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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The legacy of Achar Hem Chieu

The legacy of Achar Hem Chieu

THE name "Achar Hem Chieu" has been cited

frequently by those who have been talking with Buddhist

monks after the recent demonstrations.

He's been referred to as a role model for those monks who

took to the streets last month.

One participant in Maha Ghosananda's first Dhammayietra

in 1992 said that several monks carried pictures of Achar

Hem Chieu during their walk from Poipet to Phnom Penh.

So who was this monk and what did he do?

According to Ben Kiernan's How Pol Pot Came to Power,

Achar Hem Chieu was an activist in the early 1940s.

As a teacher at the Higher School of Pali in Phnom Penh,

he and another monk, Achar Nuon Duong, were two of the

key recruits brought in by Son Ngoc Thanh and Pach

Chhoeun in their efforts to develop a political

organization with the goal of claiming independence for

Cambodia.

Thanh, considered a founder of modern Khmer nationalism,

had been the Deputy Director of the Buddhist Institute,

and it was he and Chhoeun who had created the first

Khmer-language newspaper, Nagaravatta, in 1936.

In 1942 the French introduced the Gregorian calandar in

Cambodia and had plans to romanize the Khmer script (as

had been done in Vietnam).

This outraged the Buddhist clergy, which had been the

traditional institution of Cambodian education and

cultural preservation.

As a result, Thanh, according to Kiernan, then decided to

attempt a pro-Japanese coup.

French intelligence agents had been monitoring closely

the activities of the group and moved to intervene.

On July 18, l942, "the French arrested Achar Hem

Chieu and Nuon Duong for preaching anti-French sermons to

Khmer troops in the colonial army in preparation for the

revolt.

"Chieu was summarily defrocked without, as required

by religious law, first having been judged by his fellow

monks."

Thanh organized a protest and on July 20 a group of over

1,000 including 500 monks marched on the French Resident

Superior's office near Wat Phnom where they planned to

present a list of demands, including the release of Achar

Hem Chieu.

The march leader, Chhoeun, was grabbed and hustled away

by the French just as he had asked to see the senior

French colonial official. After that the demonstration

turned ugly, and the ensuing riot saw both police and

monks use violence against each other.

Achar Hem Chieu was never released. On December 19, l942

he faced a French military tribunal in Saigon. The

court's verdict: death, a sentence later commuted to life

with hard labor by the Vichy government.

The de-frocked monk was sent to the island of Poulo

Condore off the coast of southern Vietnam where the

French authorities maintained a prison for political

prisoners.

Kiernan's research indicates that Achar Hem Chieu

remained politically active even in jail, that he struck

up close associations with imprisoned Vietnamese

activists, but that his "heroism in the prison led

to sanctions which brought on his early death, from

illness, in October 1943. He was forty-six."

The name of Achar Hem Chieu was taken up and used by

those who took to the jungles to fight for Cambodian

independence in subsequent years.

In 1950, the United Issarak Front (UIF), a guerrilla

movement with close links to the Indochinese Communist

Party, set up the `Achar Hem Chieu Political School' in

southwestern Cambodia where hundreds of cadres were

trained.

Kiernan also notes: "In May 1952, French

intelligence reported that scattered UIF bands in Prey

Veng were combining into a Mobile Unit.

"By August, Keo Moni (another former Khmer monk) and

a Vietnamese commander had merged their forces with So

Phim's Achar Hem Chieu Unit, with the aim of launching

concerted large-scale attacks on French posts in the

southeast."

Whether or not Achar Hem Chieu would have appreciated his

name being used by a revolutionary who rose in the ranks

of Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea to become chief of the

Eastern Zone is a question even So Phim can't answer.

Accused of treason in 1978, wounded and surrounded by

troops loyal to Pol Pot near the village of Prek Pa, he

shot himself on June 3 that year.

Whether or not the current government is pleased with

monks recalling the memory of Achar Hem Chieu is another

matter altogether.

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