CAMBODIA UNDER SIHANOUK, 1954-70

CAMBODIA UNDER KING SIHANOUK

According to Lonely Planet: “The post-independence period was one of peace and great prosperity, Cambodia’s golden years, a time of creativity and optimism. Phnom Penh grew in size and stature, the temples of Angkor were the leading tourist destination in Southeast Asia and Sihanouk played host to a succession of influential leaders from across the globe. However, dark clouds were circling, as the American war in Vietnam became a black hole, sucking in neighbouring countries. [Source: Lonely Planet **]

“In late 1952 King Sihanouk dissolved the fledgling parliament, declared martial law and embarked on his ‘royal crusade’: his travelling campaign to drum up international support for his country’s independence. Independence was proclaimed on 9 November 1953 and recognised by the Geneva Conference of May 1954, which ended French control of Indochina. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated, afraid of being marginalised amid the pomp of royal ceremony. The ‘royal crusader’ became ‘citizen Sihanouk’. He vowed never again to return to the throne. Meanwhile his father became king. It was a masterstroke that offered Sihanouk both royal authority and supreme political power. His newly established party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community), won every seat in parliament in the September 1955 elections and Sihanouk was to dominate Cambodian politics for the next 15 years. **

Although he feared the Vietnamese communists, Sihanouk considered South Vietnam and Thailand, both allies of the mistrusted USA, the greatest threats to Cambodia’s security, even survival. In an attempt to fend off these many dangers, he declared Cambodia neutral and refused to accept further US aid, which had accounted for a substantial chunk of the country’s military budget. He also nationalised many industries, including the rice trade. In 1965 Sihanouk, convinced that the USA had been plotting against him and his family, broke diplomatic relations with Washington and veered towards the North Vietnamese and China. In addition, he agreed to let the communists use Cambodian territory in their battle against South Vietnam and the USA. Sihanouk was taking sides, a dangerous position in a volatile region. **

“These moves and his socialist economic policies alienated conservative elements in Cambodian society, including the army brass and the urban elite. At the same time, left-wing Cambodians, many of them educated abroad, deeply resented his domestic policies, which stifled political debate. Compounding Sihanouk’s problems was the fact that all classes were fed up with the pervasive corruption in government ranks, some of it uncomfortably close to the royal family. Although most peasants revered Sihanouk as a semidivine figure, in 1967 a rural-based rebellion broke out in Samlot, Battambang, leading him to conclude that the greatest threat to his regime came from the left. Bowing to pressure from the army, he implemented a policy of harsh repression against left-wingers. **

“By 1969 the conflict between the army and leftist rebels had become more serious, as the Vietnamese sought sanctuary deeper in Cambodia. Sihanouk’s political position had also decidedly deteriorated – due in no small part to his obsession with film-making, which was leading him to neglect affairs of state. In March 1970, while Sihanouk was on a trip to France, General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, Sihanouk’s cousin, deposed him as chief of state, apparently with tacit US consent. Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing, where he set up a government-in-exile in alliance with an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement that Sihanouk had nicknamed the Khmer Rouge. This was a definitive moment in contemporary Cambodian history, as the Khmer Rouge exploited its partnership with Sihanouk to draw new recruits into their small organisation. Talk to many former Khmer Rouge fighters and they all say that they ‘went to the hills’ (a euphemism for joining the Khmer Rouge) to fight for their king and knew nothing of Mao or Marxism” **.

