December 17, 2013

Buddhist Monk Is Enduring Symbol of Cambodian Independence Movement

Preah Balat Ghosaneak Hem Cheav, a classmate of His Holiness Maha Ghosananda, students of His Holiness Jotannano Chuon Nath, Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia Buddhism. ~Jendhamuni

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
By Michelle Vachon, The Cambodia Daily
December 9, 2013

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.

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.


Seila said...

You keep saying "if... if ... he were this and that...".
But Khmers' sufferings were and are REAL.
You cannot deny the facts that since this new Buddhism brought into the Khmer Empire, we lost the empire, now we are about to lose our tiny land to Yuon.
There is NO "if" but REAL.
As long as Khmers have rusty head people like you around, we Khmers can never compete with Yuon in terms of everythings,

Your phylosophy is old and outdated.
Yuon demographic spreading in every corners in Cambodia, very soon by ~2020, their population will pass us Khmers and they will vote for their own.

Kick Buddhism out to India, and makes Cambodia a state of free religion like in Singapore, then every men must be educated, and at least a bachelor degree for them to enter monkhood or Imam or priest. A nation can survive based on a strong ECONOMY.

I respect you as a person, but your kind of people who like to live in the past, you are afraid of change, even you see that Buddhism system from India failed, and destroyed the powerful Khmer empire. You are one of the old Khmer people who have contributed to the destruction of Khmer country. Your contribution that led to 800 years sufferings of Khmers, you and your kind of people deserve to be punished in hell by God.

You can go ahead getting mad at me, but when you laying on your deathbed, remember one of 1980's generation, Kaun Khmer (me) told you that you clinged taking us to remain sufferings because of your false belief (Indian Buddhism), that destroyed Khmer empire and now small nation we have left.

You are no Khmer's role model, but one of Yuon's accomplices without knowing it.

dy thuong said...

There are no scientific proof that the downsizing of Khmer after Angkor is due to Buddhism appearance. If one wish to assume so, why not say that Thai is prosperous due to Buddhism- Thai is the strongest Buddhist believers.

dy thuong said...

dy thuong say again:

Before becoming Muslim, Cham -Jahm- of Champa Kingdom were Hindu like Khmer people. Even today, the displaced Cham are still not Buddhist. Is that the loss of Champa Kindom is due to Hinduism or Islamism. Be aware that Indonesia and Malaysia-the Islam society- are now so technologically advanced.

Buddha said: Religion is like a tree; if you well water and fertilize, the tree will benefit you with shade and fruit.
If you let it dry or cut it down, the tree will die, and so will religion. Buddha encouraged human to do good deed and hard work , for one thing, to earn merit. What else is better than that.

Sithan Hin said...

By my own view the demise of Khmer Angkor Empire had been caused by the the Religious War between Buddhists vs Hinduists ( Khmer called Bhramanists) after the death of Jayavarman VII in around 1220 -1225 A.D.

The facts are on the gallery columns of Bayon which had Meditation Buddha images chiselled transformed back into Ascetes (Or Ta Eisei in Khmer).

Thai revolted and declared Independence from Khmer yoke in 1236 A.D under the reign of Indravarman II, Jayavarman VII's son. He did not go to put them down. Why ? The country, especially Angkor capitaql was in Chaotic rebelt betwwen Buddhists & Hinduists princes.
This religious War lasted almost 80 years, plus the Dry Spell about 30 years, then Thai troops invaded and surrounded Angkor for over 8 months, contributed to the collapse of Khmer Empire.

Sithan Hin said...

in 1431 A.D. Chao Ponhea Yat chased Thai invadors, but abandoned Angkor capital.

The Sweet Cucumber Dynasty kings were so weak, never learnt how to be their own bosses, but only Puppets of foreigners, Siam, French, and Yuon.