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Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?

Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?



The kids were in bed but not yet asleep. The two boyesses who Perrichon employed

were with them. His congai was lying on a bed on the other side of the room.

It was, as Perrichon noted later, an especially dark night, and nobody saw the shadow

sneaking into the compound from behind where the experimental gardens stretched out

towards the forests.

The figure passed the little hut that served as the family bathroom and then stopped

at the backwall of the main structure. Moments later flames shot up, slowly at first,

growing every second, lighting up the night and shedding light on the shadowy figure

as it retreated into the dark. When the inhabitants of the house and the two guards

living nearby discovered the fire, it was too late. It was January, dry season, and

the wood was tinder-dry. They had just enough time to escape and watch from afar

as the blaze consumed their home and belongings.

In his report of January 16, 1908, Perrichon blamed the Christian Annamites living

in two nearby villages for the arson. On the night of the blaze, he writes, the Vietnamese

clan chiefs were holding a meeting in the missionary church. Although they were well

aware of the distress the Perrichons faced next door, no one came to help. The reports

filed later by the clan chiefs for the French administration unanimously stated that

there were no leads and no clues as to the culprits. It was even doubtful, they insinuated,

whether this was really a case of arson, or just a simple accident and Perrichon's

own fault. For Perrichon, such views were further indication that they must be involved

in the conspiracy.

Although he was the only one to suspect the blaze as attempted murder, Perrichon

was by no means a paranoid character. He had reason to believe that the community

of ethnic Vietnamese Christians, whose dwellings were scattered around his experimental

station, wanted him gone for good; him, his family, and the 100 Chinese settlers

that had arrived a year ago. They had been recruited in China by the newly founded
Société de Colonisation Indochinoise, an association that intended,

as noted at its General Assembly of the same year, "to exploit, thanks to the

immigration of Chinese agricultural labour, the vast plains of fertile but as yet

uncultivated soil in Indochina and particularly in Cambodia". Its members launched

a sophisticated venture, advertising the fertile lands of Svay Rieng to farmers in

the Chinese province of Fokien. Volunteers were then shipped on a British trawler

to Hong Kong and from there on a French boat to Saigon, each shipment consisting

of 20 hopefuls, complete with a guide and an interpreter. From Saigon they travelled

west to Svay Rieng and were then guided to an area in the southeast of the districts

of Romduol and Svay Teap, a no-man's land of bush and forests. This area of 1500

hectares had been designated by the French administration as their new home where

they were supposed to cut down the bush, cultivate the land, form new communities,

develop and prosper over the years, eventually adding to the colony's wealth and

the Protectorate's tax income. It was the biggest and most diversified enterprise

of its kind launched in Cambodia up to that date, a large scale human experiment

that would ensure a continuous influx of Chinese settlers into Cambodia for years

to come.

The obvious reason for such plans was the economic advantage of a more densely populated

eastern Cambodia. But lurking behind this reason was a complex of racial justifications

which were á la mode at the time. These ideas are exemplified by the Resident

of Svay Rieng, who, in a January 1907 letter to the Resident Superior in Phnom Penh

wrote that "it is by infusing new blood into this old Khmer race whose loyalty

and attachment to its protecting nation we know well, that we will obtain in it the

qualities that a succession of disasters and centuries of enslavement have made it

lose bit by bit". He saw the Chinese farmers as adding "cohesion and concordance"

to Khmer society and hoped that by crossbreeding them with Khmer women a new "strong

and intelligent race" would emerge.

The idea was born, the society founded, the support of the administration assured,

and in September 1906 the first 25 settlers arrived in the village of Popet, close

to the border of Cochinchina, followed in December by 75 fellow countrymen. They

lived at first in two houses that had been built quickly to accommodate them and

began to deforest the area in order to plant their first crop for the next rainy


But contrary to the promises of the little pamphlets in Chinese characters that they

had been handed in Fokien, they were not alone. The rumour that something was happening

in the area had spread and, as the Resident of Svay Rieng noted with surprise, within

a few weeks Vietnamese peasants had come "a little bit from everywhere",

slashed down the bush around the Chinese camp, and established makeshift ricefields,

that now engulfed the camp entirely. The Resident and the board of the Société

were furious, since through the planting and cultivating of rice these clever peasants

had claimed the land for themselves, as tradition and local laws prescribed.

