MEMORIES OF INDEPENDENCE

Lu Laysreng was 16 years old on No­vem­ber 9, 1953, the day Cambodia first celebrated gaining its independence from France.

Then a student in Kompong Speu province, the long-time Funcinpec official and current rural de­velopment minister recalled how he and his youth brigade paraded in celebration in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

“Independence was a very happy day…. I marched with a wooden gun in front of the Palace,” he said. “It showed that I was willing to protect the country.”

One of his most vivid memories of that day was of a smiling then-King Norodom Sihanouk, waving to the crowd and wearing a Western-style suit.

The retired King is knotted inextricably to many recollections of that day and the period that followed—during much of which he served as head of state.

Indeed, the day was a culmination of Norodom Sihanouk’s “roy­al crusade for independence,” in which he visited Tokyo, Paris and Washington to gain support for independence from France. He exiled himself to Thailand and said he would not return until France had ceded to his request. France capitulated and King Si­hanouk returned triumphantly to Cambodia in November 1953.

While full recognition of independence did not come until the Geneva treaty of 1954, spirits were high in Phnom Penh in 1953.

“November 9 was a big event for Khmer citizens,” said Nguon Nhel, first vice president of the National Assembly. A 12-year-old living in Kompong Thom province at the time, Nguon Nhel remembered how his mother wanted to go to Phnom Penh for the celebration and he convinced her to take him along.

“I was so excited at that time when I saw Khmer forces marching in the street,” he said.

Um Sarin, a Buddhist nun living in Sampov Meas pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district, was 15 years old on Nov 9, 1953. Having come to the city to live with relatives and study, she was stirred by the spectacle of that day.

“We had a parade on that day in Phnom Penh and the troops were marching in the streets,” she recalled. “It was a very happy day.”

Phnom Penh wasn’t the only place reveling that day.

“Each province also celebrated with a small ceremony for people who could not afford to come to Phnom Penh,” Nguon Nhel said.

Chea Vannath, an independent analyst and former director of the Center for Social Development, recalled an admiration in Cambodia in those days for Mahatma Gandhi’s tactics of non-violence. Many were grateful that King Sihanouk negotiated the nation’s independence, rather than embroil them in a war with their former colonizers, she said.

“We were very proud to get independence in a non-violent way,” Chea Vannath said. “It’s different from Vietnam,” she added, pointing to Dien Bien Phu, the battle that ended French rule in Vietnam.

“Cambodians were optimistic because Norodom Sihanouk called for all parties to be united as one,” said Ros Chantrabot, vice president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia.

Others were simply glad to be rid of the French.

“They even put monks in jail,” said Ros Chantrabot of a regime that harshly punished its critics and tried to Latinize the Khmer alphabet, as they had done with Vietnamese. This was viewed by some as an attempt to erase aspects of Khmer culture.

Mohanikaya sect Supreme Patriarch Non Nget is one of many monks who remember French colonization. While growing up in Takeo province, French taxes were a hefty financial burden on his family, he said.

“If we did not pay the tax, they would fine us,” he said. “Sometimes my family had no money to pay, so we went into hiding in the forest.”

As a young boy during the colonial period, Sieng Sen, a retired philosophy professor born in 1943, said his family was displaced a number of times by fighting between the French and the Khmer Issarak, a Cambodian guerilla force.

“I was born during the war,” he said. “We were always hiding in the forest, always on the run.”

He said that at times his family could not settle anywhere because war would soon drive them away. But independence, he said, was the end of his family’s troubles.

Notwithstanding, Ros Chantrabot said the French could not be blamed for all of Cambodia’s historical woes.

“If there had been no French rule, neighboring countries like Vietnam and Thailand would have invaded our country,” he said, adding that research by French scholars helped locate forgotten temples.

Many remembered the years following independence as a time that was free of many of the social ills that currently plague society.

“At that time there were very few street children, very few beggars,” said Chea Vannath.

“During that time we didn’t have to lock the door at night,” said Meng Muy Chang, a Buddhist nun in Phnom Penh. “We could just sleep with it open.”

Chea Vannath said that teachers made what would today be at least $800 per month-about 20 times more than most currently bring home.

Sieng Sen remembers a middle class of professionals who did not have to scrape together pennies just to buy household goods. “My family prospered during the King’s period,” he said.

“It was very peaceful period in the King’s regime,” Non Nget said, recalling how King Sihanouk-eventually Prince Sihanouk after abdicating in 1955-was very much a man of the people.

“The King went down to the field to help people grow rice,” he said. “He visited the people very often and acted like an ordinary person.”

Many others shared this memory of Norodom Sihanouk.

“Whenever I saw a helicopter, I knew it was the King,” said Sieng Sen. “He would throw clothes from the helicopter for the villagers,” he said, describing the scene of village children scrambling to catch the clothing falling from the sky.

Buddhist nun Um Sarin’s memory of the King is of a young man who liked sports a great deal and was fond of going out to visit the provinces.

“He mixed in with people very easily,” she said.

Lu Laysreng remembered how Norodom Sihanouk would dress simply and wear shorts so he could actively work alongside villagers.

“People had a chance to meet face to face with the King,” he said.

“It’s like what the Thai people feel about their king,” said Chea Vannath, referring to the reverence the retired King still enjoys with many Cambodians.

But despite being easygoing, the King commanded respect. “He was a powerful and respected man,” said Lu Laysreng, who is also first deputy president of Funcinpec, the political party founded by Norodom Sihanouk.

“Even though he is retired, he still plays and important role,” he added.

Ros Chantrabot credits the King with putting Cambodia on the world’s map back in the 1950s.

“Other countries know Cambodia because of him,” he said.

 

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