A missing prince who would be king
September 10, 2007, 11:06 am
Filed under: Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Press Freedom

A missing prince who would be king

By Moeun Chhean Nariddh

PREY CHHOR, Kampong Cham: for some time during the Khmer Rouge regime this district was busy with people who risked their lives travelling from near and far to see a prince who would be their next King.

To all friends and foes in his labor camps, he was known as Mith Suon or Comrade Suon.

But that was not his real name. People said he was His Royal Highness Prince Norodom Naradipo, one of King Sihanouk’s sons who disappeared mysteriously about 23 years ago.

In interviews on September 19 and 20 and October 2 in Prey Chhor, about 90km northeast of Phnom Penh, people in different villages where the prince was moved to in 1975 still had vivid memories about the dark days of his life.

They said open discrimination by the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar contrasted with locals who risked death to offer him their support and sympathy.

Chhong Nguon, a commune official in Kang Meas district, said Prince Naradipo was first shipped from Phnom Penh with about 20 other royal family members to Angkor Ban village in Kang Meas.

News of his arrival soon became widespread. People from different places flocked to see the prince and his relatives from the Royal Palace.

Meas Muong, an 87-year-old woman in Prey Chhor, said she made a 20-kilometer journey by foot from her village of Kveth Thom village to meet Prince Naradipo. She said the prince, then about 30 years old, was being kept in the house of a villager named Ta Mok.

Describing the situation as not being “too strict” yet, Muong said some people walked a long way carrying bananas, sugar and fruits to offer to the prince.

A few days later, Muong made another trip to Angkor Ban village.

However, she said, she was told the prince had already been taken to Tuk Chhar water reservoir in Prey Chhor district shortly after staying at Ta Mok’s house.

Muong said it was because the Khmer Rouge didn’t want too many people visiting the prince.

At Tuk Chhar, Prince Naradipo met an old man and woman who treated him like one of their own children. It was the family of Hang Vaing whom the prince called “Mae”, an ordinary Khmer word for Mum.

Sitting in a house partly walled by straw and coconut leaves, Vaing, at the age of 70, began to talk about her godson with tears in her eyes.

She said when he first came and met Vaing in Phum Thmei of Prey Chhor’s Kroch commune the prince had “shaved his head like a monk”.

As his hair grew long, nobody dared to cut it for him, because they were afraid of the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar.

However, Vaing took the risk. She said she invited the prince to sit inside her house so that nobody could see him. She removed two sets of straw from the roof to let in some light to allow her to see clearly.

“I saluted him three times so that I would not be defeated by his star [as a prince],” Vaing recalled, raising her clasped hands in the air.

According to Cambodian belief, the prince’s head is considered the most sacred part of the body that ordinary people cannot touch.

Like other people, villagers said the prince would get up at 4am or 5am upon hearing the team leader’s whistle calling people to the fields. According to the villagers, they usually worked almost 12 hours a day from 6am to 6pm with a brief rest at noon for lunch, which was usually just a drink.

Vaing’s daughter still remembered the prince transplanting rice clumsily with his shaking hands next to her. She said she would help him poke the rice sapling into the ground to finish the one hectare’s work ordered by the Angkar for 12 people per day.

Though he was never seriously ill, Vaing said the prince would often get dizzy from doing hard work in the wind and sun.

In addition to medicines, if there were any, he would ask Vaing or someone to help do the traditional coining on his body to cure the illness.

As time passed Vaing noticed the prince getting more worried about his plight with the increased discrimination and death threats from the Khmer Rouge.

“If they kill me, please, Mum, pick a flower and put it on my grave for me,” Vaing recalled the prince telling her in despair.

She added: “Any time I think of [his words], I am tearful.”

Vaing’s husband, who died last year at the age of 90, was moved by his words and tried to console the prince, pledging that he would die for him.

“If they take Your Royal Highness to kill, I’ll use my chest to protect you,” Vaing said her husband told the prince.

“No, No, Dad, you are too old,” Vaing said the prince replied.

“[No,] I don’t want to live,” she said her husband answered.

The prince was so moved by his godfather’s words, Vaing said, Prince Naradipo decided to use the alias “Suon” after her husband “so that he wouldn’t forget his name.”

