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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A missing prince who would be king

A missing prince who would be king

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PREY CHHOR, Kampong Cham: for some time during the Khmer Rouge regime this

district was busy with people who risked their lives travelling from near and

far to see a prince who would be their next King.

Hang Vaing "Mae", 70, with a photo of herself and her husband

To all friends and foes

in his labor camps, he was known as Mith Suon or Comrade Suon.

But that

was not his real name. People said he was His Royal Highness Prince Norodom

Naradipo, one of King Sihanouk's sons who disappeared mysteriously about 23

years ago.

In interviews on September 19 and 20 and October 2 in Prey

Chhor, about 90km northeast of Phnom Penh, people in different villages where

the prince was moved to in 1975 still had vivid memories about the dark days of

his life.

They said open discrimination by the Khmer Rouge's Angkar

contrasted with locals who risked death to offer him their support and

sympathy.

Chhong Nguon, a commune official in Kang Meas district, said

Prince Naradipo was first shipped from Phnom Penh with about 20 other royal

family members to Angkor Ban village in Kang Meas.

News of his arrival

soon became widespread. People from different places flocked to see the prince

and his relatives from the Royal Palace.

Meas Muong, an 87-year-old woman

in Prey Chhor, said she made a 20-kilometer journey by foot from her village of

Kveth Thom village to meet Prince Naradipo. She said the prince, then about 30

years old, was being kept in the house of a villager named Ta Mok.

Describing the situation as not being "too strict" yet, Muong said some

people walked a long way carrying bananas, sugar and fruits to offer to the

prince.

A few days later, Muong made another trip to Angkor Ban village.

However, she said, she was told the prince had already been taken to Tuk

Chhar water reservoir in Prey Chhor district shortly after staying at Ta Mok's

house.

Muong said it was because the Khmer Rouge didn't want too many

people visiting the prince.

At Tuk Chhar, Prince Naradipo met an old man

and woman who treated him like one of their own children. It was the family of

Hang Vaing whom the prince called "Mae", an ordinary Khmer word for

Mum.

Sitting in a house partly walled by straw and coconut leaves, Vaing,

at the age of 70, began to talk about her godson with tears in her

eyes.

She said when he first came and met Vaing in Phum Thmei of Prey

Chhor's Kroch commune the prince had "shaved his head like a monk".

As

his hair grew long, nobody dared to cut it for him, because they were afraid of

the Khmer Rouge's Angkar.

However, Vaing took the risk. She said she

invited the prince to sit inside her house so that nobody could see him. She

removed two sets of straw from the roof to let in some light to allow her to see

clearly.

"I saluted him three times so that I would not be defeated by

his star [as a prince]," Vaing recalled, raising her clasped hands in the

air.

According to Cambodian belief, the prince's head is considered the

most sacred part of the body that ordinary people cannot touch.

Like

other people, villagers said the prince would get up at 4am or 5am upon hearing

the team leader's whistle calling people to the fields. According to the

villagers, they usually worked almost 12 hours a day from 6am to 6pm with a

brief rest at noon for lunch, which was usually just a drink.

Vaing's

daughter still remembered the prince transplanting rice clumsily with his

shaking hands next to her. She said she would help him poke the rice sapling

into the ground to finish the one hectare's work ordered by the Angkar for 12

people per day.

Though he was never seriously ill, Vaing said the prince

would often get dizzy from doing hard work in the wind and sun.

In

addition to medicines, if there were any, he would ask Vaing or someone to help

do the traditional coining on his body to cure the illness.

As time

passed Vaing noticed the prince getting more worried about his plight with the

increased discrimination and death threats from the Khmer Rouge.

"If they

kill me, please, Mum, pick a flower and put it on my grave for me," Vaing

recalled the prince telling her in despair.

She added: "Any time I think

of [his words], I am tearful."

Vaing's husband, who died last year at the

age of 90, was moved by his words and tried to console the prince, pledging that

he would die for him.

"If they take Your Royal Highness to kill, I'll use

my chest to protect you," Vaing said her husband told the prince.

"No,

No, Dad, you are too old," Vaing said the prince replied.

"[No,] I don't

want to live," she said her husband answered.

