Cambodian “Umbrella War” of 1942

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
19-20 July, 1942, about 24 hours
July 19
1942
to
July 20
1942
Location and Goals
Country: 
Cambodia
Location City/State/Province: 
Phnom Penh
Location Description: 
a march to the Resident-Superior's office
Goals: 
1. To secure the release of Achar Hem Chieu and Nuon Duong from incarceration

2. (unstated) To ensure the continuance of the Khmer nationalist movement

 

The French Protectorate of Cambodia began in 1863, but it wasn't until 1906, with the coronation of King Sisowath that the French took significant control of governance and cultural life. Even so, this loss of self-determination was mostly felt by the elites in the capital. However, anti-French sentiment gradually grew into a revolutionary movement.

“During the period of French colonialism, the French controlled and oppressed our land and our people. Khmer people underwent such great sorrows and sufferings that everyone's eyeballs almost jumped out of their sockets; it was very painful, we all had it up to our necks living under their iron yoke; we couldn't move or shake off the yoke exept to shed tears, not knowing what to think. The Khmer people had no rights or liberty at all; they took away our rights and we could not protest. Heavier and heavier taxes were imposed so that it was almost unbearable.”

Public protests occurred in 1916, 1925 and then in 1942 by both religious and secular actors, inspired by earlier acts of dissent by religious leaders known as neak mean bon (meritorious people). The French responded by founding the Buddhist Institute as a way of sidelining the Buddhist sangha from political involvement. This backfired and the Institute functioned as a spiritual, intellectual and organising base for Khmer resistance.

Several newspapers were founded in this era, included Nokor Wat, by Son Ngoc Thanh, and Nagara Vatta, that focused on non-elite Khmer who continued the tradition of pagoda-based education led by the monks, using the Khmer script, not the romanized script favoured by the elite.

During World War Two, the French colony experienced extreme hardships. Few French remained in the country and higher taxes were imposed on the populous. Then, in 1941, the Japanese entered Kampuchea after signing an agreement with the French Governor-General in Hanoi. The Khmer saw the Japanese as allies in their nationalist agenda.

“When the newspaper Nokor Wat had been out for a while the Khmer people, who used to be fast asleep and deadly scared of the French, started to open their eyes, to wake up, to like their nation, to help and to defend one another in time of danger, to dare to protest to the French over injustice or oppression ...”

Son Ngoc Thanh, Achar Hem Chieu and others travelled widely to raise awareness of the value of Khmer nationalism. Others, including Bunchan Mul and Nuon Duong were recruited as organisers and to spy on French military strength, including Frech-controlled Khmer forces.

Given the weakeness of the French forces and the strength of the Japanese, Son Ngoc Thanh contacted the Japanese to request their assistance in the case the French retaliated against Khmer nationalist activities.

However, there were still many Khmer amongst the nationalists who were strongly allied to the French and reported on the activities of Son Ngoc Thanh and Hem Chieu. On July 17, Hem Chieu and Nuon Duong were arrested – Hem Chieu was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Son Ngoc Thanh hid in the Japanese headquarters to avoid arrest and continued to coordinate nationalist activities. With the support of the Japanese, Thanh called for a public demonstration calling for the release of Hem Chieu and Nuon Duong. The Japanese indicated their willingness to intervene providing there was no violence during the demonstration. A clear protocol for the action was distributed on July 19 stating,

“Tommorrow morning all demonstrators, monks and lay people, must eat before 6 a.m., then walk to meet together … behind the western entrance to the palace. … they must parade peacefully, i.e. empty-handed and with no weapons, in an orderly, quiet fashion, without talking, with a banner up the front syaing: 'We are calling for the release of Achar Hem Chieu and Nuon Duong'. The parade should then stop in front of the office of the Resident-Superior. If the police chase or hit them, they must resist passively, not fight back or do anything; they must stay calm. ... The Japanese can intervene or contact the French government only if the demonstrators follow these steps as ordered.”

As well as the loss of a key figure, many people were outraged at the manner of Hem Chieu's arrest. Traditionally a monk must be ceremonially “defrocked” before arrested. Hem Chieu was not given this respect, thus generating further discontent. More and more people joined the nationalist movement as the “... country then edged towards independence on ‘a breaking wave of Buddhist activism and martyrdom ...”

