Yesterday marked the 60th year when Cambodia reclaimed her sovereignty from French rule. Yet, the road to independence was not always easy and the years that followed would lead to decades of political instability.
My mother, Sakhan, was born in Takeo Province, Bati District in 1940. She has witnessed many of Cambodia’s historical transitions, from living under French rule, independence, civil war, to finally the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Now she is back in Cambodia witnessing a new phase of the country’s political development. While she loves her country, and her heart belongs here, there will always be a part of her that fears Cambodia’s peace and stability could fall apart at any moment. This fear started at a young age when her first childhood memories were of grenade attacks and arrests...
Her parents were poor farmers who had a small plot of land to raise a few cows and chickens. They had five children, in which she was the only girl. Her mother Eng, and her aunt, whom the family called Yey Oum, also sold food and drinks in front of Yey Om’s house, which was next to her parent’s house.
The Khmer Issaraks were anti-French nationalists fighting for independence in the 1940s. These freedom fighters would often hide in the jungle during the day and come out at night. Sometimes they would venture out during the day to launch grenade attacks against the French. As a child, my mother avoided the markets since this is where most of these attacks occurred in her village. She could hear villagers shouting from the market that the Issaraks were going to attack and for people to hide.
Soon after these attacks occurred, French soldiers and a Khmer interpreter would come by the village at night searching for Issaraks. On a number of occasions they would come to Yey Om's little food stand then walk over to my mother’s house looking for her father, since they assumed he was Yey Om's husband. Other villagers must have told these soldiers that Issaraks would come by drinking at night in front of Yey Om’s house in order to protect themselves from being arrested.
When she would see the soldiers coming, my mother would run and hide in the house. She would look outside and see the soldiers accuse her father of hiding Issaraks, tie his hands, beat him and take him to jail. It took a great deal of persuasion to convince them that he was innocent. In one instance her older brother Chan, who was around 10 years old at the time, followed the soldiers, trying to convince them he was not an Issarak sympathizer and begging and pleading them to release his father.
Her father had been arrested by the French a number of times and luckily always released. Yet every time this happened, the family felt so helpless. When the French weren’t accusing villagers of supporting the Issaraks, the Issaraks accused villagers of supporting the French. It was a constant struggle for most Cambodians to be neutral.
On November 9th, 1953 independence finally came and the attacks and arrests stopped coming to my mother’s house. For a moment everyone was happy and for a few years Cambodia was at peace. Yet, living in fear of the grenade attacks, arrests from the French and accusations from the Issaraks, would be the first memory my mother would have of Cambodia’s political struggles. It would be the beginning of more tumultuous times ahead and even worse memories for my mother to come.
*Story is based on events as recalled by my mother in a recent interview.*