Though he was selective when he talked to other people, Vaing said the prince fully trusted her family and would reveal all his sorrow and happiness to her and her husband.

Vaing remembered that one day Prince Naradipo recalled King Sihanouk’s words as he talked to him upon his return from school as a little prince.

“My father sent me to school and asked me when I came back ‘What have you learned, Son?’; I answered that I learned ‘Kaun oth mae, Oth mien ke thae dauch mae robas khluon (The story of the motherless son without anyone to take care of him like his mother),'” Vaing said the prince told her.

“I cried, [because] it was too sad,” she said.

The prince could not go to the King or the Royal Palace any more under the Democratic Kampuchea regime.

Vaing said the prince would frequently drop in at her house for lunch when he returned from the fields.

But Vaing and her husband were not the only persons who took pity on the prince.

Despite the pressure from the Khmer Rouge, Vaing said some people managed to secretly supply the prince with food and other things.

However, the prince also sought ways to help himself. When shortage struck, Vaing said, he secretly sold his watch in exchange for rice even though she told him not to do so.

One day, Vaing said, the prince was sent to Prey Toteung district about 20km away and kept there for three nights. This made her worried and suspicious of the secret tricks of the Angkar. She said the prince returned home in black trousers and shirt covered with earth and told her that he was taken to work in nearby villages.

Prince Naradipo continued his life doing hard work and eating rice porridge like other people without knowing what would happen one day to the next.

To Vaing’s surprise, some time later the prince was moved to Banteay Rem village in Prey Toteung’s Chrey Vien commune after three months’ stay at Tuk Chhar.

Before he left, the prince gave his godfather, Suon, a white, short-sleeved shirt as a token of his love.

Raising the shirt with the torn collar to show their visitors, Vaing and her daughter described Prince Naradipo as having “similar size to Prince Ranariddh”.

Since Suon died, Vaing’s daughter said she would wear the prince’s shirt to the pagoda “so that he can get some merit” from the monks.

Not long after he left, Vaing missed her godson. She said she carried a rope in her hand pretending to be looking for a missing cow and walked to Prey Toteung to see Prince Naradipo.

However, Vaing’s action could not get away from the sight of the “pineapple-eyed” Angkar.

Vaing said the Angkar considered her family an “enemy” of the regime for their relationship with the prince. She said her family was told to prepare clothes to “go to a new village,” the regime’s euphemism for execution.

“They said I was collaborating with the King’s son,” Vaing said.

However, the family survived with a stroke of luck.

Vaing’s son, Suon Sareoun, said the Angkar had sent seven trucks to move “new” people to the newly created village.

He said the name of his family was at the end of the list and the truck which was supposed to take Vaing’s family to the “new village” broke down.

The date to move Vaing’s family to the new village was therefore delayed till the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979.

At Prey Toteung, Prince Naradipo began to live under close watch from the Khmer Rouge and was frequently moved around to different villages.

According to Samreth En, deputy chief of Banteay Rem village, the prince was later taken to Kraloang village of Prey Chhor’s Chrey Vien commune.

He said Prince Naradipo lived in a straw shelter next to his house under his “direct” supervision.

Then he was put to work in various labor sites throughout Prey Chhor, including building rice embankments, collecting beans, growing vegetables and sawing firewood at the cooperative’s dining hall.

Villagers who used to work with Prince Naradipo had plenty of stories of his goodness.

“When he went to build the rice embankment, he carried a lot of baskets on his shoulders for other people,” said Muong, who lives in Kveth Thom village.

She added: “He worked without rest; when people came back from picking beans, he rushed to get the mat to dry them without telling anyone to do it.”

At her second sighting, Muong said the prince had become a little bit thinner and brown from working in the sun and wind.

Though their policy was discriminative against the monarchy, people said some Khmer Rouge cadres maintained their soft stance towards the prince.

“Some [Khmer Rouge cadre] told him not to work hard, but he still kept working hard,” said Muong in a trembling voice.

According to Samreth En from Banteay Rem, a local Khmer Rouge cadre even told him to disguise the prince to prevent the news of his presence from spreading.

“The commune [chief] told me to change his clothes and moved him around to work,” he said. “He was afraid that the top [leaders] knew that.”