On the 20th of July, between one and three thousand people, monks and laity, streamed to the demonstration, led by Pach Chhoeun. Monks from virtually all pagodas in Phnom Penh joined in, including Wats Unnalom and Langka. Around five hundred monks participated, hence the name “Umbrella War”, because of the umbrellas the monks carried. A Japanese plane flew over the demonstrators “in an apparent show of support”.

“On the 20 July 1942 at 6 a.m., after meeting at the agreed place, the demonstrators, monks and lay people, so many of them that they were all over Phnom Penh, paraded from that place to the office of the Resident-Superior. … with Pach Chhoeun as leader, courageously striding in front. The demonstrators paraded bravely with no illusions. French, Khmer and Vietnamese spies walked alongside....”

As the march terminated at the office of the Resident-Superior, Pach Chhoeun met with the French officials to demand the release of Hem Chieu and Nuon Duong. Many in the crowd were afraid to send Pach Chhoeun alone to meet with the Resident-Superior and demanded that many be allowed to enter with him. However, the press of the crowd forced Pach Chhoeun inside the compound and the French quickly shut the gate and arrested Chhoeun on the spot, and later sentence to death.

A riot ensued and the Japanese request for a peaceful demonstration was forgotten. Evidently some came prepared for violence and French soldiers were beaten with sticks, umbrellas, stones and kuan tang (a metal rivet attached to an elastic lead). Many people were injured, both police and demonstrators. Just as the chaos descended, two truck-loads of Japanese soldiers arrived. They did not intervene. “The plan was carried out wrongly, different from how they had been told, so they stayed still.”

“ … The revolution was unsuccessful, and the demonstration was also unsuccessful, because it was our first try and also because we Khmer nationalists were at that period very young in national politics. Because we had only opened our eyes a few years before... However, even though it was unsuccessful, it was at least a model, an outline for the descendants and youth of later generations to follow with appropriate corrections …. It is only those who never do anything but lie back and scratch their belly, mere onlookers, who are always correct and never wrong.”

The police then began to systematically arrest demonstrators and many fled the scene, escaping to other provinces, even to Thailand. In further retaliation, the French closed the Pali (religious language) school in Phnom Penh and the Nagara Vatta newspaper was suppressed. Son Ngoc Thanh fled to Thailand, then Tokyo, returning to Phnom Penh in 1945 once the French had been defeated by the Japanese. Hem Chieu died in prison in 1943. Several prominent nationalist leaders were released by the Japanese, including Nuon Duong, Bunchan Mul, and Pach Chhoeun.

The demonstration clearly failed in it's primary goal to release Achar Hem Chieu and Nuon Duong. Furthermore, the lack of nonviolent discipline directly led to the breakout of protestor violence and corresponding repression by the French on the demonstrators and key nationalist institutions. The violent outbreak, in turn, led to the loss of the Japanese as active allies who may have been able to secure the release of both men. On a positive note, the demonstration was considered by many as a major step forward in the nationalist movement, being the first coordinated action against French control (although there are many other anti-French actions before this one).

Research Notes
Influences: 

Dissent actions by “neak mean bon” (meritorious people) in the early decades of French colonisation. (1)

The underground independence movement directly led to the arrest of Achar Hem Chieu and Nuon Doung. (1)

The Umbrella War was a key step in national liberation from French colonial rule, and the 20th of July was celebrated as a national holiday for a few years following a public appearance of King Sihanouk with Pach Chhoeun and Son Ngoc Thanh on July 20, 1945. (2)

Sources: 
Bunchan Mul, "The Umbrella War of 1942", in Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Boua, eds., Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942-1981, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1982, pp.114-26, a partial translation of Mul's Kuk Noyobay (Political Prison), Phnom Penh, 1971.

Chandler, D. (1983). A History of Cambodia.

Harris, I. (1999) Buddhism and politics in twentieth-century Asia.

Human Rights Watch ( 2009). On the Margins. Rights Abuses of Ethnic Khmer in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Human Rights Watch. New York. Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/vietnam0109web.pdf

Kent, A., & Chandler, D. P. (2008). People of virtue: reconfiguring religion, power and moral order in Cambodia today. NIAS Press.

Ter Hosrt, J. A Hegemony Of silence. Processes Of identity Formations In The Cambodian Silk Weaving Industry. Retrieved from http://rcsd.soc.cmu.ac.th/InterConf/paper.php?page=9

Venerable Santi, The Buddha of the Battlefields. Retrieved from: http://www.ghosananda.org/images/GHOSANANDA.pdf

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Christopher Baker Evens 31/03/2012