This is the second story in the "Three Memories of the Coup" series. This story is from a recent interview with my mother, Sakhan You, and what she remembers from that day.
part ii: "Neuv SNGat SnGeam--Stay QuiEt and Still"
March 18th, 1970 was a day that changed the course of Cambodia’s history, like the first domino that set forth a chain of unstoppable events. I was 30 years old at the time and working at Kantha Bopha Hospital as a pediatric nurse. Your father was in Takeo Province teaching at Lycee Ang Prey. He would teach there during the week and come to Phnom Penh on the weekends.
We were living near the Chinese Embassy on Mao Tse Tong Boulevard, near the Cham Mosque. The country was at a boiling point. Since the beginning of the year there were widespread protests in Phnom Penh for the Viet Cong to get out of Cambodia. It escalated in mid March when in one incident the protestors torched the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Embassy. I was increasingly afraid to be in Phnom Penh alone with five children and seven months pregnant with my sixth child. The only person I had with me was my aunt, Yey Om, and a helper.
On March 16th thousands of protestors were demonstrating in front of the National Assembly, with the largest demonstration occurring on March 18th, the day of the coup. I was going to work like any other day and had little awareness of what was to come later that day. Yet the signs of turmoil in the country were building up to this moment. I came home later in the afternoon and the children had come back from school. Yey Om was starting to make dinner. Then we heard the news in the late afternoon/early evening.
I can’t recall everything that the announcer said on the radio, but I know we were told to “neuv sngat sngeam” or to "stay quiet and still" in our house. We were informed that there were changes to the government. They told us that the National Assembly had met and it was a unanimous vote for the removal of Prince Sihanouk as Head of State.
Over the next few days the streets were quiet. There were tanks around Phnom Penh. Checkpoints were created to prevent people from entering and leaving the capital. The government installed a curfew around the early evening, sometime around 4PM or 5PM. No one was allowed out at night. I assume the government wanted people off the streets to prevent any protests or challenges to the new regime, and so that they could get their affairs in order. The announcement seemed uneventful at the time but looking back at it now and everything that has happened to Cambodia thereafter, I now realize it was the beginning of dark times for our country.
The protestors, who were mainly the youth, students, teachers, and urban professionals, were demanding the removal of the Viet Cong from Cambodia. They did not know it would lead to the removal of Sihanouk. Yes, they were angry with Prince Sihanouk for the corruption in the regime, and his increasing alliance with the Viet Cong, all the while claiming a policy of neutrality, but I don't think anyone expected it would lead to his removal as Head of State. Yet this group of people mostly supported the change in government and the promise of a better future with the Khmer Republic. But there were those who were staunchly loyal to the Prince, mainly those who lived in the provinces (the rural communities) who were angry with the new government, and wanted the Prince back.
On March 23rd we heard a message from Prince Sihanouk from Beijing. He told us to go to the “maquis” to join the struggle against unjust oppression.
“In the course of this struggle, I call on all those of my children (compatriots), military and civilian, who can no longer endure the unjust oppression by the traitors and who have the courage and patriotic spirit needed for liberating the motherland, to engage in guerrilla warfare in the jungle against our enemies.” Norodom Sihanouk, March 23, 1970.
It was a powerful message that mobilized the people to join the guerilla movement, the Khmer Rouge, and fueled the flames of the civil war that would last for five years, until the Khmer Rouge ultimately defeated the Khmer Republic on April 17, 1975.
That is all I remember from that day, a day we were to remain 'quiet and still', but with that single announcement, the country started on a path of self destruction.
*All events are recalled to the best ability and any misstatements are unintentional*