It was the Resident's turn now to suspect a conspiracy behind the seemingly spontaneous

activities of the Vietnamese farmers. It could not be a coincidence that they were

all Christians and that alongside their huts a somewhat pathetic wooden structure

was erected next to the camp, that "he baptized to be a church". This maligned

"he" was the priest of Prasaut, a missionary of the Catholic Missions

Etrangéres, and, as the Resident noted with indignation, a German national.

This missionary had been trying to proselytize to the local population for a long

time, although seemingly with little success. His plans were to establish in Svay

Rieng's backwater districts what the Resident saw as "a little apostolic fief"

far away from any administrative control. The unruly priest obviously cared more

about God's eternal reign than the more earthly rule of the French in Cambodia, an

attitude that had led to rather strained relations between his Catholic communities

and the authorities. Now once again he had not bothered to ask for permission to

build the church and to place his followers around the camp, a request that, as the

Resident notes, would surely have been refused. It was clear to the French authorities

that the missionary's only aim was to sabotage the grand settlement project in Svay


Traditionally the missionaries regarded Annamites as more receptive to conversion

than the Chinese, who saw the wisdom of their elders as far superior to that of the

Gospel. It was probably for this reason that the priest of Prasaut was less than

enthusiastic over the French plans to create Little Chinas in Cambodia's hinterland

and began his own little counter-settlement project. So how to get rid of this holy


The Resident had hardly finished his report describing this annoying predicament

when tensions between the two groups errupted into open conflict. It is unclear from

the files what the incident in Popet consisted of exactly, but it seemed serious

enough. The Governor of Romduol and the militia were sent to the camp to restore

order after what must have been a severe outbreak of violence. They were told to

stay in the area until it was clear that law and order would not again be challenged.

The culprits responsible for the turmoil were to be found and judged. For the Resident

however, it was clear from the beginning who the mastermind behind the attack was.

He writes: "Although, or I would better say, because of the absence of the priest

of Prasaut, I believe that the recent incident on the concessions of the Chinese

is the work of this missionary, who has found it appropriate and prudent to be far

away from Svay Rieng at the moment when his incitements manifested themselves in

a concrete form."

Although the Resident openly despised the soul-saving German, there was little he

could do as long as the latter could not be indicted of any criminal activities.

Instead, the uneasy coexistence of the Franco-Chinese camp and the missionary's disciples

continued. The following months saw a steady increase in tension, culminating in

the blaze that destroyed Perrichon's house 11 months later. Given the lead-up to

the event, it seems likely that it was indeed arson, targeting the representative

of the Société and the settlement project as a whole, and further alienating

these two irreconcilable communities in Cam-bodia's outback.

The promised land that the Chinese immigrants hoped to find in Svay Rieng proved

to be mined with the competing aspirations of the Church and the secular authorities.

The immigrants had a bad start and many hopes must have been disappointed. They found

themselves the object of hate and controversy instead of being welcomed to their

new homeland. Two of the Chinese settlers died in the first year. "We have lost

two", a report noted, in spite of their good health and physical strength, praised

by representatives of the Société and the Resident of Svay Rieng as if

they were talking about horses. The other 98 men were still there after a year. It

remains unknown if eventually Cambodia became for them the promised land for which

they had left their native land.

(Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia, files

# 15439 to 15444. The National Archives is open Monday - Friday, 8.00-11.00 and 2.00-4.30.

It is located behind the National Library alongside the Hotel Royal. All are welcome

to consult its holdings. The reestablishment of the catalog of its holdings is in

progress, a project which is faciltated by the generous support of the Embassies

of Australia, France, and Switzerland.)


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