Though an old man now, Heang Phann’s memories of soldiering under the French are still sharp. In 1950 he shed his policeman’s uniform and took command of 30 men—machine gunners and several mortar crews—and was sent to the rubber plantations in eastern Cambodia.
“I thought, ‘Why carry a gun as a policeman when I could carry a gun as a soldier?’ With the French there were good rules, we had good uniforms,” Heang Phann said, French military terms peppering his Khmer.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from France’s colonies fought in the French army during World War II and in subsequent colonial conflicts in Madagascar, Vietnam, Tunisia and Algeria.
But in 1959 French president Charles de Gaulle introduced the “crystallization” law, under which the pensions of soldiers from former colonies were frozen at the values of the time, and also made
non-payable to widows.
In the wake of a Paris court ruling, however, surviving colonial fighters could find their pensions raised to equal those of their French counterparts.
A verdict delivered on Nov 30 by France’s highest court, the Council of State, awarded back pay to a Senegalese who served in the French army from 1937 to 1959 but whose payments were arbitrarily frozen 42 years ago.
The ruling in Paris was the climax of a 25-year struggle led by a group of Senegalese veterans who said their contribution to France’s war effort was worth as much as that of their French comrades.
Heang Phann’s tour under the French ended in 1953 as Cambodia gained its independence and he joined the new nation’s military. But before that he moved from the rubber plantations to Kratie, battling the Khmer Issarak resistance, and finally found himself in Laos, under attack by Viet Minh soldiers, communist forces who would later drive the French from Vietnam.
“They attacked our convoy with rockets and we jumped from the trucks, but we could not shoot back. They were hiding in the trees and firing at us from the ground,” Heang Phann said.
“I hope I get a pension,” he said, explaining that during his stint as a French soldier he was making today’s equivalent of about $600 a month. But since then, he said he has not received any money, though he is unsure what he might be entitled to.
“I hope maybe I get half. I am very old now but I have to make a living,” he said.
He said that about four years ago Cambodian officials visited him, asking for information about which battalion he served in under the French. But he said he has not had any contact with either French or Cambodia officials since then.
Cambodian defense officials welcomed the news of the court ruling, saying they hoped the judgment would set a precedent.
“I am very pleased with that news,” co-Defense Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath said. “I hope many Cambodians, including my uncle Um Vanarin [King Norodom Sihanouk’s brother-in-law] will get interest from the approval to increase their salary equaling to the French army.”
The prince noted there were few Cambodian veterans of the French army left in Cambodia as many had been wiped out during the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. He estimated there were up to 20 still living in the kingdom. “Many of them are old now, [and] I don’t know if they will be able to have the opportunity to use that money,” he said.
A French Embassy official in Phnom Penh confirmed the court’s ruling on Thursday, but said that the embassy has no record of veterans in Cambodia currently receiving a pension.
“This does not mean the French government is not paying pensions to Cambodian veterans who live elsewhere,” the official said, explaining that those already getting money should have their pensions automatically raised, “though it will take some time to implement.”
(Reporting by Phann Ana, Seth Meixner and Michelle Vachon)