The “modernists” associated with the Buddhist Institute were also in contact with the high school Lycee Sisowath’s student association and with Pach Chhoeun and his Nagara Vatta newspaper, which included Son Ngoc Thanh.
An attorney who served as deputy director of the Buddhist Institute, Son Ngoc Thanh seemed to have been the only one who favored the use of violence against the French, willing to employ hired killers to deal with them, Mr. Locard said.
Hem Chieu strictly advocated nonviolence.
The independence movement had the misfortune of taking shape against the backdrop of World War II while France was led by the Vichy government, which supported Nazi Germany and its ally Japan. As the war raged in Europe, the Vichy regime put in place its own people in Indochina, naming Admiral Jean Decoux governor general.
As Mr. Locard learned while researching France’s military archives, the French military tribunal’s charges against Hem Chieu and Pach Chhoeun ranged from making anti-French remarks to planning an uprising to end France’s dominance over Cambodia. They were also accused of deploring the high cost of living, and using witchcraft to make Cambodian troops invisible.
Hem Chieu anticipated his arrest in 1942, Mr. Locard said, and had written down detailed plans for a demonstration that should take place as soon as a monk was arrested.
Hem Chieu’s guidelines stated: “If one of us is arrested, we must spread the news, with the utmost urgency, to all the pagodas to come and protest in front of the relevant authorities…. Let us show solidarity and declare we shall not let a monk be condemned. But while you demonstrate, it is absolutely forbidden to carry any kind of weapons.”
The French having heard rumors that the anti-colonial movement was planning action, Hem Chieu was apprehended at his pagoda by a French official and Tea San, who was then minister of the Interior and of Cults.
Hem Chieu was disrobed immediately and forced into layman’s clothes so that the procedure for the arrest of a monk would not apply to him.
The word spread and, using Hem Chieu’s blueprint for a demonstration, on July 20, 1942, about 500 monks and as many laypeople marched in the streets of Phnom Penh, heading for the residence of the leading French administrator near Wat Phnom. Their goal was to ask for the release of Hem Chieu.
Pach Chhoeun, who led the march, was let inside the gates of the residence, but then immediately arrested. A fight broke out between guards and demonstrators, and policemen used batons. Because the hundreds of monks who attended the demonstration carried parasols, the event is often referred to as the “Umbrella War.”
Pach Chhoeun and Nuon Duong, a former monk who ran a bicycle shop and was one of the demonstration’s organizers, were sent to the penal colony along with Hem Chieu. They would be released in 1945. Son Ngoc Thanh, who had helped set up the demonstration, did not take part. After hiding in the Japanese police compound, he fled the country.
In the eyes of the French authorities, Mr. Locard said, “Hem Chieu had committed the ultimate crime: to question France’s sovereignty and authority.”
“This absurd military trial of Khmer nationalists is a sorry epitaph for French colonialism in Cambodia,” but typical of the repressive Vichy government, he said.
As for Hem Chieu’s death, it gave the country a heroic figure but deprived it of a remarkable man who may have helped shape Cambodia’s future over the following decades.
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