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Acharya Hem Chieu and the First Independence Movement in Cambodia

Buddhist monks in Phnom Penh using the umbrella to shield the sunshine.

To celebrate the Independence Day, we should not forget the fact that, according to the late Prof Ian Harris, the independent movement started in Buddhist temples led by Buddhist monks like Acharya HEM CHIEU (through his Dhamma talks) and former monks and others (through their publication of Nokor Wat magazine). 

When thinking of a hero of the independence struggle against the French, we quickly remember Prince Norodom Sihanouk who launched in early 1953 what it’s popularly called a “Royal Crusade” — a peaceful diplomatic mission for independence. 

However, the first notable movement for national independence was inspired by Preah Acharya HEM CHIEV, a disciple of Samdach Sangharaja CHUON NATH, and a teacher of Senior Buddhist Pali School before he was defrocked and sent to Koh Tralach prison (where he died) in Kampuchea Krom by the French following the labelled “Umbrella War” of 1942, the peak of the movement. 

The 1942 umbrella war was a name given by Prince Norodom Sihanouk referring to the demonstration against the arrest of defrocked Acharya HEM CHIEU by the French. It was the peak of the movement which inspired and motivated the later movements for independence prior to the so-called Royal Crusade, a peaceful, diplomatic missions for independence launched by Prince Norodom Sihanouk who took the whole credit and became Samdech Preah Beyda Ekareach Cheat or the Father of the National Independence.

However, it was the 20 July 1942 that was a root cause of the 09 November 1953. Acharya HEM CHIEU’s contribution to the nation and nationalist movements for independence was acknowledged by the Khmer Republic which entitled him as Boros Rath, a National Hero. Neither the Sangkram Reastr Niyum nor the later governments ever officially acknowledged his priceless sacrifice for the nation.

My suggestion is that Buddhist temples, if not the state, should mark the day in which the Umbrella War happened as a national day as a tribute to Acharya HEM CHIEU’s and his colleagues’ heroism and nationalism. This would remind the younger generations about Cambodian Buddhism in contributions to the country.

As we are celebrating Independence Day, let also remember Acharya HEM CHIEU’s and his colleagues’ heroic contribution to this national cause.

Happy Independence Day — 09 November.

Long Live Kingdom of Cambodia!

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