King Norodom Sihanouk

King Norodom. Sihanouk was one of the most controversial figures in Southeast Asia's turbulent, and often tragic, postwar history. Admirers view him as one of the country's great patriots, whose insistence on strict neutrality kept Cambodia out of the maelstrom of war and out of the revolution in neighboring Vietnam for more than fifteen years before he was betrayed by his close associate, Lon Nol. Critics attack him for his vanity, eccentricities, and intolerance of any political views different from his own. One such critic, Michael Vickery, asserts that beneath the neutralist rhetoric Sihanouk presided over a regime that was oppressively reactionary and, in some instances, as violent in its suppression of political opposition as the Khmer Rouge. According to Vickery, the royal armed forces under Lon Nol slaughtered women and children in pro-Khmer Issarak regions of Batdambang in 1954 using methods that were later to become routine under Pol Pot. Another critical observer, Milton E. Osborne, writing as an Australian expatriate in Phnom Penh during the late 1960s, describes the Sihanouk years in terms of unbridled greed and corruption, of a foreign policy inspired more by opportunism than by the desire to preserve national independence, of an economy and a political system that were rapidly coming apart, and of the prince's obsession with making outrageously mediocre films--one of which starred himself and his wife, Princess Monique. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Sihanouk was all of these things--patriot, neutralist, embodiment of the nation's destiny, eccentric, rigid defender of the status quo, and promoter of the worst sort of patron-client politics. He believed that he single-handedly had won Cambodia's independence from the French. The contributions of other nationalists, such as Son Ngoc Thanh and the Viet Minh, were conveniently forgotten. Sihanouk also believed he had the right to run the state in a manner not very different from that of the ancient Khmer kings--that is, as an extension of his household. Unlike the ancient "god-kings," however, he established genuine rapport with ordinary Cambodians. He made frequent, often impromptu, trips throughout the country, visiting isolated villages, chatting with peasants, receiving petitions, passing out gifts, and scolding officials for mismanagement. According to British author and journalist William Shawcross, Sihanouk was able to create a "unique brand of personal populism." To ordinary Cambodians, his eccentricities, volatility, short temper, sexual escapades, and artistic flights of fancy were an expression of royal charisma rather than an occasion for scandal. Sihanouk's delight in making life difficult for foreign diplomats and journalists, moreover, amused his subjects. Ultimately, the eccentric humanity of Sihanouk was to contrast poignantly with the random brutality of his Khmer Rouge successors. *

In order to play a more active role in national politics, Sihanouk abdicated in 1955 and placed his father, Norodom Suramarit, on the throne. Now only a prince, Sihanouk organized his own political movement, the Popular Socialist Community, (Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or Sangkum), which won all the seats in the National Assembly in the 1955 election. The Sangkum dominated the political scene until the late 1960s. Sihanouk's highly personal ruling style made him immensely popular with the people, especially in rural villages. Although the Sangkum was backed by conservative interests, Sihanouk included leftists in his government, three of whom--Khieu Samphan, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim--later became leaders of the Khmer Rouge. In 1963 he announced the nationalization of banking, foreign trade, and insurance in a socialist experiment that dried up foreign investment and alienated the right wing. In foreign relations, Sihanouk pursued a policy of neutrality and nonalignment. He accepted United States economic and military aid, but he also promoted close relations with China and attempted to keep on good terms with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). The principal objectives of his foreign policy were to preserve Cambodia's independence and to keep the country out of the widening conflict in neighboring Vietnam. Relations with Washington grew stormy in the early 1960s. In 1963 the prince rejected further United States aid, and, two years later, he severed diplomatic relations. *

Both the domestic and the international situations had deteriorated by the late 1960s. The increasingly powerful right wing challenged Sihanouk's control of the political system. Peasant resentment over harsh tax collection measures and the expropriation of land to build a sugar refinery led to a violent revolt in 1967 in the northwestern province of Batdambang (Battambang). The armed forces, commanded by General Lon Nol (who was also prime minister), quelled the revolt, but a communist-led insurgency spread throughout the country. The spillover of the Second Indochina War (or Vietnam War) into the Cambodian border areas also was becoming a serious problem. Apparently one factor in Sihanouk's decision to reestablish relations with Washington in 1969 was his fear of further incursions by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. In March 1970, however, he was overthrown by General Lon Nol and other right-wing leaders, who seven months later abolished the monarchy and established the Khmer Republic. *

Domestic Developments in the 1950s

The Geneva agreement stipulated that general elections should be held in Cambodia during 1955 and that the International Control Commission should monitor them to ensure fairness. Sihanouk was more determined than ever to defeat the Democrats (who, on the basis of their past record, were expected to win the election). The king attempted unsuccessfully to have the constitution amended. On March 2, 1955, he announced his abdication in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit. Assuming the title of samdech (prince), Sihanouk explained that this action was necessary in order to give him a free hand to engage in politics. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

To challenge the Democrats, Prince Sihanouk established his own political machine, the oddly named Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Popular Socialist Community), commonly referred to as the Sangkum. The name is odd because its most important components were right-wing parties that were virulently anticommunist. The Sangkum's emergence in early 1955 unified most right-wing groups under the prince's auspices. In the September election, Sihanouk's new party decisively defeated the Democrats, the Khmer Independence Party of Son Ngoc Thanh, and the leftist Pracheachon (Citizens') Party, winning 83 percent of the vote and all of the seats in the National Assembly. *