The prince was so moved by

his godfather's words, Vaing said, Prince Naradipo decided to use the alias

"Suon" after her husband "so that he wouldn't forget his name."

Though he

was selective when he talked to other people, Vaing said the prince fully

trusted her family and would reveal all his sorrow and happiness to her and her

husband.

Vaing remembered that one day Prince Naradipo recalled King

Sihanouk's words as he talked to him upon his return from school as a little

prince.

"My father sent me to school and asked me when I came back 'What

have you learned, Son?'; I answered that I learned 'Kaun oth mae, Oth mien ke

thae dauch mae robas khluon (The story of the motherless son without anyone to

take care of him like his mother),'" Vaing said the prince told her.

"I

cried, [because] it was too sad," she said.

The prince could not go to

the King or the Royal Palace any more under the Democratic Kampuchea regime.

Vaing said the prince would frequently drop in at her house for lunch

when he returned from the fields.

But Vaing and her husband were not the

only persons who took pity on the prince.

Despite the pressure from the

Khmer Rouge, Vaing said some people managed to secretly supply the prince with

food and other things.

However, the prince also sought ways to help

himself. When shortage struck, Vaing said, he secretly sold his watch in

exchange for rice even though she told him not to do so.

One day, Vaing

said, the prince was sent to Prey Toteung district about 20km away and kept

there for three nights. This made her worried and suspicious of the secret

tricks of the Angkar. She said the prince returned home in black trousers and

shirt covered with earth and told her that he was taken to work in nearby

villages.

Prince Naradipo continued his life doing hard work and eating

rice porridge like other people without knowing what would happen one day to the

next.

To Vaing's surprise, some time later the prince was moved to

Banteay Rem village in Prey Toteung's Chrey Vien commune after three months'

stay at Tuk Chhar.

Before he left, the prince gave his godfather, Suon,

a white, short-sleeved shirt as a token of his love.

Raising the shirt

with the torn collar to show their visitors, Vaing and her daughter described

Prince Naradipo as having "similar size to Prince Ranariddh".

Since Suon

died, Vaing's daughter said she would wear the prince's shirt to the pagoda "so

that he can get some merit" from the monks.

Not long after he left, Vaing

missed her godson. She said she carried a rope in her hand pretending to be

looking for a missing cow and walked to Prey Toteung to see Prince

Naradipo.

However, Vaing's action could not get away from the sight of

the "pineapple-eyed" Angkar.

Vaing said the Angkar considered her family

an "enemy" of the regime for their relationship with the prince. She said her

family was told to prepare clothes to "go to a new village," the regime's

euphemism for execution.

"They said I was collaborating with the King's

son," Vaing said.

However, the family survived with a stroke of luck.

Vaing's son, Suon Sareoun, said the Angkar had sent seven trucks to move

"new" people to the newly created village.

He said the name of his

family was at the end of the list and the truck which was supposed to take

Vaing's family to the "new village" broke down.

The date to move Vaing's

family to the new village was therefore delayed till the Vietnamese invaded

Cambodia in 1979.

At Prey Toteung, Prince Naradipo began to live under

close watch from the Khmer Rouge and was frequently moved around to different

villages.

According to Samreth En, deputy chief of Banteay Rem village,

the prince was later taken to Kraloang village of Prey Chhor's Chrey Vien

commune.

He said Prince Naradipo lived in a straw shelter next to his

house under his "direct" supervision.

Then he was put to work in various

labor sites throughout Prey Chhor, including building rice embankments,

collecting beans, growing vegetables and sawing firewood at the cooperative's

dining hall.

Villagers who used to work with Prince Naradipo had plenty

of stories of his goodness.

"When he went to build the rice embankment,

he carried a lot of baskets on his shoulders for other people," said Muong, who

lives in Kveth Thom village.

She added: "He worked without rest; when

people came back from picking beans, he rushed to get the mat to dry them

without telling anyone to do it."

At her second sighting, Muong said the

prince had become a little bit thinner and brown from working in the sun and

wind.

Though their policy was discriminative against the monarchy, people

said some Khmer Rouge cadres maintained their soft stance towards the prince.

"Some [Khmer Rouge cadre] told him not to work hard, but he still kept

working hard," said Muong in a trembling voice.

