Achar (a title given to a Buddhist clergyman) Hem Chiev was born in 1898 in Kandal province to a family of a father as a district chief and a mother as a housewife. He had four other siblings. Even though Hem Chiev was a monk, he was given a title of ‘Achar’. An achar is not a monk. This was because at that time a monk professor was called ‘Achar’.
Boys were educated in pagodas in that point of time. As a normal child growing up at that period, Hem Chiev was educated in a pagoda and became a monk. Till the age of 20, he was a monk at Langka pagoda and was taught by supreme monk Chuon Nat. In 1921, the Venerable Hem Chiev passed ‘ Diplome de PEcole Supérieure de pali’, the highest honored certificate of Pali, ranked number 6.
At that time, Cambodia was being colonized by France and in a dire need of a lot of schools. Much of formal education took place inside pagodas. Hem Chiev had dedicated his time in teaching other monks what he knew. Hem Chiev, besides teaching, liked preaching Dharma about good and bad deeds (Buddhist teaching). He was well-liked by many Buddhists who flocked to hear him preach about Dharma, philosophy of life, and other common issues.
Hem Chiev had very creative and modern ideas. He liked keeping track of what was happening around the world. He would read French newspaper, magazines in Khmer or Thai. The first-ever only Khmer newspaper was ‘Nokor Wat’ which was established by Seung Ngoc Tanh, Pach Chheun and Sem Va. He also had foreign friends who were happy to tell him news around the world.
Hem Chiev was warned against talking ‘too much’ by his peer friend who’s also a monk. However, Achar Hem Chiev replied by saying that at the present Cambodians were supposed to dare to say anything they wanted and wake each other up to see what was going around the world. “Open your eyes and see the world.”
Surprisingly, his preaching usually included patriotic words, encouraging the listeners to understand more what was happening. He said laziness and procrastination failed many people. His preaching words encouraged the people to understand ‘slavery’ that Cambodians were in. “Being someone’s slaves makes us no better than animals; we shouldn’t bear this burden anymore.” Achar Hem Chiev also reminded everybody that being born as a human being, people had to struggle, be patient and always be hopeful. He preached to the Cambodians to give up their bad social habits like making a future-to-be groom work very hard for the prospective bride’s family. He said that it’s very unjust for the boys in general. Since each family had a son, this tradition only did more hindrance than a help. He also encouraged parents to send their children to school. During that period, Cambodian parents didn’t want their children to learn at school because they believed it was French school and if their children learned, they would soon be drafted as soldiers. Hem Chiev tried to clear all the doubts by saying knowledge was like the biggest and brightest light ever shining on earth; if we’re ignorant, we are just like the blind walking the Earth. Furthermore, he told people to keep a good physical and mental health. When he spotted unhealthy children in villages, he advised the parents to clean or wash their children regularly. They got sick because of a lack of hygiene. Since Udong era, many Cambodians had died of cholera and serious chicken pox.
Achar Hem Chiev was not happy when Cambodians had little technical knowledge, not like Vietnamese residing in Cambodia at that time. Most of the mechanicals and repairmen from that period were Vietnamese. Achar Hem Chiev was a very grateful child to his parents and a very good student to his teacher Chuon Nat. With compassion, he liked donating money he received from preaching to poor people or poor students. His preaching words also encouraged employers or bosses to show compassion to employees.
At one important historical stage, Hem Chiev became a friend with Seung Ngoc Thanh, another Cambodian hero and with a few others like Bun Chanmol, Nuon Duong (his student) and Chum Muon. The French government in Cambodia started to suspect his intentions and they were also keeping their eyes on his political friends mentioned above.
Later on, Achar Hem Chiev was arrested and defrocked. The French government went to every family and person that knew Hem Chiev to search for ‘enough evidence’ to indict him. People started to fear of being implicated so they buried or burned pictures of Hem Chiev even though they very much respected him. Then, there was a demonstration against Hem Chiev’s arrest. All the Cambodians wanted him to go free. However, the demonstration was not successful. Hem Chiev along with other Cambodians were charged of sedative conspiracies against the colonial government. Hem Chiev, Nuon Duong, Pach Chheun, the Venerable Pang Kat, and Bun Chanmol were sent to Koh Tralach, the prison which kept many political prisoners and belonged to the French government at the time. It was also notorious for very harsh torture and other inhumane conditions.
Life in that prison was the most miserable thing to experience. Rice and food were usually very bad and scooped into dishes that were once used as a loo/potty. Luckily, he was not tortured by the prison chief notorious for his cruelty and merciless beating. However, unable to put up with the very unhygienic condition, Achar Hem Chiev fell really sick. He was infected with dysentery and had a big boil on his waist, which resulted from too many useless injections from unskilled doctors in the prison. His student Nuon Duong got numb in his fingers. At one point, Hem Chiev could not bear this inexplicable pain. His lips became so purple. His body was rocking due to sheer pain. Nuon Duong could not help much but only took care of his teacher, massaging his teacher’s abdomen. At Hem Cheiv’s last breath, Duong put his teacher’s head on his lap and Hem Chiev’s tears came down due to so much pain. Knowing that he would not live, Hem Chiev whispered to his student to struggle to live to see the country’s independence. “I am not afraid of death but I would regret not being at able to see Cambodia become independent” was his last word. Nuon Duong remembered his teacher’s body carried into an oxcard and carried away from him. He closed eyes to finish his tears. He could vividly remember his teacher’s energetic life, his talent in teaching his students, his patriotic ideas for the country, and all the misery his teacher experienced in the prison. Later on, Bun Chanmol was there to motivate Nuon Duong to live on. Fortunately, Nuon Duong could live to see what happened later to the country, the independence.
Achar Hem Chiev passed away at the age of 45 in 1943 on a remote island called Koh Tralach. His conscience and virtue, though physically gone with the waves and the wind, will never fade away from every Cambodian’s heart.