The Struggle for Independence
Cambodia's situation at the end of the war was chaotic. The Free French, under General Charles de Gaulle, 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. Neither the urban professional elites nor the common people, however, were attracted by this arrangement. For Cambodians of practically all walks of life, the brief period of independence, from March to October of 1945, was an invigorating breath of fresh air. The lassitude of the Khmer was a thing of the past.
In Phnom Penh, Sihanouk, acting as head of state, was placed in the extremely delicate position of negotiating with the French for full independence while trying to neutralize party politicians and supporters of the Khmer Issarak and Viet Minh who considered him a French collaborator. During the tumultuous period between 1946 and 1953, Sihanouk displayed the remarkable aptitude for political survival that sustained him before and after his fall from power in March 1970. The Khmer Issarak was an extremely heterogeneous guerrilla movement, operating in the border areas. The group included indigenous leftists, Vietnamese leftists, antimonarchical nationalists (Khmer Serei) loyal to Son Ngoc Thanh, and plain bandits taking advantage of the chaos to terrorize villagers. Though their fortunes rose and fell during the immediate postwar period (a major blow was the overthrow of a friendly leftist government in Bangkok in 1947), by 1954 the Khmer Issarak operating with the Viet Minh by some estimates controlled as much as 50 percent of Cambodia's territory.
In 1946 the French allowed the Cambodians to form political parties and to hold elections for a Consultative Assembly that would advise the monarch on drafting the country's constitution. The two major parties were both headed by royal princes. The Democratic Party, led by Prince Sisowath Yuthevong, espoused immediate independence, democratic reforms, and parliamentary government. Its supporters were teachers, civil servants, politically active members of the Buddhist priesthood, and others whose opinions had been greatly influenced by the nationalistic appeals of Nagaravatta before it was closed down by the French in 1942. Many Democrats sympathized with the violent methods of the Khmer Issarak. The Liberal Party, led by Prince Norodom Norindeth, represented the interests of the old rural elites, including large landowners. They preferred continuing some form of the colonial relationship with France, and advocated gradual democratic reform. In the Consultative Assembly election held in September 1946, the Democrats won fifty out of sixty-seven seats.
With a solid majority in the assembly, the Democrats drafted a constitution modeled on that of the French Fourth Republic. Power was concentrated in the hands of a popularly elected National Assembly. The king reluctantly proclaimed the new constitution on May 6, 1947. While it recognized him as the "spiritual head of the state," it reduced him to the status of a constitutional monarch, and it left unclear the extent to which he could play an active role in the politics of the nation. Sihanouk would turn this ambiguity to his advantage in later years, however.
In the December 1947 elections for the National Assembly, the Democrats again won a large majority. Despite this, dissension within the party was rampant. Its founder, Prince Yuthevong, had died and no clear leader had emerged to succeed him. During the period 1948 to 1949, the Democrats appeared united only in their opposition to legislation sponsored by the king or his appointees. A major issue was the king's receptivity to independence within the French Union, proposed in a draft treaty offered by the French in late 1948. Following dissolution of the National Assembly in September 1949, agreement on the pact was reached through an exchange of letters between King Sihanouk and the French government. It went into effect two months later, though National Assembly ratification of the treaty was never secured.
The treaty granted Cambodia what Sihanouk called "fifty percent independence": by it, the colonial relationship was formally ended, and the Cambodians were given control of most administrative functions. Cambodian armed forces were granted freedom of action within a self-governing autonomous zone comprising Batdambang and Siemreab provinces, which had been recovered from Thailand after World War II, but which the French, hard-pressed elsewhere, did not have the resources to control. Cambodia was still required to coordinate foreign policy matters with the High Council of the French Union, however, and France retained a significant measure of control over the judicial system, finances, and customs. Control of wartime military operations outside the autonomous zone remained in French hands. France was also permitted to maintain military bases on Cambodian territory. In 1950 Cambodia was accorded diplomatic recognition by the United States and by most noncommunist powers, but in Asia only Thailand and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) extended recognition.
The Democrats won a majority in the second National Assembly election in September 1951, and they continued their policy of opposing the king on practically all fronts. In an effort to win greater popular approval, Sihanouk asked the French to release nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh from exile and to allow him to return to his country. He made a triumphant entry into Phnom Penh on October 29, 1951. It was not long, however, before he began demanding withdrawal of French troops from Cambodia. He reiterated this demand in early 1952 in Khmer Krok (Khmer Awake!) a weekly newspaper that he had founded. The newspaper was forced to cease publication in March, and Son Ngoc Thanh fled the capital with a few armed followers to join the Khmer Issarak. Branded alternately a communist and an agent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by Sihanouk, he remained in exile until Lon Nol established the Khmer Republic in 1970.
In June 1952, Sihanouk announced the dismissal of his cabinet, suspended the constitution, and assumed control of the government as prime minister. Then, without clear constitutional sanction, he dissolved the National Assembly and proclaimed martial law in January 1953. Sihanouk exercised direct rule for almost three years, from June 1952 until February 1955. After dissolution of the assembly, he created an Advisory Council to supplant the legislature and appointed his father, Norodom Suramarit, as regent.
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 climate of opinion in Cambodia at the time was such that if he did not achieve full independence quickly, the people were likely to turn to Son Ngoc Thanh and the Khmer Issarak, who were fully committed to attaining that goal. At meetings with the French president and with other high officials, the French suggested that Sihanouk was unduly "alarmist" about internal political conditions. The French also made the thinly veiled threat that, if he continued to be uncooperative, they might replace him. 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.
To further dramatize his "royal crusade for independence," Sihanouk, declaring that he would not return until the French gave assurances that full independence would be granted, left Phnom Penh in June to go into self-imposed exile in Thailand. Unwelcome in Bangkok, he moved to his royal villa near the ruins of Angkor in Siemreab Province. Siemreab, part of the autonomous military zone established in 1949, was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lon Nol, formerly a right-wing politician who was becoming a prominent, and in time would be an indispensable, Sihanouk ally within the military. From his Siemreab base, the king and Lon Nol contemplated plans for resistance if the French did not meet their terms.
Sihanouk was making a high-stakes gamble, for the French could easily have replaced him with a more pliable monarch; however, the military situation was deteriorating throughout Indochina, and the French government, on July 3, 1953, declared itself ready to grant full independence to the three states of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Sihanouk insisted on his own terms, which included full control of national defense, the police, the courts, and financial matters. The French yielded: the police and the judiciary were transferred to Cambodian control at the end of August, and in October the country assumed full command of its military forces. King Sihanouk, now a hero in the eyes of his people, returned to Phnom Penh in triumph, and independence day was celebrated on November 9, 1953. Control of residual matters affecting sovereignty, such as financial and budgetary affairs, passed to the new Cambodian state in 1954.
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