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Although Cambodia had a rich and powerful past under the Hindu state of Funan and the Kingdom of Angkor, by the mid-19th century the country was on the verge of dissolution. After repeated requests for French assistance, a protectorate was established in 1863. By 1884, Cambodia was a virtual colony; soon after it was made part of the Indochina Union with Annam, Tonkin, Cochin-China, and Laos. France continued to control the country even after the start of World War II through its Vichy government.

The Allies deposed this government in October. In January 1953, Sihanouk named his father as regent and went into self-imposed exile, refusing to return until Cambodia gained genuine independence. Sihanouk's actions hastened the French Government's July 4, 1953 announcement of its readiness to grant independence, which came on November 9, 1953. The situation remained uncertain until a 1954 conference was held in Geneva to settle the French-Indochina war.

Cambodia first declared independence from the French while occupied by the Japanese. Sihanouk, then King, made the declaration on 12 March 1945, three days after Hirohito's Imperial Army seized and disarmed wavering French garrisons throughout Indo-China. Japan acted because of its alarm at the imminent collapse of the Third Reich in Europe, and fear that the garrisons, which had been pro-Vichy for most of the war, might switch sides.

In 1954 Sihanouk emerged from Geneva a national hero, and got on with the job of consolidating power. Sihanouk decided in early 1955 to put his popularity to the test, and called a nationwide referendum on his policies of the two previous years. He won 99% of the vote. Shortly thereafter, he abdicated as king, took on the title of "Prince," and formed his own political group, the Sangku. In elections in September 1955, his national party, the Sangkum swamped the opposition, including the Communist-supported Pracheachon Group.

Cambodia's foreign policy embarked on a course of "neutralism." After the "armed struggle" kicked off in South Vietnam, Saigon's position grew progressively worse. Convinced that Hanoi would eventually win, Sihanouk looked the other way when the Viet Cong began to operate from Cambodian soil. Furthermore, he left the Vietnamese communist organization in Phnom Penh and elsewhere more or less alone. America's entry into the fray in 1965 did not change his mind about the final outcome of the war. In early 1966, Cambodia began to deliver rice to the Communists. With Sihanouk's permission, Viet Cong-bound munitions deliveries began to arrive in the port of Sihanoukville that December. Formal arrangements concerning the delivery of munitions to the Viet Cong via Cambodia began in 1966. Although the exact timing of the arms deal is far from clear, both Sihanouk and Lon No1 were deeply involved. The first shipments took place in December 1966.

North Vietnamese supply lines ran through Cambodia and Laos, making those "neutral" states important ancillary theaters of combat. CIA officers in Laos had run an operation to arm and train Montagnard tribesmen since the early 1960s [some sources claim as early as 1955, without supporting explanation]. In 1964, the Army created a joint SF organization under the cover Military Assistance Command-Vietnam Studies and Observations Group, or MACV-SOG, to take control of CIA covert operations directed against North Vietnam. Previous efforts to establish agent networks had been un-successful, and the U.S. determined that the potential for developing resistance infrastructure was not present. The operational focus eventually changed to reconnaissance and interdiction operations along the Ho Chi Minh traili nside Laos and Cambodia, to coastal raids along the North Vietnamese coast and to propaganda and deception efforts within North Vietnam.

Under Operation 35 Green Beret-led reconnaissance (recon) teams comprised mostly of indigenous (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, or Montagnard) personnel were inserted into areas thought to be the most dangerous concentrations of North Vietnamese activity in Indochina. Invariably, this turned out to be exactly the case, and the teams either performed with skill, endurance, and valor, or they suffered tragically for their shortcomings. The price for such shortcomings varied only between death, capture, and torture, or simply vanishing from friendly sight to be listed as "Missing in Action" for all time to come.

Operation 35 didn't officially exist. Recon teams detected and attacked in Laos or Cambodia couldn't be publicly acknowledged, much less supported, by the US command in South Vietnam. As for Cambodia, it severed diplomatic relations with the US on 3 May 1965, in the process specifically and publicly forbidding any US military personnel on Cambodian soil. Cambodia was officially declared off-limits to US military personnel. Official US policy was as clear as it was simple: no tactical air support for SOG in Cambodia, not even for a team in trouble or a downed pilot.

The existence of Cambodian and Chinese mercenaries in SOG was a well-known feature of the organization from its earliest inception. An indigenous force thousands strong comprised of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese civilians hired, trained, and led by the Americans for a vicious war so secret that neither North Vietnam nor the US mentioned their existence. The incredible secrecy and priority accorded SOG's primary unconventional warfare missions (strategic reconnaissance, direct action, and psychological warfare) were due in part to the nature of the operations themselves, but largely because of where these operations took place. While official US policy forbade its military personnel from operating beyond South Vietnam's borders, SOG operations worked almost exclusively in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam. The families of those killed on operations in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam were told their sons and husbands died in South Vietnam while performing anything else but SOG operations.

Following the 1 November 1968 cessation of agent and leaflet flights into North Vietnam, the Blackbirds at Nha Trang flew only occasional unconventional warfare missions into Cambodia and Laos. For long-range infiltration of Operation 34 agents, the primary aircraft were the C-123K Provider and C-130E transports, both types commonly referred to as the "Blackbirds."The term Blackbirds was frequently applied to both the First Flight C-123Ks and the four C-130Es assigned to a different squadron.

