The forgotten story of Khmer prisoners in colonial Con Dao prison

A sketch of Con Son Island drawn by a Vietnamese prisoner and published in the second edition of Kok Niyobay. Photo supplied
A sketch of Con Son Island drawn by a Vietnamese prisoner and published in the second edition of Kok Niyobay. Photo supplied

The forgotten story of Khmer prisoners in colonial Con Dao prison

On the evening of December 20, 1942, a ship arrived at Con Son Island far off the coast of southern Vietnam.

Known as Koh Tralach in Cambodia, the island at that time housed a prison established by the French for those who dared rebel against its colonial rule in Indochina. Men and women in monotone grey disembarked from the cargo hold and walked through the shallow water toward the coast. Among them was 21-year-old Cambodian Bun Chanmul, staggering due to seasickness.

He was immediately bombarded with requests to buy his sandals but was told by a fellow visitor to try his luck in prison, where they would fetch more.

Luck had not been with him recently, however.

Three months and 20 days before, he was arrested in Phnom Penh and jailed after joining some 500 monks in a demonstration in front of the Resident Supérieur’s office calling for the release of Hem Chieu, a monk and prominent player in the nationalist movement led by Son Ngoc Thanh.

After being confined in Phnom Penh for nearly a month, Chanmul was sent to prison in Saigon, where he was tried and sentenced to five years in Con Dao prison and 15 years in exile.

He would end up spending just three years on Con Son before being released by the Japanese, who had swooped in and seized the French colonies. Those three years, and the subsequent book Chanmul went on to write decades later, would be the only lasting window into the fate of Khmer prisoners on the island.

Chanmul’s stint in Con Dao clearly did little to temper his anti-colonial attitudes. In 1945, he co-founded the Khmer Issarak, an anti-French movement, but later defected because he was critical of their violence.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The book cover of Kok Niyobay, written by Bun Chanmul. Photo supplied

In 1951, he joined former Prime Minister Ieu Koeus’s Democratic Party, until King Norodom Sihanouk dissolved the parliament in 1953, and eventually worked under Lon Nol as an undersecretary of propaganda and religion.

It was during this period that he published his memoir, Kok Niyobay (or Political Prison), in March 1972. According to Chhang Song, the former minister of information under Lon Nol, the book was a bestseller in Phnom Penh and prompted a second edition just three months later.

The reason for its popularity, Song said, was the rare first-person account of Con Dao prison.

“The book shed light on the prison on Koh Tralach, about which not so many know,” Song said. “Thanks to Kok Niyobay, Cambodians then could learn about what the prison looked like, and how it operated.”

After surviving both Con Dao prison and his involvement in subsequent political movements, the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge likely spelled the end for Chanmul.

According to Chhang Song, Chanmul did not leave the city and thus is assumed to have been killed. His legacy today is his now-45-year-old memoir.

The island of death
Kok Niyobay is mostly cited by historians for its information about the Cambodian nationalist movement, but it is also an indispensable account of life in Con Dao prison and treatment of its inmates. Most unusually, it is virtually the only written mention of Cambodian inmates at the prison.

“I can’t believe Koh Tralach is so big, even bigger than Kampong Speu’s municipality, with rows of houses,” Chanmul wrote. “It is wonderful sightseeing, with beautiful mountains, beach, seas, and forests, but as prisoners, how could we be excited about that?”

According to Chanmul, there were 6,000 inmates in Con Dao prison in 1942, most of whom were Vietnamese. Among them were rebels who had joined the Viet Minh, the independence movement led by Ho Chi Minh, as well as Vietnamese criminals convicted of crimes like murder and robbery.

There were only a small number of Khmer prisoners, but there is some evidence showing that Khmer prisoners had been sent there years before. For example, a man named Chhoun, one of the two leaders of a revolt in Kampong Chhnang that killed French administrator Felix Louis Bardez, was sent to Con Dao prison in 1925, according to research published by Deuk Keam and Deak Om on the uprising.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A photograph of Bun Chanmul, taken at a prison in Phnom Penh in 1942. Photo supplied

In most of the seven chapters on life in the prison, Chanmul vividly described the inhumane treatment of the prisoners. He wrote of their hard labour, including working in quarries and diving to catch fish or to pick corals, with the only sustenance a small meal of rice and “stinky” dried fish twice a day. Even the disabled, some of whom were maimed by sharks, still had to do light work like sewing and mat-making.

