The Man Who Could Have Been King- The Life & Death Of Norodom Duong Chak
Prince Norodom Duong Chak (also spelled Chakr/Shak) was a Cambodian prince, and heir apparent to the throne, who rebelled against the French colonists. After a trip to Paris he was arrested and exiled to the French colony of Algeria- where he died almost 4 years later.
Prince Norodom Duong Chak was the son of King Norodom and Princess Than. He was born in Udong Palace in 1861 and was well-educated, soon becoming favorite among his father’s many children. His mother Cham Socheat Bopha Nuon, also known as Princess Khun Than, had also been King Ang Duong’s (Duong Chak’s grandfather and Norodom’s father) concubine. He was the fifth of 61 recognized children sired by King Norodom.
In his 20’s, he became a supporter of his half-uncle Sivotha (Si Vatha, Sivatta etc.) in a rebellion against France from 1885-1886, which was later suppressed by the French. Sivotha- half-brother to both Norodom and Sisowath through Ang Duong- began his rebellion in the 1870’s, first against Norodom in a secession claim, and later, after the king relied on French support, the colonialist powers.
During his long campaign, Sivotha was aided by Thailand, and rumors abounded of help from Sisowath, the Queen Mother and even, later on as the rebellion turned on the French, King Norodom himself- Cambodia’s long history of civil wars almost always involved family and fickle allegiances.
Prince Duong Chak appears to have changed sides himself, receiving clemency from Gouverneur Général Georges Jules Piquet and later awarded la Légion d’honneur for his efforts to end the fighting.
The elective monarchy system of Cambodia was a boon to the French. Already exploited by the Siamese and Vietnamese to put ‘their man’ on the throne, the French discovered that the system of a council who elected a new king from the huge royal bloodline could easily be manipulated in their favor.
In 1890, King Norodom became ill and intended to abdicate in favor of Prince Norodom Duong Chak, but this was opposed by the new résident Supérieur, Albert Louis Huyn de Vernéville, who considered the prince and his mother too ambitious, too intelligent and too anti-French.
Duong Chak was arrested and imprisoned on April 30, 1890. He was released and fled to Siam, arriving in Bangkok on August 25, 1891.
With war brewing between Siam and France, Duong Chak’s welcome in Bangkok was wearing out. Encouraged, perhaps, by his friend-the Frenchman and Cambophile Auguste Pavie- he sold what remained of his jewels and boarded a Marseille bound ship, via Singapore.
His plan, once reaching France on the Natal on June 16, 1893, was to protest French oppression and the contempt of the royal family, especially by the Resident Superior Albert Louis Huyn de Vernéville, whom he wanted replaced. He also wanted to challenge his own forced exile and the collection of taxes imposed on the Khmer people by the French. From Marseille, he traveled to Paris in June 1893, where his connections allowed him an audience with then under-secretary for the colonies, (and later Foreign Minister) Théophile Delcassé.
The plea caused a minor storm in both the left and right-wing press, with supporters such as Le Figaro criticizing the treatment given to a French ally, with others such as La Politique colonial reminding readers that only a few short years earlier had the Prince been actively engaged in armed rebellion against France. Others, such as Libre Parole– an unflinchingly anti-Semitic publication, championed the Cambodian cause- more as an excuse to bash the favorable treatment deemed to haven given to Jews rather than concerns for the colonial subjects.
His protests did not last long, and on August 26, Duong Chak was taken into custody by the French police and forcefully put on the train back to Marseille.
Two days later he was placed on the Duc de Bragance cruiseship headed to the French colony of Algeria. The Prince was offered a place in Algiers, with his expenses paid by France. When this offer was refused, he was taken inland and put under house arrest in the town of Djelfa, on the fringes of the Sahara. He remained in the desert town- baking in the summer, freezing in winter- until his death on March 25, 1897. His Princess, who had fled in Paris, was later sent to join him- after racking up substanial debts in various Parisian hotels.
The town of Djelfa was a deliberate choice of the French, who had genuine concern that the Prince could escape if kept closer to the coast. For the whole time, Duong Chak was under close surveillance.
The Prince was just 36 when he died from a combination of “climate, boredom and alcoholism”.
“Djelfa, capital of an Algerian military circle, on the edge of the Sahara, was not made to please the princely couple. The military authorities found him decent accommodation: four rooms and a kitchen on the first floor of a new house, plus two servants’ rooms. The most serious was the isolation, in a difficult climate, torrid in summer, freezing in winter, always dry. The prince did not cease to obtain a change of residence. In February 1894, barely installed, he wrote to the governor general and invoked the rigors of the climate to be moved to Algiers or Blida, healthier cities.
… In May 1896, Duong Chakr wrote to Le Myre de Vilers; he wishes to return to Cambodia, saying he is very ill. The deputy advises the minister against sending him back to his homeland, but recognizes that the climate of Djelfa can be fatal for the Indochinese.
… The Prince complains about the temperature and the lack of fish.
… At the same time as these efforts to escape the hopeless monotony of Djelfa (emphasis added), Duong Chakr must deal with material matters.
… Duong Chakr expired on March 25, 1897 at ten o’clock.
… Finally delivered, the colonial administration was generous (and) authorized the princess with her child to come to Paris, then repatriated them, as well as the body of the prince, to Cambodia by the liner Chandernagor, leaving Marseille on August 1.
… The French press devoted a few obituaries to the deceased. La Libre Parole had warm and tender accents. His writing had kept intact all his sympathy for the ‘outlaw’ ”(Lamant, 1980).
Duong Chak’s remains were sealed in a coffin and sent back to Cambodia aboard the Chandernagor steamship, leaving Marseille on August 1, 1897 with his wife and son- who had been born in Algeria.
Norodom’s eldest son, Yukanthor- who had been a rival with Duong Chak- became the new heir apparent. His trip to Paris in 1900 to protest for the rights of Cambodia and House Norodom caused much more of a stir in French society- his hopes for the throne rejected- and after being expelled to Belgium (a terrible fate), then Algeria and Singapore, finally led the rest of his life in Bangkok.
On Norodom’s death in 1904, the throne was given, with insistence from the French, to the elderly (and reliable) Sisowath, rather than passing it to a younger- and potentially more radical- son of Norodom.
Prince Duong Chak had three partners (either wives or concubines- the lines are blurred , Miss Romdeng (who was the daughter of the poet Santhor Mok), Miss An and Miss Ouk- between them he fathered two sons and two daughters.
Miss Ouk, remarried after his death, and was the mother of Mrs. Pomme Peang and the grandmother of Miss Paule Monique Izzi, now known as Queen Monineath- the current Queen mother of Cambodia.
Duong Chak’s grandson, Norodom Balay (b. 1931) was an Air Force pilot during the Khmer Republic, and with the rank of Lt. Col., was in command of the Air Operations Centre – AOC, which rebuilt the Khmer Air Force after the devastating commando raid on Ponchentong of January 1971.
SOURCES: KHMER (short), FRENCH (very long), Being expelled or interned in Djelfa in the last centuries (1893; 1942)