Khmer nationalism, loyalty to the monarch, struggle against injustice and corruption, and protection of the Buddhist religion were major themes in Sangkum ideology. The party adopted a particularly conservative interpretation of Buddhism, common in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia, that the social and economic inequalities among people were legitimate because of the workings of karma. For the poorer classes, virtuous and obedient conduct opened up the possibility of being born into a higher station in a future life. The appeal to religion won the allegiance of the country's many Buddhist priests, who were a particularly influential group in rural villages. *

As the 1960s began, organized political opposition to Sihanouk and the Sangkum virtually had disappeared. According to Vickery, the Democratic Party disbanded in 1957 after its leaders--who had been beaten by soldiers--requested the privilege of joining the Sangkum. Despite its defense of the status quo, especially the interests of rural elites, the Sangkum was not an exclusively right-wing organization. Sihanouk included a number of leftists in his party and government. Among these were future leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Hu Nim and Hou Yuon served in several ministries between 1958 and 1963, and Khieu Samphan served briefly as secretary of state for commerce in 1963. *

King Sihanouk as the Leader of Cambodia

After his father died in 1960, Sihanouk became the head of state and retook the title of king. As king he served as both a “father of the nation” and a populist leader and thrived in a political environment in which the Cambodian identity was bound with love of the Cambodian monarchy in a way not unlike that of the Thai monarchy. Sihanouk ruled in very authoritarian manner. He ruthlessly clamped down on Communists and is blamed for creating the Khmer Rouge by driving the Communists underground.

There was a rebirth of Cambodian nationalism under Sihanouk. The arts were revived and expanded. Classical dance in particular reached a high level. Regarded as something of a playboy, Sihanouk managed to find time to work as a movie actor and singer between meetings with foreign leaders and speeches before political supporters. He often directed, produced and sang in his films and wrote the script and the music.

Sihanouk's attitude toward the left was paradoxical. He often declared that if he had not been a prince, he would have become a revolutionary. Sihanouk's chronic suspicion of United States intentions in the region, his perception of revolutionary China as Cambodia's most valuable ally, his respect for such prominent and capable leftists as Hou, Hu, and Khieu, and his vague notions of "royal socialism" all impelled him to experiment with socialist policies. In 1963 the prince announced the nationalization of banking, foreign trade, and insurance as a means of reducing foreign control of the economy. In 1964 a state trading company, the National Export-Import Corporation, was established to handle foreign commerce. The declared purposes of nationalization were to give Khmer nationals, rather than Chinese or Vietnamese, a greater role in the nation's trade, to eliminate middlemen and to conserve foreign exchange through the limiting of unnecessary luxury imports. As a result of this policy, foreign investment quickly disappeared, and a kind of "crony socialism" emerged somewhat similar to the "crony capitalism" that evolved in the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos. Lucrative state monopolies were parceled out to Sihanouk's most loyal retainers, who "milked" them for cash.b10 Library of Congress *]

Sihanouk was headed steadily for a collision with the right. To counter charges of one-man rule, the prince declared that he would relinquish control of candidate selection and would permit more than one Sangkum candidate to run for each seat in the September 1966 National Assembly election. The returns showed a surprising upsurge in the conservative vote at the expense of more moderate and left-wing elements, although Hou, Hu, and Khieu were reelected by their constituencies. General Lon Nol became prime minister. *

Out of concern that the right wing might cause an irreparable split within the Sangkum and might challenge his domination of the political system, Sihanouk set up a "counter government" (like the British "shadow cabinet") packed with his most loyal personal followers and with leading leftists, hoping that it would exert a restraining influence on Lon Nol. Leftists accused the general of being groomed by Western intelligence agencies to lead a bloody anticommunist coup d'état similar to that of General Soeharto in Indonesia. Injured in an automobile accident, Lon Nol resigned in April 1967. Sihanouk replaced him with a trusted centrist, Son Sann. This was the twenty-third successive Sangkum cabinet and government to have been appointed by Sihanouk since the party was formed in 1955.

