Find a Security Clearance Job!


Sihanouk - Domestic Developments

Cambodian society was exceptionally homogeneous. The interests and attitudes of the people revolve around Buddhism and the seasonal cycle of planting and harvesting, not national politics, which for them consisted largely of reverence for their national leader whom they considered the personification of Khmer civilization. Most Cambodians thought of themselves as citizens of a nation, but their political views were limited to a reflection of the opinions set forth by the government-controlled news media. Basically, they accepted the paternal authoritarianism of the Prince and supported his programs and policies.

Prince Sihanuok, who represented the connecting link between traditional and modernizing forces, was the dominant element in the political dynamics of the country. He sought to preserve the monarchy and the Buddhist values of the nation, but he also rigorously favored a program emphasizing education and state enterprise. Thus, he preserved the position and belief of the traditional leadership while actively pursuing goals also sought by the members of the young elite who have had a Western-type of education.

There was little opposition to the government from outside the political sphere. No economic group was sufficiently organized to oppose the Prince. Theravada Buddhism, the state religion, was practiced by approximately 85 percent of the people and had not been a source of conflict. The ethnic minorities were in no position to challenge the government, and the Vietnamese and Chinese, though influential in the economic field, were denied citizenship.

Each of the three basic social classes supported the Prince. The upper class, which consisted of the Royal Family, the related aristocracy and the highest ranking officials in governmental, religious and military institutions, derived its power through prestige, wealth and, sometimes, education. The middle class, comprised of teachers, civil servants, politicians, professionals and military officers, was loyal to the Sangkum. The positions of this class, in fact, depended upon this loyalty, but other than those active in politics most had no strong political orientation. The farmers and unskilled laborers who comprised approximately 80 percent of the population and made up the lower class strongly supported their national leader and former king. Their source of public information was controlled by the government, and the countryside was sufficiently rich to satisfy their basic needs.

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.

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.

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.

In 1966 two focal points of opposition to the Prince's policies emerged in the National Assembly: a pro-Communist China leftist group [the Reds - Khmer Rouge] and a moderate group [the Blues - Khmer Bleu] that believed in a stricter adherence to neutralism. The conflict between the Blues and the Reds was fought openly after the 1966 elections, in which competition within the Sangkum was permitted. TThe new National Assembly, the most conservative elected by the Sangkum, selected Lon Nol, long-term Minister of National Defense and Chief of Staff of the Royal Army, as President of the Council of Ministers. The new Cabinet, although approved by Prince Sihanouk, was considered by him to be too conservative.

The conflict resulted in a number of Cabinet changes under the direction of the Prince who, through 1967, successfully balanced the opposing forces in the party and the government. 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'tat 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.

In the spring of 1967 a rebellion broke out in Battambang, and Prince Sihanouk implicated five leftists in the rebellion and then appointed two of them, including Chau Seng, to an emergency Cabinet which he formed. Six months later he dismissed the two men for their strong support of Communist China. He then threatened to resign and turn over the government to the armed forces, which he said would turn to the West for help. Outside observers considered the threat to be a tactic to keep the government balanced.

Join the mailing list