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Japanese Occupation - 1940-1945

The Khmer were fortunate in escaping the suffering endured by most other Southeast Asian peoples during World War II. After the establishment of the Vichy regime in France in 1940, Japanese forces moved into Vietnam and displaced French authority. The Japanese government, after negotiating a treaty of friendship with Thailand, sought special concessions in Indochina from the French colonial authorities. The Vichy administration in Hanoi, under pressure from the German government, signed an agreement with Tokyo that permitted the movement of Japanese troops through the transportation hubs of Indochina. In mid-1941, the Japanese entered Cambodia but allowed Vichy French colonial officials to remain at their administrative posts.

The pro-Japanese regime in Thailand, headed by Prime Minister Field Marshal Luang Plaek Phibunsonggram, requested assurances from the Vichy regime that, in the event of an interruption of French sovereignty, Cambodian and Laotian territories formerly belonging to Thailand would be returned to Bangkoh's authority. The request was rejected. Thailand sought to take advantage of both its friendship with Tokyo and French military weakness in the region by launching an invasion of Cambodia's western provinces in January 1941. Although the French suffered a series of land defeats in the indecisive skirmishes that followed, a unique twist in the confrontation came from a naval battle that ensued near the Thai island of Ko Chang. A small French naval force intercepted a Thai battle fleet, en route to attack Saigon, and sank two battleships and other light craft.

After the Vichy French defeated the Thai navy in the engagement in the Gulf of Thailand, Tokyo intervened. The Japanese arranged a treaty, signed in Tokyo in March 1941, compelling the French to concede to Thailand the provinces of Batdambang, part of the provinces of Siemreab, Kampong Thum and Stoeng Treng in exchange for a small compensation. The Cambodians were allowed to retain Angkor, but Cambodia lost one-third of its territory and nearly half a million citizens. Thai aggression, however, had minimal impact on the lives of most Cambodians outside the northwestern region.

King Monivong died in April 1941. Although his son, Prince Monireth, had been considered the heir apparent, the French chose instead Norodom Sihanouk, the great grandson of King Norodom. Sihanouk was an ideal candidate from their point of view because of his youth (he was nineteen years old), his lack of experience, and his pliability.

The Japanese, while leaving the Vichy colonial government nominally in charge throughout Indochina, established in Cambodia a garrison that numbered 8,000 troops by August 1941. Preservation of order on a day-to-day basis, however, continued to be the responsibility of the colonial authorities, who were permitted to retain the constabulary and the light infantry battalion. These forces were sufficient to quell the first stirrings of nationalistic unrest in 1941 and in 1942.

Japanese calls of "Asia for the Asiatics" found a receptive audience among Cambodian nationalists, although Tokyo's policy in Indochina was to leave the colonial government nominally in charge. When a prominent, politically active Buddhist monk, Hem Chieu, was arrested and unceremoniously defrocked by the French authorities in July 1942, the editors of Nagaravatta led a demonstration demanding his release. They as well as other nationalists apparently overestimated the Japanese willingness to back them, for the Vichy authorities quickly arrested the demonstrators and gave Pach Chhoeun, one of the Nagaravatta editors, a life sentence. The other editor, Son Ngoc Thanh, escaped from Phnom Penh and turned up the following year in Tokyo.

Anti-French agitation assumed a more overt form, in July 1942, when early nationalist leaders Pach Chhoeun and Son Ngoc Thanh organized a demonstration in Phnom Penh over an obscure incident involving Cambodian military personnel. In this occurrence, a monk named Hem Chieu attempted to subvert some Khmer military personnel by involving them in vague coup plotting against the colonial administration. The plot was discovered, and the monk was arrested; Chhoeun and Thanh, believing they had tacit Japanese support, staged a march on the French residency by some 2,000 people, many of them monks. The repressive reaction by the colonial authorities resulted in many injuries and in mass arrests. Although the Japanese failed to support Thanh as he had expected, they spirited him away to Japan, where he was trained for the next three years and was commissioned a captain in the Japanese army. Chhoeun was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.

In a desperate effort to enlist local support in the final months of the war, on March 9, 1945, Japanese forces in Indochina, including those in Cambodia, overthrew the French colonial administration; and, in a bid to revive the flagging support of local populations for Tokyo's war effort, they encouraged indigenous rulers to proclaim independence within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Four days later, King Sihanouk decreed an independent Kampuchea (the original Khmer pronunciation of Cambodia). Son Ngoc Thanh returned from Tokyo in May 1945, and he was appointed foreign minister.

Tokyo did not plan to leave the Indochinese countries without a military force following the March 9 coup. During this period of Japanese-sponsored independence, the fate of the constabulary and of the light infantry battalion remained uncertain. The battalion apparently was demobilized for the most part, while the constabulary remained in place but was reduced to ineffectuality. Presumably both forces were leaderless because their French officers were interned by the Japanese for the remainder of the war. Plans had been prepared for the creation of 5 volunteer units of 1,000 troops each. There was no thought that such a native force would fight alongside Japanese troops, but rather that it would be used to preserve public order and internal security. It was intended that recruitment of indigenous personnel for the volunteer units would be through physical and written exams. Before the plan could be implemented in Cambodia, however, the war ended, and the concept died without further action.

On August 15, 1945, the day Japan surrendered, a new government was established with Son Ngoc Thanh acting as prime minister. When an Allied force occupied Phnom Penh in October, Thanh was arrested for collaboration with the Japanese and was sent into exile in France to remain under house arrest. Some of his supporters went to northwestern Cambodia, then still under Thai control, where they banded together as one faction in the Khmer Issarak movement, originally formed with Thai encouragement in the 1940s.

The conclusion of World War II caused considerable turmoil in Cambodia: a defeated Japanese military contingent waited to be disarmed and repatriated; French nationals newly released from internment sought to resume their prewar existence; diverse Allied military units returned to Phnom Penh to reimpose a colonial administration. In the countryside there were two sources of unrest. On the western fringes of the country, the Khmer Issarak (see Appendix B), nationalist insurgents with Thai backing, declared their opposition to a French return to power in Cambodia, proclaimed a government-in-exile, and established a base in Batdambang Province (see fig. 1). On the eastern frontier, the Vietnamese communist forces, or Viet Minh infiltrated the Cambodian border provinces, organized a "Khmer People's Liberation Army" (not to be confused with the later Cambodian force, the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People's National Liberation Armed Forces [KPNLAF], which is sometimes called the Khmer People's National Liberation Army), and began seeking a united front with the Khmer Issarak.



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