Cambodia’s Nonaligned Foreign Policy in the 1950s

Sihanouk's nonaligned foreign policy, which emerged in the months following the Geneva Conference, cannot be understood without reference to Cambodia's past history of foreign subjugation and its very uncertain prospects for survival as the war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam intensified. Soon after the 1954 Geneva Conference, Sihanouk expressed some interest in integrating Cambodia into the framework of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which included Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam within the "treaty area," although none of these states was a signatory. But meetings in late 1954 with India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Burma's Premier U Nu made him receptive to the appeal of nonalignment. Moreover, the prince was somewhat uneasy about a United States-dominated alliance that included one old enemy, Thailand, and encompassed another, South Vietnam, each of which offered sanctuary to anti-Sihanouk dissidents. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

At the Bandung Conference in April 1955, Sihanouk held private meetings with Premier Zhou Enlai of China and Foreign Minister Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam. Both assured him that their countries would respect Cambodia's independence and territorial integrity. His experience with the French, first as a client, then as the self-proclaimed leader of the "royal crusade for independence," apparently led him to conclude that the United States, like France, would eventually be forced to leave Southeast Asia. From this perspective, the Western presence in Indochina was only a temporary interruption of the dynamics of the region--continued Vietnamese (and perhaps even Thai) expansion at Cambodia's expense. Accommodation with North Vietnam and friendly ties with China during the late 1950s and the 1960s were tactics designed to counteract these dynamics. China accepted Sihanouk's overtures and became a valuable counterweight to growing Vietnamese and Thai pressure on Cambodia. *

Cambodia's relations with China were based on mutual interests. Sihanouk hoped that China would restrain the Vietnamese and the Thai from acting to Cambodia's detriment. The Chinese, in turn, viewed Cambodia's nonalignment as vital in order to prevent the encirclement of their country by the United States and its allies. When Premier Zhou Enlai visited Phnom Penh in 1956, he asked the country's Chinese minority, numbering about 300,000, to cooperate in Cambodia's development, to stay out of politics, and to consider adopting Cambodian citizenship. This gesture helped to resolve a sensitive issue--the loyalty of Cambodian Chinese--that had troubled the relationship between Phnom Penh and Beijing. In 1960 the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship and Nonaggression. After the Sino-Soviet rift Sihanouk's ardent friendship with China contributed to generally cooler ties with Moscow. *

China was not the only large power to which Sihanouk looked for patronage, however. Cambodia's quest for security and nation- building assistance impelled the prince to search beyond Asia and to accept help from all donors as long as there was no impingement upon his country's sovereignty. With this end in mind, Sihanouk turned to the United States in 1955 and negotiated a military aid agreement that secured funds and equipment for the Royal Khmer Armed Forces (Forces Armées Royales Khmères--FARK). A United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) was established in Phnom Penh to supervise the delivery and the use of equipment that began to arrive from the United States. By the early 1960s, aid from Washington constituted 30 percent of Cambodia's defense budget and 14 percent of total budget inflows. *

Sihanouk distanced Cambodia from the Communist movement elsewhere in Southeast Asia but tried prepare his country for what he perceived as their inevitable victory. He kept Cambodia neutral during the conflict between the Vietnamese nationalists and the French in the 1950s as well as in the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Cambodia and Thailand clashed several times in the 1960s in a border dispute over which country too possession of the Khmer temple Preah Vihear. The World Court alter settled the dispute in favor of Cambodia but Thailand said afterwards that solution was only "temporary."

Cambodia’s Relationship with the United States in the 1950s and 60s

Relations with the United States, however, proved to be stormy. United States officials both in Washington and in Phnom Penh frequently underestimated the prince and considered him to be an erratic figure with minimal understanding of the threat posed by Asian communism. Sihanouk easily reciprocated this mistrust because several developments aroused his suspicion of United States intentions toward his country. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

One of these developments was the growing United States influence within the Cambodian armed forces. The processing of equipment deliveries and the training of Cambodian personnel had forged close ties between United States military advisers and their Cambodian counterparts. Military officers of both nations also shared apprehensions about the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Sihanouk considered FARK to be Washington's most powerful constituency in his country. The prince also feared that a number of high-ranking, rightist FARK officers led by Lon Nol were becoming too powerful and that, by association with these officers, United States influence in Cambodia was becoming too deeply rooted. *

A second development included the repetition of overflights by United States and South Vietnamese military aircraft within Cambodian airspace and border incursions by South Vietnamese troops in hot pursuit of Viet Cong insurgents who crossed into Cambodian territory when military pressure upon them became too sustained. As the early 1960s wore on, this increasingly sensitive issue contributed to the deterioration of relations between Phnom Penh and Washington. *

A third development was Sihanouk's own belief that he had been targeted by United States intelligence agencies for replacement by a more pro-Western leader. Evidence to support this suspicion came to light in 1959 when the government discovered a plot to overthrow Sihanouk. The conspiracy involved several Khmer leaders suspected of American connections. Among them were Sam Sary, a leader of right-wing Khmer Serei troops in South Vietnam; Son Ngoc Thanh, the early nationalist leader once exiled into Thailand; and Dap Chhuon, the military governor of Siemreab Province. Another alleged plot involved Dap Chuon's establishment of a "free" state that would have included Siemreab Province and Kampong Thum (Kampong Thom) Province and the southern areas of Laos that were controlled by the rightist Laotian prince, Boun Oum. *