Differences between the CIA and executive branch agencies intensified during the Nixon administration. The sharpest disagreements arose over Cambodia. In July 1969 the White House called for improved intelligence collection on Vietnam and Cambodia." Helms pushed for intensified efforts to shore up the "flimsiness" of the Agency's intelligence on these two countries and urged his DDI to be discriminating in forecasting the situation in Cambodia. But White House dissatisfaction with the quality of Agency reporting and analysis persisted. This discontent came to a head over the issue of North Vietnamese use of the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville for moving war materiel into South Vietnam.

CIA analysts arrived at a figure for tonnage funneled through Sihanoukville that was approximately half MACV's estimate. The problem remained in this unsatisfactory state until the CIA managed to recruit a source who had access to warehouse records listing Communist shipments received. These records revealed that tonnage flowing into Sihanoukville and thence into the battlefield in South Vietnam was much higher than the CIA analysts had estimated. Worse yet, they at least equaled the levels MACV analysts had predicted. DDI Smith reported to Helms in late July 1970 the receipt of the first solid Clandestine Services repprting on the Communist use of the port of Sihanoukville." This "excellent CIA reporting," Smith noted, brought into question all previous tonnage figures, which had been based primarily on SIGINT-derived shipping data."

The entire episode served only to reinforce the negative impression of the quality of CIA analysis held by menibers of the Nixon administration. To Nixon, Laird, and Kissinger it seemed CIA had taken a negative, antiwar line in its opposition to MACV's order-of-battle figures. in its pessimistic assessment of the ROLLING THUNDER bombing program, and now in its tardiness in recognizing the importance of Sihanoukville.

The arrival of Hanoi-trained cadres in the Cambodian interior led to unrest which local authorities found increasingly hard to contain. By late 1969 the rebellion had reached a point where it seemed an eventual threat to Phnom Penh. The opinion that Communist-run uprisings were a threat to the future internal stability of the country came to be shared by politicians in Phnom Penh, including Lon No1 and Sirik Matak. The unrest, along with the continuing presence of Viet Cong bases on Cambodian soil, were major contributing factors to the politicians increasing distrust of Sihanouk's leadership. Most peasants still thought well of the Prince, but his prestige among the politicians and intellectuals in Phnom Penh had greatly diminished. Of the various reasons behind the decline, one far transcended the others. This was the problem of what to do about the Communists, Vietnamese, but also local, who were operating in larger and larger tracts of Cambodian territory. To their dismay throughout 1969, however, the Vietcong saw the "right" gain strength. A review by the COSVN Border Defense Command of the first six months of the year stated the "Cambodian rightists now have the conditions and opportunity to act;" they intended to destroy "the revolutionary movement" in Cambodia, and "bribed by the US" -- to attack the Viet Cong on the frontier. On 6 January 1970, Sihanouk left Cambodia for France, partly for health, but mostly to remove himself from the political pressures gathering in Phnom Penh.

Sihanouk's overthrow on 18 March 1970, although startling perhaps in the immediate sense, was not for the Communists a strategic surprise. Among those 'behind the Assembly's move were Lon No1 and Sirik Matak, the "rightists" of the Viet Cong documents. By one account, the "hugely popular and democratically elected Norodom Sihanouk is deposed by CIA in Cambodia and replaced by the incompetent Lon Nol who allowed US troops access to Cambodia to prosecute the Vietnam War. Traditionally, especially during the fight for independence from the French, the Vietnamese and Cambodians had been allies and Sihanouk retained his friendship with China and North Vietnam, thus his US sponsored ouster." Other accounts are more cautious. Even Bill Blum writes that "To what extent, if any, the United States played a direct role in the coup has not been established, but there are circumstances and testimony pointing to American complicity."

The Vietnamese Communist invasion of Cambodia began in early April 1970. By 20 April 1970 a COSVN document claimed that the VietCong had "liberated" a million people. Large numbers of Vietnamese, who comprised some 7% of Cambodia's population, already belonged to some kind of Party-run organization. Likewise, the overseas Chinese, making up 5% of the population, were heavily pro-Communist. The US incursion into Cambodia started on 01 May 1970. It lasted only two months, was confined to the border, and therefore was in no position to check the Communists' progress in the interior. Shortly after the US offensive was over, a Viet Cong document claimed that the Communists claimed to control some two-and-a-half million of Cambodia's seven million people.

The AC-130 Shadows supported the massive US and South Vietnamese attack on North Vietnamese base camps in Cambodia. But while the allied forces soon returned to South Vietnam, the gunships stayed deep in Cambodia in a desperate attempt to bolster government forces against the Khmer Rouge. This highly classified gunship operation required fakeflight and expended-ammunition logs showing operating locations within South Vietnamese borders. Fortunately for US public policy, no gunship was shot down in Cambodia during this period. The last Spectre combat mission in the region was flown over Cambodia on 15 August 1973.

By 1974, Lon Nol's control was reduced to small enclaves around the cities and main transportation routes. More than 2 million refugees from the war lived in Phnom Penh and other cities. On New Year's Day 1975, communist troops launched an offensive that, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, destroyed the Khmer Republic.

Prince Sihanouk formed his own organization, National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), and its military arm, the Armee Nationale Sihanoukienne (ANS) in 1981. Prince Sihanouk, President of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia (SNC), and other members of the SNC returned to Phnom Penh in November 1991, to begin the resettlement process in Cambodia. A new constitution was promulgated September 24, 1993. It established a multiparty liberal democracy in the framework of a constitutional monarchy, with the former Prince Sihanouk elevated to King.

In October 2004, King Norodom SIHANOUK abdicated the throne and his son, Prince Norodom SIHAMONI, was selected to succeed him. Local elections were held in Cambodia in April 2007, and there was little in the way of pre-election violence that preceded prior elections. National elections in July 2008 were relatively peaceful.

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:07 ZULU