Modern History of Cambodia

Norodom Sihanouk, a key figure in Cambodian politics after World War IIUnlike Vietnam, Cambodian nationalism was politically quiet at the beginning of the 20th century.

This was probably so because of the reigning monarch and the way the French handled the monarchy. Khmer villages who were used to abuse of power believed that if the monarch was on the throne, Cambodia was fine as it was.

At the same time, low literacy rates in Cambodia, which the French were reluctant to improve, stopped nationalist currents to spread.

World War II

In 1940, Japanese forces moved into Vietnam and displaced French authority. In mid-1941, they entered Cambodia but allowed Vichy French colonial officials to remain at their administrative posts.

King Monivong died in April 1941. The French chose Prince Norodom Sihanouk as his successor. They reckoned he was an ideal candidate because of his youth (he was nineteen years old), his lack of experience, and his pliability. Sihanouk would prove them to be very wrong.

Cambodia’s situation at the end of World War II was chaotic. The French were determined to recover Indochina, though they offered Cambodia and the other Inchochinese protectorates a carefully circumscribed measure of self-government. Convinced that they had a civilizing mission, they envisioned Indochina’s participation in a French Union of former colonies that shared the common experience of French culture.

Independence for Cambodia

In March 1953, Sihanouk went to France. Ostensibly, he was traveling for his health; actually, he was mounting an intensive campaign to persuade the French to grant complete independence. The trip appeared to be a failure, but on his way home by way of the United States, Canada, and Japan, Sihanouk publicized Cambodia’s plight in the media.

Cambodia's Independence Monument in Phnom Penh

Sihanouk’s Royal Crusade for Independence resulted in grudging French acquiescence to his demands for a transfer of sovereignty. King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh in triumph, and independence day was celebrated on 9 November 1953. Wanting to be released from the pressures of the monarchy, Sihanouk abdicated the throne and became a full time politician.

Sihanouk into Politics

He started a political faction called the People’s Socialist Community (Sangkum Reastr Niyum) which then won by a landslide in the 1955 national elections. In part the success was due to his popularity, but also from police brutality at the polling stations.

In 1960, when his father died he was named head of state (up until then he’d been the prime minister).

Throughout the 1960s, domestic Cambodian politics became polarized. Opposition to the government grew within the middle class and leftists including Paris-educated leaders like Son Sen, Ieng Sary, and Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot), who led an insurgency under the clandestine Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).

Sihanouk called these insurgents the Khmer Rouge, literally the ‘Red Khmer’. Although Sihanouk had remained neutral regarding the tensions in Vietnam, he changed his position in 1965 and eliminated diplomatic relations with the US.

At the same time he allowed the Communist Vietnamese access to Cambodian soil to set up bases, while refusing the United States to use Cambodian air space and airports for military purposes. This upset the United States greatly. The Americans saw Sihanouk as a North Vietnamese sympathizer and the CIA began plans to get rid of Sihanouk.

Then Prince Norodom Sihanouk with China's Chairman Mao

Sihanouk Ousted

While Sihanouk was abroad in 1970, he was ousted from power and fled to China. General Lon Nol, the prime minister, had hoped for US aid, but the US was occupied with Vietnamese troubles and didn’t help. To add to Lon Nol’s problems, Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge government in exile.

While in exile, Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge

US helps rise of Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge became a thorn in Lon Nol’s side along with the Vietnamese until the Khmer regime collapsed. Another contributing factor to the collapse were the repeated US bombings of the Cambodian countryside.

The actions of the South Vietnamese troops in Cambodia and the heavy U.S. air bombings in their support, with the inevitable destruction of villages and killing of civilians, alienated many Cambodians and created considerable sympathy for the Communists. The Khmer Rouge numbers increased from about 3,000 in March 1970 to over 30,000 within a few years.

US bombings in Cambodia

Despite extensive U.S. military aid to the Lon Nol regime, the Khmer Rouge retained firm control of the northeast provinces and most of the countryside. Eventually, more and more territory fell into Communist hands. The government’s military position became desperate with an increasingly beleaguered Phnom Penh. In September 1972 severe food shortages in the Cambodian capital sparked two days of rioting and large-scale looting. Lon Nol exerted an increasingly oppressive rule, with massive political arrests and newspaper seizures.

On New Year’s Day 1975, the Khmer Rouge launched an offensive which, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, collapsed the Khmer Republic. A US-funded airlift of ammunition and rice ended when the American Congress refused additional aid for Cambodia. The Lon Nol government in Phnom Penh surrendered on April 17, 1975, just five days after the US mission evacuated Cambodia.

Democratic Kampuchea

Khmer Rouge soldiers entering Phnom Penh

The Khmer Rouge felt antipathy toward Cambodians living in urban areas. Immediately after its victory, the Khmer Rouge ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns, sending the entire urban population into the countryside to work as farmers. Thousands starved or died of disease during the evacuation and its aftermath. Hunger and malnutrition – bordering on starvation – were constant during the years the Khmer Rouge were in power.

Leading the Khmer Rouge was a man by the name of Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot. The derision and ill-treatment felt towards the former city dwellers was slightly better than the treatment of anyone intellectual, religious, and those who were believed to be against the regime – their punishment was death. During Pol Pot’s regime over twenty percent of Cambodia’s population was murdered.

While communist, the Khmer Rouge was fiercely nationalistic, and most of its members who had lived in Vietnam were purged. Democratic Kampuchea established close ties with the People’s Republic of China, and the Cambodian-Vietnamese conflict became part of the Sino-Soviet rivalry, with Moscow backing Vietnam. Border clashes worsened when the Democratic Kampuchea military attacked villages in Vietnam. The regime broke off relations with Hanoi in December 1977, protesting Vietnam’s alleged attempt to create an Indochina Federation.

The Khmer Rouge’s plan to attack Vietnam backfired when the Vietnamese surprised Cambodia with an attack of over 100,000 troops. They were accompanied by Cambodian Communist rebels and managed to invade Phnom Penh, which had been vacated by the Khmer Rouge the day before. The Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot among them, fled to the Thai-Cambodian border, where they were given asylum by the Thai government, which was unfriendly to Vietnam.

Vietnamese Occupation

The Vietnamese established a puppet regime in Cambodia that included many former members of the Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam before 1975, like Heng Samrin and current prime minister Hun Sen.

Not to be swayed, the Khmer Rouge and it’s followers created a government that was hostile to Vietnam while in exile, also known as DK. The UN upheld this government in exile, with the support given to it by the US, China and Thailand. With more ensuing conflicts between the two governments, many of Cambodia’s finest along with the general population, totalling over half a million people, resettled in other countries.

By the end of 1989, the Cold War had ended which had the Vietnamese exiting Cambodia. Without financial support from the Soviets, the Vietnamese couldn’t keep their troops in the country.

Read more: Early History of Cambodia

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