Buddhist Monk Is Enduring Symbol of Cambodian Independence Movement
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.
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. Continue reading