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Cambodia Under Sihanouk - 1949-1970

The rules for succession were vague in Cambodia, and King Norodom Sihanouk Varman had been placed on the throne by the French in 1941 in preference to the heir presumptive, who was said to be independent-minded. The French preferred Sihanouk to a Sissavong who had a better claim on the throne but was less pliable and older than Sihanouk. Sihanouk was only 18 years old at that tine. Sihanouk was schooled by French advisers. He really was a popular ruler and many rural folks in Cambodia looked up to him. Sihanouk basically had the support of the ordinary people of Cambodia.

To French officers in Cambodia, the little protectorate was a backwater in the war against the Viet Minh for control of Indo-China. The squalid little capital at Phnom Penh offered neither the comforts of Saigon nor the satisfaction which attended field service against the Viet Minh. The Franco-Cambodian treaty of November 8, 1949, made Cambodia an internally self-governing monarchy, but had left military and foreign affairs largely in the hands of the French. Cambodia's 10,000-man army was under French control, and the accreditation of ambassadors was subject to French concurrence.

Various French cabinets, viewing Cambodia as part of the Indo-China whole, feared that an "independent" Cambodia would be quickly absorbed by the Viet Minh, and were dubious concerning the quality of Cambodia's political leadership. Early experiments with parliamentary democracy were unpromising, and corrupt ion was endemic among Cambodian officialdom. Politically-aware Cambodians tended to divide in their allegiance, with some supporting Sihanouk and others favoring Son Ngoc Thanh, an ex-premier whose underground independence movement tended to attract leitist and anti-royalist elements.

In 1947 the first elections to the legislature were held, and the Democrats gained 55 of the 75 seats. They repeated their victory in the 1951 elections and won 54 of the 78 seats. Victory was deceptive, however, because the Democrats, who should have been able to achieve their legislative goals, accomplished little. The Democrat Party was composed of a young French-educated elite that was supported by the civil servants, rising middle-class townspeople, buJ!eaucrjlts and teachers and part of the Buddhist clergy. They struggled more for personal power than.to represent any particular constituency. Factionalism and the exploitation of the functions of their office for personal gain rendered them ineffective. Twenty-two Cabinets fell between 1947 and 1953.

On 15 June 1952, Sihanouk dismissed the Democratic cabinet and personally took over the government. The Assembly continued to meet, but was powerless. Sihanouk insisted that he had done nothing but exercise his royal prerogative in the interest of order, and heatedly denied that he had sold out to the French. In December 1952, Sihanouk appealed to the Assembly for a state of emergency, citing the continued dissidence of Thanh, a strike among students in Phnom Benh, and two bomb-throwing incidents growing out of the student grievances. When the Assembly refused, Sihanouk played his trump card. On 14 January 1953 he had 12 deputies arrested, proclaimed martial law, and dissolved the Assembly. As "Premier" to handle routine matters he named a personal lieutenant, Penn Nouth. In an address to his people the King asked three years in which to achieve complete independence.

Sihanouk's coup of January 1953 was, in retrospect, the death knell for democracy in Cambodia. Whether a western form of govesment could have taken root may be questioned; in any case, the coup gave complete power to Sihanouk. The years of the "royal mandate" were fruitful ones: grants of amnesty depleted the ranks of Thanh's Khmer Issarak (Free Cambodia) adherents, and threats of drastic action by Sihanouk led France to grant full independence in November 1953, Sihanouk succeeded in discrediting the once-popular Son Ngoc Thanh to most of his five million countrymen, and in so doing reinforced the prestige of the throne.

Although Cambodia had achieved independence by late 1953, its military situation remained unsettled. Non-communist factions of the Khmer Issarak had joined the government, but communist Viet Minh activities increased at the very time French Union force were stretched thin elsewhere. In April 1954, several Viet Minh battalions crossed the border into Cambodia. Royalist forces engaged them but could not force their complete withdrawal. In part, the communists were attempting to strengthen their bargaining position at the Geneva Conference that had been scheduled to begin in late April.

The Geneva Conference was attended by representatives of Cambodia, North Vietnam, the Associated State of Vietnam (the predecessor of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam), Laos, the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, France, Britain, and the United States. One goal of the conference was to restore a lasting peace in Indochina. The discussions on Indochina began on May 8, 1954. The North Vietnamese attempted to get representation for the resistance government that had been established in the south, but failed.

On July 21, 1954, the conference reached an agreement calling for a cessation of hostilities in Indochina. With respect to Cambodia, the agreement stipulated that all Viet Minh military forces be withdrawn within ninety days and that Cambodian resistance forces be demobilized within thirty days. In a separate agreement signed by the Cambodian representative, the French and the Viet Minh agreed to withdraw all forces from Cambodian soil by October 1954.

In exchange for the withdrawal of Viet Minh forces, the communist representatives in Geneva wanted full neutrality for Cambodia and for Laos that would prevent the basing of United States military forces in these countries. On the eve of the conference's conclusion, however, the Cambodian representative, Sam Sary, insisted that, if Cambodia were to be genuinely independent, it must not be prohibited from seeking whatever military assistance it desired (Cambodia had earlier appealed to Washington for military aid). The conference accepted this point over North Vietnam's strenuous objections. In the final agreement, Cambodia accepted a watered-down neutrality, vowing not to join any military alliance "not in conformity with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations" or to allow the basing of foreign military forces on its territory "as long as its security is not threatened."

The conference agreement established the International Control Commission (officially called the International Commission for Supervision and Control) in all the Indochinese countries. Made up of representatives from Canada, Poland, and India, it supervised the cease-fire, the withdrawal of foreign troops, the release of prisoners of war, and overall compliance with the terms of the agreement. The French and most of the Viet Minh forces were withdrawn on schedule in October 1954.

The Geneva agreement also 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.

The abdication appears to have been a sudden decision, and in part the result of Sihanouk's sensitivity to criticism, but the ex-King did not lack for courses of action. Within weeks he was devoting all his energies to organizing a new political movement, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, the People's Socialist Community. It became apparent that Sihanouk had left the throne largely to gain more effective control of the political arena.

Although Cambodia never suffered from internal cleavages comparable to those which afflicted Laos and Vietnam, politics tended to be chaotic. There were few trained administrators, and Sihanouk's vanity was such that he often failed to make effective use of those he had. Capable officials were easily discredited by rivals, who found in Sihanouk a receptive ear to rumors and gossip. The Prince's own behavior was erratic: in the two years following his abdication, he resigned the premiership three times, generally over minor issues which he felt reflected criticism of himself. "Interim" premiers, however, were always approved by Sihanouk and most often were handpicked by him.



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