Medication for prisoners was lacking, and many of them died from malaria and other diseases, as well as from accidents. Medical treatment from both French and Vietnamese staff was closer to experimentation than healing, he wrote, and usually led to abscesses, other types of infection and even death.

According to Chanmul, even on the island a bit of money went a long way, and prisoners could improve their lot through corruption. Chanmul himself was able to live comfortably thanks to the 600 piastres sent by his family in Cambodia.

“Here, on Koh Tralach, you have one piastre, you can rest for a day,” he wrote.

Those without money were not so lucky, however. He wrote vividly of beatings and torture at the hands of the guards and officials.

“They [the guards] stripped the prisoner of his clothes, and made him lie on the table,” he wrote. “They tied his testicles with a rope, hanging from the ceiling. Then, they tightened the rope or squeezed the testicles, as the prisoner was crying with pain.”

Among those who died during Chanmul’s time on Con Son was Hem Chieu, the former activist monk, who passed away from dysentery only six months after arriving at the prison.

“The island itself is a criminal who murders people,” Chanmul wrote. “Once you were sent here, you could only pray to get off the island alive.”

A credible account?
Chhang Sung, the former Ministry of Information official during the Khmer Republic and a friend of Chanmul, described Chanmul as the most honest man he had ever met. His strong Buddhist faith, he contended, prevented him from lying in his book.

But Chanmul did have a certain message he was trying to convey with his book – that Cambodian nationals were brave enough to fight foreign conquest, often at the expense of their freedom, Sung said.

Sambo Manara, a prominent Cambodian historian, expressed some doubt about the reliability of the memoir as a historical document, especially due to Chanmul’s strong anti-monarchist sentiment and hatred of the Vietnamese, whom he described as “thieves” and “deceiving people”.

“The stories in the book are prone to bias,” he said. “They are developed around an individual’s opinion and personal experience which could be affected by his personal values and tendencies or coincidental to a particular time.”

Additionally, the book’s status as the only one of its kind, and the fact it was published more than four decades ago makes it tough to confirm the details today.

“Kok Niyobay cannot be viewed as a historical document unless it is confirmed by the other references or witnesses,” Manara said, noting that living witnesses are hard to come by.

In a review of the book in 1972, David Chandler, an American scholar and Cambodia expert, wrote of the importance of Kok Niyobay as a historical account of Cambodia, praising Chanmul for his “good memory and a vigorous style”.

“The demonstration and life on Poulo Condore [Con Son Island] shaped the subsequent behavior of Cambodia’s nationalist leaders,” he wrote. “The same people were active in resisting the French in the late 1940s and were later the ones who led the opposition, clandestine and parliamentary, to prince Sihanouk”.

Chandler added that the memoir could not have been published before the coup to overthrow Prince Sihanouk because it is in contradiction to the popular local claim that the Prince alone was responsible for the country’s independence.

When contacted 45 years later by The Post, Chandler maintained his opinion of the book, though he has not read it again since writing the review.

“It was a harsh thing to do, but the French believed that their [Cambodian nationalists’] effort to oppose French colonialism had to be stopped,” Chandler said. “In its own right, the book is a valuable addition to the historical record.”

Forgotten heroes?
In 1954, the French administration handed the prison to the US-backed South Vietnamese government. It continued using it as a political prison during the Vietnam War, gaining international notoriety after a US congressional delegation discovered shocking conditions at the prison in 1970 and images of prisoners in “tiger cages” were published in Life magazine.

Today, the prison is a museum attracting tourists to the island, with monuments dedicated to the Vietnamese who fought for independence from France and the communist ideology. There is little trace in academic research or online of the Cambodian prisoners who had fought for their cause.

In 1973, Lon Nol’s government ordered Chanmul to return to the island to fetch the remains of Hem Chieu, who was seen as a martyr for the independence cause, and to place them at Wat Ounalom in the capital.

The fate of the other Cambodian prisoners, apart from Chanmul and the other few who were rescued by the Japanese, remains unknown, as does the number of Khmer prisoners who were sent to and died in the prison. Michel Tranet, a prominent local historian, says the lack of documents and living accounts will make it difficult to investigate the lives of the “forgotten heroes”.

“We cannot do anything to honour their names,” he said. “And, as time goes by, their presence on the devil island could even disappear forever.”

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