In the shadows of the fall and rise of eight regimes and governments in Cambodia, Lim Meng tried to live an ordinary life.
He was born into a Cambodia ruled over by a French protectorate but grew up as a young man in then-King Norodom Sihanouk’s newly independent Cambodia.
His 40s were spent surviving both the Lon Nol military government and the Khmer Rouge regime and in middle age he kept a low profile through the Hanoi-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and its short-lived surrogate, the State of Cambodia.
Lim Meng died last year at aged 73, having enjoyed in his final years the UN Transitional Authority’s organizing of the first of what has been three national elections and three governments of the Kingdom of Cambodia that they returned.
Through the turbulent decades of strife and regime change, Lim Meng held on to a pair of precious objects: two framed pictures, one of a young, plump Norodom Sihanouk and one of his mother, Queen Sisowath Kossamak.
Lim Meng risked a great deal to keep the royal portraits safe, moving them from location to location during the Khmer Rouge regime and keeping them well hidden during the communist 1980s.
“I protected the King’s portrait because I revered him and his mother,” Lim Meng said in an interview before his death last year.
“In the Pol Pot time I stayed in Banteay Meas [district in Kampot province] where I hid the King’s portraits under a rice pot. Then I had to move them to under a sugar pot, to hide them from the Pol Potist militia,” he said. He protected the pictures, he said, because one day he knew the King would return to help his people.
“I always hoped that the King would again help our nation out of the bloody Pol Pot regime,” Lim Meng said. And, he added: “I kept the portraits to show to my grandchildren.”
After the ouster of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Lim Meng said he still kept his portraits secret, fearing the latest regime would accuse him of supporting the odd coalition of Khmer Rouge, royalists and republicans that had regrouped on the Thai border to fight the Vietnamese-installed government.
In Phnom Penh, he said with a chuckle, “[t]he regime had just changed drivers, but the bus was still the same—the communist party.”
“Who could keep the King Sihanouk portrait if their local authorities found out?” Lim Meng said.
“Some would blame us for being Sihanoukists led by the King, some would blame us for being Khmer People’s National Liberation Front led by [former Cambodian Prime Minister] Son Sann and some would even blame us for being Khmer Serei [Free Khmer]. It was very hard to protect the King’s portrait,” he added.
In his latter years, Lim Meng’s other major gripe with the changes in Phnom Penh were not only political.
Unlike the time of Norodom Sihanouk when the city was very safe, heavy gates and tall fences now surrounded homes, shops and businesses in the capital, Lim Meng grumbled. A year after Lim Meng’s passing, his son, Lim Heng, 35, still proudly displays his father’s long-protected portraits at their small house in Meanchey district.
“I had seen these portraits since I was young but my father never told me that those pictures were the King’s portrait and the Queen Mother’s,” Lim Heng said. “He always kept them covered in a plastic bag in his belongings,” he said.
“I found out that they were portraits of the King and his mother when UNTAC came [in 1993],” Lim Heng added. “That was when my father took them out of the bags and hung them on the wall.”