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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 65-72

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from Journey into Light

II. Root of an Evil

When the bell rang, we gathered, as usual, under the nation's flag. I noticed the older students and the teachers were talking and whispering, but I was not really concerned with what they were saying. We were all in the schoolyard of Sala Komrou (Model School), a new school just north of Siem Reap town. It was 18 March 1970 .

"Get in line and be very quiet!" one of the teachers barked. We fell in line according to our grade and gender. About fifteen minutes later, everyone was in line and at attention. The chattering died down as our principal, surrounded by four soldiers in full combat gear, came out of the building. They walked slowly and stopped in front of us.

It was the first time I had seen this many soldiers up close. They held their M-16 s ready, their sharp eyes scanning the area. None of them smiled. The schoolyard was absolutely quiet. It frightened me a little.

It was also a little exciting, particularly to those of us boys whose favorite subjects were guns and soldiers. Most of our parents had at least one rifle or pistol at home. My father had an assortment of weapons locked up in his room, and we children often played soldier, fighting and dying in numerous battles. I think many of us wished we were real soldiers with real guns like these young men who stood before us.

The soldier with many stripes on his uniform handed a piece of paper to our principal. We all knew the principal was in some kind of trouble. He looked very pale and was sweating profusely, which seemed strange because the morning air was still chilly. His hands trembled as he read the paper. His voice shook. I didn't quite understand everything he said.

When he stopped reading, the soldier with the stripes shoved the principal, and the other soldiers grabbed his arms. The officer said to us, "My friends, teachers, and all the good students of this fine institution, do you know why we are here today? There is a traitor among us."

He paused and then pointed at our principal. "Do you know that this man is trying to destroy our great culture and wonderful society?" [End Page 65]

He went on for some time with his rather boring speech. I didn't pay very much attention to him. I was looking at our principal, who was starting to look like a very sick man.

The soldier ordered our principal to lower Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime flag from the pole in front of the administration building. The officer rolled up the old flag, tossed it in his jeep, and gave the principal a new one. The soldiers saluted as it went up. The new flag was not much different from the old one. It had the same colors, but the Angkor Wat symbol was in the upper left corner instead of the center.

Thus was born in Siem Reap the Khmer Republic under Marshall Lon Nol. I did not know it then, but on that very day, a coup d'état was deposing the country's leader, Prince Sihanouk.

The soldiers ordered everyone to go home right away, but we stood there in shock. Three of them manhandled our principal, pushing him into their MADE IN THE USA military jeep and driving away in a trail of white dust. Some female teachers started to weep openly. A few minutes later, we heard the sounds of automatic gunfire coming from the jeep's direction. The teachers said it was nothing, school was over for the day, and we should go home.

That was the last time anyone saw our principal. The fear in his eye remains with me to this day. He was "purged," most likely for being a supporter of Sihanouk's regime—as were many of the civil servants.

A week later, I was back in school. The new flag hung from...


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