According to Samreth En

from Banteay Rem, a local Khmer Rouge cadre even told him to disguise the prince

to prevent the news of his presence from spreading.

"The commune [chief]

told me to change his clothes and moved him around to work," he said. "He was

afraid that the top [leaders] knew that."

For additional safety, En said,

the prince also tried to keep a low profile with his behavior and speech. He

said the prince would go straight into his shelter when he came back from work.

Muong added that the prince would not use royal terms; instead he spoke

in ordinary Khmer when he talked to other people.

Muong said Prince

Naradipo was a strictly religious person and risked his life to worship Buddha

in secret.

"He lit incense sticks and saluted the Buddha like old

people," she said.

Like Vaing, Muong was another person the prince

trusted and would tell her about his mood and memories.

Muong remembered

a day when the prince spoke of his sadness as having an unlucky life since his

birth.

"[When] the Buddha was born, his mother died seven days later,"

she said of the prince's sorrow. "But, I was born only three days, my mother

died."

At Muong's request, the prince got a bamboo stick and gave it to

her to use as a walking cane. More than two decades have passed. Muong still

keeps the bamboo stick with her as a memento of the prince she treated like a

son.

However, Prince Naradipo also left behind something intangible for

all the villagers he lived with.

"He warned both young and old people

that 'whatever they [the Khmer Rouge's Angkar] do, we must not oppose them;

because it involves death,'" En recalled the prince's advice to the

villagers.

This goodness of the prince earned him secret love and

sympathy from people in the villages where he lived.

"Old people tried to

steal things from the cooperative to support him," En said of the prince, who

also ate at the cooperative dining hall with other people.

At the dining

hall, Muong said Prince Naradipo would sit at a table one day and move to

another the next day. She said the prince would share whatever he had with other

people.

As she did before, Muong said some people traveled from remote

villages and brought things to give to the prince.

A characteristic of

Prince Naradipo, according to Muong, was his striking resemblance to King

Sihanouk's behavior and speech.

"When I met him, he said "Chumreap Suor

(How do you do?) like his father," she said. "He rarely talked to anyone except

those he knew [well]."

Long after her separation from the prince, his

godmother walked from Tuk Chhar to visit him again.

But Vaing found an empty

house.

"I had three packages of cigarettes to give to him, but they told

me that he had already been taken away," she said. "Then my knees became weak

and I collapsed; I could not walk further."

She said a Khmer Rouge cadre

told her that the prince was taken away on "the sixth day of the waning moon in

the month of Meak (the third month of the lunar calendar corresponding to

January-February)." But, she did not remember in what year exactly.

Since

then, both Vaing and Muong have never seen the prince again.

At continual

rumors about the prince's appearance, Vaing would follow the information only to

find that it was false. Now she must pin her hope on the assertion by "five

fortune-tellers" who have claimed that the prince is "still alive but he can't

come now".

Villagers didn't agree on how he disappeared during his final

days in Kampong Cham.

Sareoun, Vaing's son at Tuk Chhar, said Prince

Naradipo was finally moved to a house near Prey Toteung market under heavy

guard. He said the prince was kept under the control of Mith Sreng, who was the

deputy to Ke Pauk, the Northern Zone's chief.

According to Sareoun, who

was living with Mith Sreng as a teenager, the prince disappeared along with

about a "battalion" of local Khmer Rouge soldiers escaping from Southwestern

Khmer Rouge.

About one month later, Sareoun said Mith Sreng and about 30

other local Khmer Rouge cadres were executed for being "agents of the

CIA".

But people in Kraloang village remembered it differently.

A

middle-aged man who worked near the prince said some time between late 1976 and

early 1977 his brother, named Pich, was ordered to take Mith Suon on a bicycle

to see Mith Sreng.

The villager said his brother was later killed by the

incoming Southwestern Khmer Rouge soldiers along with other local Khmer Rouge

cadres and families.

However, according to Samreth En, Mith Sreng managed

to put the prince-turned Mith Suon on a jeep and drove away to "escape" before

the other side of the Khmer Rouge arrived.

Whichever version may be true,

Prince Naradipo disappeared, leaving behind only memories for those who once

hoped to see him crowned their next King.

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