For additional safety, En said, the prince also tried to keep a low profile with his behavior and speech. He said the prince would go straight into his shelter when he came back from work.

Muong added that the prince would not use royal terms; instead he spoke in ordinary Khmer when he talked to other people.

Muong said Prince Naradipo was a strictly religious person and risked his life to worship Buddha in secret.

“He lit incense sticks and saluted the Buddha like old people,” she said.

Like Vaing, Muong was another person the prince trusted and would tell her about his mood and memories.

Muong remembered a day when the prince spoke of his sadness as having an unlucky life since his birth.

“[When] the Buddha was born, his mother died seven days later,” she said of the prince’s sorrow. “But, I was born only three days, my mother died.”

At Muong’s request, the prince got a bamboo stick and gave it to her to use as a walking cane. More than two decades have passed. Muong still keeps the bamboo stick with her as a memento of the prince she treated like a son.

However, Prince Naradipo also left behind something intangible for all the villagers he lived with.

“He warned both young and old people that ‘whatever they [the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar] do, we must not oppose them; because it involves death,'” En recalled the prince’s advice to the villagers.

This goodness of the prince earned him secret love and sympathy from people in the villages where he lived.

“Old people tried to steal things from the cooperative to support him,” En said of the prince, who also ate at the cooperative dining hall with other people.

At the dining hall, Muong said Prince Naradipo would sit at a table one day and move to another the next day. She said the prince would share whatever he had with other people.

As she did before, Muong said some people traveled from remote villages and brought things to give to the prince.

A characteristic of Prince Naradipo, according to Muong, was his striking resemblance to King Sihanouk’s behavior and speech.

“When I met him, he said “Chumreap Suor (How do you do?) like his father,” she said. “He rarely talked to anyone except those he knew [well].”

Long after her separation from the prince, his godmother walked from Tuk Chhar to visit him again.
But Vaing found an empty house.

“I had three packages of cigarettes to give to him, but they told me that he had already been taken away,” she said. “Then my knees became weak and I collapsed; I could not walk further.”

She said a Khmer Rouge cadre told her that the prince was taken away on “the sixth day of the waning moon in the month of Meak (the third month of the lunar calendar corresponding to January-February).” But, she did not remember in what year exactly.

Since then, both Vaing and Muong have never seen the prince again.

At continual rumors about the prince’s appearance, Vaing would follow the information only to find that it was false. Now she must pin her hope on the assertion by “five fortune-tellers” who have claimed that the prince is “still alive but he can’t come now”.

Villagers didn’t agree on how he disappeared during his final days in Kampong Cham.

Sareoun, Vaing’s son at Tuk Chhar, said Prince Naradipo was finally moved to a house near Prey Toteung market under heavy guard. He said the prince was kept under the control of Mith Sreng, who was the deputy to Ke Pauk, the Northern Zone’s chief.

According to Sareoun, who was living with Mith Sreng as a teenager, the prince disappeared along with about a “battalion” of local Khmer Rouge soldiers escaping from Southwestern Khmer Rouge.

About one month later, Sareoun said Mith Sreng and about 30 other local Khmer Rouge cadres were executed for being “agents of the CIA”.

But people in Kraloang village remembered it differently.

A middle-aged man who worked near the prince said some time between late 1976 and early 1977 his brother, named Pich, was ordered to take Mith Suon on a bicycle to see Mith Sreng.

The villager said his brother was later killed by the incoming Southwestern Khmer Rouge soldiers along with other local Khmer Rouge cadres and families.

However, according to Samreth En, Mith Sreng managed to put the prince-turned Mith Suon on a jeep and drove away to “escape” before the other side of the Khmer Rouge arrived.

Whichever version may be true, Prince Naradipo disappeared, leaving behind only memories for those who once hoped to see him crowned their next King.

Phnom Penh Post, Issue 8/22, October 29 – November 11, 1999
© Michael Hayes, 1999. All rights revert to authors and artists on publication.
For permission to publish any part of this publication, contact
Michael Hayes, Editor-in-Chief
http://www.newspapers.com.kh/PhnomPenhPost – Any comments on the website to
Webmaster

 

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