It was a peaceful morning on April 18, 1925 in Kampong Chhnang, a small province of Cambodia, then a French protectorate. Felix Louis Bardez, a French administrator and premier resident of the province well-known for its fine pottery, was riding his horse toward Kraang Leav Village to fulfil his tax collection duty. Accompanied by a militiaman, a cook and a translator, Bardez did not expect that day to be his very last by the hands of the very people he was to collect dues from. His death, however, brought consequences to the entire village. Taing Rinith documents the real story of “Beast Village”.
SAM Yom, a son of a farmer and potter, grew up in a small wooden house in Kraang Leav Village. In front of his residence is a timeworn, algal stupa, built out of bricks, in similar style to that of the stupa on Udong Mountain and surrounded by French-style, stone fencing. Later in life, Yom found out that the historic monument holds a painful, historical memory for everyone in his village.
“That is Bardez Stupa, built in commemoration of a French administrator who was killed by the Krang Leav villagers in 1925,” Yom says. “The murder angered the French and the King, who later ordered to change Krang Leav Village’s name to Derichhan Village.”
In Khmer, Derichhan or “beast” is a very insulting word, used to curse those who commit inhumane acts. Yet, the assassination of the 42-year-old premier resident is not very much irrational.
Nearly 95 years ago, in the exact location of where the stupa now stands, laid the blood-soaked body of Felix Louis Bardez after he was killed by an angry mob of Kraang Leav during his delinquent tax mission. He was beaten almost to his last breath before being stabbed multiple times with daggers. Two Cambodians who accompanied him, an armed security officer, and an interpreter, were also killed, for being “Barang’s dogs”.
A few hours before he was killed, the resident was ordering Lach, his security officer and personal bodyguard, to shackle and beat anyone who could not pay the tax. Sometimes, he even punched and kicked them himself, not knowing that there was a group of rebels fomenting among the crowd, who plotted and incited the others to kill him.
Over the next few weeks, 19 suspects were arrested and tried, resulting in a death sentence and five life imprisonments while many others were tortured and interrogated. Nine days after the death of Bardez, King Sisowath issued a decree to condemn the villagers of Kraang Leav for engaging in the killing and lack of intervention to prevent, and officially change the name of the village to ‘Direchhan’ (Bestial).
“The killing was done in front of all the Khmer people there,” the decree said. “Despite seeing that, they ignored and did not do anything to prevent it, which had to be also treated as a crime and accomplishment.”
The decree also ordered its people to build a stupa on the exact location where Bardez was killed, and paid another tax for its maintenance as well as for annual expiatory Buddhist ceremonies on the anniversary of the killing for the next 10 years. However, Bardez’s body was not entombed in the stupa, but instead brought to be buried in Phnom Penh, and in 1970, was exhumed and returned to France.
In his article about the incident, The Assassination of Resident Bardez (1925): A Premonition of Revolt in Colonial Cambodia, David Chandler an American scholar and Cambodia expert, wrote that Bardez was not supposed to collect tax himself. While most residents at that time were happy to let the system run its course so long as it provided steady revenue, Bardez, the first French administrator to be killed in Cambodia, in the 20 century, was “cut from different cloth” while he was also eager to impress his superior.
“Bardez insisted, recklessly, on removing some of the flexibility from the tax-collection system by collecting taxes himself,” Chandler wrote. “His presence in the village offended the large and restless crowd. Perhaps he was banking on their proverbial peaceability.”
Meanwhile, in most of Cambodia at that time, the crop most heavily taxed was harvested rice, or padi. The padi tax, affecting nearly all Cambodian families, was what Bardez was collecting when he was killed.
“It was not really a revolt,” adds Chandler when contacted recently. “But, the taxes were too high and Bardez showed up on Cambodian (Khmer) New Year, which should be a happy time for all household, and some men had been drinking.”
No Beasts but unsung heroes
Sambo Manara, a Cambodian prominent historian, sees the revolt by the Kraang Leav villagers in 1925 as an heroic act, which paved the way for nationalist movements in the following years, such as Khmer Isarak, and so on. He also believed that Cambodia’s rulers also felt the same sentiment, but they had to their own hand to punish the villagers to satisfy their French master.
“This historic incident proved that Cambodian haves always been fighting for our sovereignty,” Manara says. “Whatever times we are in, we have warrior’s blood in our vein.”
During the 60s, while Yom went to high school in the capital of Kampong Chhnang, he was usually teased by the others calling him “Ah Derichhan” (You beast!), which also happened to the others from Kraang Leav Village. However, later in life, he committed to preserve the site and the record the history so that the next generations could have something to recall the bitter experience. That is because among those who were shackled by the order of Bardez and later interrogated by the officials, was his grandfather.
Yom has been collecting documents, record, and profiles of the people related to the killing of Bardez. After retirement from his post as an Educational Inspector three years ago, the 68-year-old has been spending his days taking care of the Bardez Stupa. He has also been sharing what he has found and the stories his grandparents and other elderly told him about the incident with people who visit the sites, mostly high school students on field trips.
“My grandfather told me that at that time the villagers of Direchhan were viewed as the lowest of the lowest,” he said. “We had to pay extra tax while we were already very poor, and anyone who failed to fulfil the requirements, such as not attending the annual Buddhist ceremony, had to face punishment.”
However, the renaming of the village, according to Yom, appeared to be the most harmful psychological impact on villagers of Kraang Leav, which lasts for generations. At that time, Derichhan villagers were ordered to have different ID card as their stigma, and they were not allowed to move to the other villages. However, many of the villagers’ descendants today claim they are proud of their ancestors’ “heroic act” against imperial exploitation.
Meanwhile, Deuk Keam and Deak Om’s account in the 1970, which inspire a local film in the 2000s, gives the narration of what happened a few hours before the killing of Bardez. It says that the chance for people to kill him came when Bardez was having an argument with Bi, a local peasant woman whose husband was shackled and hostaged by Bardez’s order.
According the interview with her relatives in the 60s, Bardez did not released her husband even after Bi paid the 5-piaste tax, but instead demanded that her husband and the other prisoners would be released only when everyone in the village paid their taxes. This condition angered Bi, causing her to criticize Bardez in public. The brave woman was also the first person to hit Bardez, with an iron bar she found near the door of the commune office.
Bi was recognized as a village heroine until her death in the 60s. Sam Yom, the volunteer caretaker of Bardez Stupa said he personally knew Bi, and for his whole life held her as the symbol of the freedom fighter. About 10 years ago, her statue, depicting Bi holding an iron bar in striking pose, was built by the villagers near the Bardez to honour her courage and bravery.
“She was a nice lady, and recognized as the best hatter in the village, but she could not stand being abused by anyone.” Yom said about.
“I have found a rare picture of Bi in her 60s and I planned enlarge it and show it near her statue so that the visitor can see our heroine.”