These developments, magnified by Sihanouk's abiding suspicions, eventually undermined Phnom Penh's relations with Washington. In 1963, Cambodia charged the United States and South Vietnam with border violations. Sihanouk. renounced American economic aid. In November 1963, the prince charged that the United States was continuing to support the subversive activities of the Khmer Serei in Thailand and in South Vietnam, and he announced the immediate termination of Washington's aid program to Cambodia. Relations continued to deteriorate, and the final break came in May 1965 amid increasing indications of airspace violations by South Vietnamese and by United States aircraft and of ground fighting between Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops and Viet Cong insurgents in the Cambodian border areas. *

Cambodia’s Relationship with North and South Vietnam in the 1960s

In the meantime, Cambodia's relations with North Vietnam and with South Vietnam, as well as the rupture with Washington, reflected Sihanouk's efforts to adjust to geopolitical realities in Southeast Asia and to keep his country out of the escalating conflict in neighboring South Vietnam. In the early to mid-1960s, this effort required a tilt toward Hanoi because the government in Saigon tottered on the brink of anarchy. In the cities, the administration of Ngo Dinh Diem and the military regimes that succeeded it had become increasingly ineffectual and unstable, while in the countryside the government forces were steadily losing ground to the Hanoi-backed insurgents. To observers in Phnom Penh, South Vietnam's short-term viability was seriously in doubt, and this compelled a new tack in Cambodian foreign policy. First, Cambodia severed diplomatic ties with Saigon in August 1963. The following March, Sihanouk announced plans to establish diplomatic relations with North Vietnam and to negotiate a border settlement directly with Hanoi. These plans were not implemented quickly, however, because the North Vietnamese told the prince that any problem concerning Cambodia's border with South Vietnam would have to be negotiated directly with the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFLSVN). Cambodia opened border talks with the front in mid-1966, and the latter recognized the inviolability of Cambodia's borders a year later. North Vietnam quickly followed suit. Cambodia was the first foreign government to recognize the NFLSVN's Provisional Revolutionary Government after it was established in June 1969. Sihanouk was the only foreign head of state to attend the funeral of Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam's deceased leader, in Hanoi three months later. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

In the late 1960s, while preserving relations with China and with North Vietnam, Sihanouk sought to restore a measure of equilibrium by improving Cambodia's ties with the West. This shift in course by the prince represented another adjustment to prevailing conditions in Southeast Asia. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were increasing their use of sanctuaries in Cambodia, which also served as the southern terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, their logistical resupply route originating in North Vietnam. Cambodian neutrality in the conflict thus was eroding, and China, preoccupied with its Cultural Revolution, did not intercede with Hanoi. On Cambodia's eastern border, South Vietnam, surprisingly, had not collapsed, even in the face of the communist Tet Offensive in 1968, and President Nguyen Van Thieu's government was bringing a measure of stability to the war-ravaged country. As the government in Phnom Penh began to feel keenly the loss of economic and military aid from the United States, which had totaled about US$400 million between 1955 and 1963, it began to have second thoughts about the rupture with Washington. The unavailability of American equipment and spare parts was exacerbated by the poor quality and the small numbers of Soviet, Chinese, and French substitutes. *

In late 1967 and in early 1968, Sihanouk signaled that he would raise no objection to hot pursuit of communist forces by South Vietnamese or by United States troops into Cambodian territory. Washington, in the meantime, accepted the recommendation of the United States Military Assistance Command--Vietnam (MACV) and, beginning in March 1969, ordered a series of airstrikes (dubbed the Menu series) against Cambodian sanctuaries used by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Whether or not these bombing missions were authorized aroused considerable controversy, and assertions by the Nixon administration that Sihanouk had "allowed" or even "encouraged" them were disputed by critics such as British journalist William Shawcross. On a diplomatic level, however, the Menu airstrikes did not impede bilateral relations from moving forward. In April 1969, Nixon sent a note to the prince affirming that the United States recognized and respected "the sovereignty, neutrality and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Cambodia with its present frontiers." Shortly thereafter, in June 1969, full diplomatic relations were restored between Phnom Penh and Washington. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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