It was a windy evening in February 1945 on Con Son Island (known as Koh Tralach in Khmer), off the coast of southern Vietnam. The island was home to the French Administration’s notorious Con Dao prison, where political opponents of French colonial control over Indochina were held.
Three Cambodian men stood on the deck of a Japanese destroyer, gazing at the tropical island. For three years, they’d believed that it would not only be their prison, but also their grave. 24-year-old Bun Chanmol, the youngest among them, waved goodbye—not to the island nor the prison, but to the spirit of Hem Chieu, a monk and prominent player in the Cambodian nationalist movement, who passed away from dysentery just a few months after arriving on Con Son.
Three years earlier, Hem Chieu had been defrocked and arrested by the French administration for allegedly attempting to instigate a revolt by preaching anti-French sermons to Khmer troops in the colonial militia. Two days after his arrest, Pach Chhoeun, the publisher of a pro-independence Khmer-language newspaper, Nagaravatta, and Son Ngoc Thanh, the leader of the nationalist movement, organised a large demonstration. They were joined by 500 monks in Phnom Penh demanding Chieu’s release.
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