The road to Kraang Leav village, branching off the main highway five minutes northwest of Kampong Chhnang town, leads to a moss-covered stupa boxed in by a stone fence. A plaque identifies it, though the words – “Bardez Stupa” – don’t convey the true weight of its history.
On this spot nearly 93 years ago, in April of 1925, the blood-soaked body of Felix Louis Bardez lay.
Bardez was a French administrator and the résident of Kampong Chhnang, who was killed by an angry mob while on a mission to collect delinquent taxes from villagers.
His death, the only known murder in the 20th century of a French colonial official in Cambodia, was staggeringly brutal; he was beaten nearly to his last breath before being stabbed repeatedly with daggers. An armed security officer and an interpreter, both Cambodian, were also killed for being the “barang’s dogs”.
A few hours before he was killed, Bardez had ordered Lach, his security officer and bodyguard, to shackle and beat anyone who couldn’t pay the tax, according to accounts of the incident collected by reporters Deuk Keam and Deak Om in the 1960s. It is said that he also hit villagers himself, unaware that there was already a plot on his life circulating among the crowd.
The killing brought major repercussions, with then-King Sisowath issuing a brand that still smarts to this day: He officially changed the name of the village to Derichhan, or “bestial” – an especially offensive word in the Khmer language. Now, even though nearly a century has passed and all of the participants in the revolt have died, the sting of that insult is still keenly felt, with the stupa a monument to the tiny enclave’s humiliation.
Over the subsequent few weeks, one suspect was given a death sentence, five others life imprisonment and 13 others sentences ranging from a few months to 15 years. The French administration is also accused of torturing witnesses and suspects for information.
“The Killing was done in front of all the Khmer people there,” Sisowath’s decree said. “Despite seeing that, they ignored and did not do anything to prevent it.”
The decree also ordered that the villagers build a stupa on the exact location where Bardez was killed, and to pay a tax for its maintenance, as well as for annual expiatory Buddhist ceremonies on the anniversary of the killing for the next decade. The body was brought to Phnom Penh, and in 1970 exhumed and brought to France, but the stupa remains.
Among those who were allegedly shackled on order of Bardez, and later interrogated by officials, was the grandfather of Sam Yom, who for decades has been collecting documents and other records of the people involved in the killing.
Since his retirement three years ago, the 68-year-old has been spending his days taking care of the Bardez stupa, and sharing his findings and the stories his grandparents and other elderly residents told him about the incident with visitors, mostly high school students on field trips.
Yom remembers in the 1960s, while attending high school in Kampong Chhnang town, he was teased by students calling him “Ah Derichhan” – “You beast!” – a common slur for village residents. As a child, the stupa enraged him as a symbol of the villagers’ treatment as “inhuman”.
“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 did the most harm, Som said, imposing a stigma that lasted for generations. At that time, Derichhan villagers were ordered to have distinct identification cards – white with a black frame, the colours of mourning and death – and they were not allowed to move to other villages.
“We were humans, not animals,” Yom said. “What Bardez did to us at that time was unbearable, but instead we were blamed for killing a bad guy. This is a lesson of what it was like when a country is ruled by the other.”
This lesson is what motivates him later in life. Som’s maintenance of the stupa is not to honour the slain French administrator, but to remember the shame imposed on the village.
Chap Seun, an 86-year-old monk from Barlang pagoda, which is located next to the Bardez stupa, said after Bardez was killed, his parents had to flee to the forest to escape arrest, and came back only when he was 5 years old.
Seun was one of many elderly residents who told The Post this week about the humiliation of his ancestors for being branded as beasts.
“As a child, I remembered my parents complaining about not having enough money to pay taxes while we already did not have enough to eat,” Seun said. “I could not say it was right or wrong to kill Bardez, but I think it was not fair to value the life of a single person more than a whole village.”
In his article about the incident, The Assassination of Resident Bardez (1925): A Premonition of Revolt in Colonial Cambodia, historian David Chandler wrote that most residents at that time were happy to let the system run its course as long as it provided steady revenue. Bardez, however, was “cut from different cloth”.
“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.”
Near the stupa is another memorial to what took place in 1925, albeit with a much different tone. It depicts a woman known as “Bi” proudly holding an iron bar and was built about a decade ago by villagers to honour her bravery.
According to Deuk Keam and Deak Om, what prompted the killing was an argument between Bardez and Bi, whose husband had been shackled on the administrator’s orders.
Even after she had paid the 5-piastre tax, they wrote, Bardez said the husband would not be released until everybody in the village had done so. This condition angered Bi, and she’d lashed out at Bardez in public.
“Do you treat us Khmer people like humans, or the trash at your feet?” she is said to have asked.
In response, Bardez allegedly ordered Lach, the security officer, to shoot Bi. She was saved by an unknown person who attacked Lach, while the other villagers attacked Bardez and the interpreter. Bi herself was the first person to hit Bardez, with an iron bar she found near the door of the commune office.
Sam Yom, the volunteer caretaker of the stupa, said he personally knew Bi, and for his whole life saw her as a freedom fighter.
“She was a nice lady, and recognised as the best hat-maker in the village, but she could not stand being abused by anyone,” he said.
“I have found a rare picture of Bi in her 60s and I plan to enlarge it and show it near her statue so that the visitor can see our heroine.”
Sambo Manara, a prominent Cambodian historian, views the revolt today as a heroic act, which paved the way for nationalist movements in the following years, such as the Khmer Issarak fighters. He speculates that Cambodia’s rulers felt the same way, but were obligated to punish the villagers to satisfy their French masters.
“We Cambodians have a proverb that says, ‘Wherever there is exploitation, there is uprising’,” Manara said. “This incident proved that Cambodians have always been fighting for our sovereignty. No matter what time we are in, we have warrior’s blood in our veins.”