Written by Catriona Miller.

A few women once told me there used to be a statue of the Neary Klahan (Brave Women) at the Old Stadium in Phnom Penh. The statue commemorated the female volunteers who trained with wooden guns in the months prior to national independence from France in 1953, but it no longer stands in the grounds of the stadium.

The story of the Neary Klahan, as well as other histories of women in military and scouting organisations throughout the Cold War, have often been treated peripherally to the dominant narratives of political manoeuvrings and military insurrections. Centring the women’s stories, which span times of unity and discord, provides new insights into how women remember their contributions to the state and how the state views the women who offered their time and energy.

While women volunteered their efforts under each of the governments of the Cold War period, this article will focus on the organisations under Prince Sihanouk, who is mostly remembered fondly today.

During the months leading up to independence, and in later times of political turmoil, there was never consistent support for the women, who ultimately were only considered as auxiliary to the men who were involved in active combat.

In mid-1953, Prince Sihanouk urged all Cambodians over the age of 15 to join the Chivapol (Volunteer Guards) and Chalnea Neary Klahan (Brave Women’s Movement) to demonstrate the populace’s resolve for complete independence from the French Union. For many women, the Chalnea Neary Klahan (CNK) training was a moment of national unity. It was also one of the only ways they could support the effort for independence.

While the movement was officially voluntary, interviewees describe the CNK as a mandatory military training organisation filled with willing participants from all social classes. For two hours each day, volunteers gathered to practise fighting with wooden guns. The guns were painted black, one woman explained, so that they looked real to French aircraft flying overhead. For some women, this display of force was the first opportunity to voice an opinion against French colonialism. To that end, veterans of the CNK remember their participation as a critical component in the fight for independence.

Prince Sihanouk asked men and women to volunteer their efforts for national independence, but there was little offered in exchange for their time and work. Memories about compensation are mixed. In a group interview, some women explained that poor women received food stipends in exchange for training. However, 88-year-old Nary* from Kandal province insisted that the government did not support the CNK. Instead, she remembers wealthy women bringing sausages and rice for the poor. Frustrated that the CNK did not receive salaries like soldiers, she left after less than two months.

Nary’s experience is important to understand the state’s general stance towards female volunteers. During the months leading up to independence, and in later times of political turmoil, there was never consistent support for the women, who ultimately were only considered as auxiliary to the men who were involved in active combat.

Four years after independence, Prince Sihanouk founded the Jeunesse Socialiste Royale Khmère (JSRK), a youth organisation with the pledge ‘To serve the country, the throne, and the people’. Officially, the JSRK projected an image that focused on the organisation’s good deeds and manual labour projects in relation to the country’s wider economic and development goals.

Prince Sihanouk described Cambodia’s economic policies as ‘Buddhist Socialism’: ‘…Our socialism implies that the stronger must assist the weaker and that the better-off must help raise the standard of living of the less fortunate to a proper level, “levelling from the top” ’. Within the context of Cold War politics, the JSRK represented Cambodia’s fight to determine the best path for improving the country’s infrastructure and solving the widening urban/rural disparities.

Despite the JSRK’s connection to wider political goals, memories about the JSRK are associated much more strongly with loyalty and service towards the crown. For most women, the first response to questions about the JSRK includes a description of the uniform: a blue skirt to the knees, a white shirt, and a hat. One former member, Somneang, emphasised the organisation’s military training. She was chosen by her teacher due to her strength, and remembers that most days were spent training with wooden guns.

However, for Somneang and for most former JSRK members, the organisation was mostly ceremonial. If Prince Sihanouk planned to visit a village, the schools would prepare the students by practising national songs and handing out uniforms. As a token of Buddhist Socialism, his trip always ended with the distribution of clothing and dry goods. To that end, the JSRK was a way to maintain close relationships between the state and the young people, who could then be called upon when needed.

In 1970, the US-backed Lon Nol coup d’état against Prince Sihanouk sparked a civil war, and women again joined auxiliary forces in the fighting campaigns. No longer attending school due to the war, former JSRK member Somneang was asked to join the volunteer women’s forces supporting Prince Sihanouk’s faction. As part of her service, she transported wounded soldiers from the battlefield to nearby villages. When asked if the female soldiers received any compensation for their work, Somneang replied: ‘No, we received no support from the government at all. I don’t know why people did these things back then for no compensation’. She went on to explain that the soldiers were given support by the local villages. For Somneang and other young women across rural Cambodia, these sacrifices were only the beginning of years of genocide, continuous civil war, and eventual reconstruction.

Today, generations of women remember volunteering their time and energy in an effort to build a peaceful and prosperous Cambodia in the decades prior to the genocidal communist regime. Bringing these stories to the forefront allows for new understandings about how women fit into the political narrative of modern Cambodia. Furthermore, as we reflect on Cambodian history forty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, these individual and collective memories are critical to understanding how Cambodia is recovering from the long decades of social and political unrest.

*Names have been changed.

Catriona Miller is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her dissertation examines women as participants in modernisation and nation-building projects in Cambodia during the colonial and Sihanouk periods. This research was completed with funding from the Boren Fellowship and Center for Khmer Studies Fellowship. 

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