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Cambodia - an historical sketch

French Colonialism

Conflict continued between Cambodia and Thailand, ebbing and flowing until the first Europeans began arriving in the 1500’s. Portugese, Dutch, Spanish, French and English all made appearances in their quest to carve up South-East Asia. By the 1800’s, the French, having succeeded in colonizing Vietnam, turned their attention to Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

With the British in Burma and Malaysia, Thailand survived independently by very clever diplomacy, aided by the geographical ‘buffer factor’, as an independent Asian nation (the only one, by the way) separating British and French colonies. As part of this drama, Thailand and France were in talks regarding the status of Cambodia. Thailand still claimed large sections of Cambodia and Laos, however French pressure resulted in the Thai’s relinquishing their claim and the modern borders of Cambodia were delineated. Cambodia was now a French colony.

Colonization of Southeast Asia was hardly a new idea. Every major European nation had sought to gain control of a piece of the silk and spice trade that lured European nations to the region. In the big scheme of things Cambodia was of little value from a trade standpoint, but it became quite important as the geographic eastern edge of French influence in the region.

The French, who already controlled Cochin China (present day south Vietnam), saw opportunity to increase their sway over the region by taking advantage of the relative weakness of the Cambodian nation, which, as mentioned, was largely controlled by Thailand.

Cambodian King Norodom also saw advantage of being under the ‘protection’ of the French and signed a treaty in 1863. The next year France annexed Cambodia, and for the next 75years administered its affairs. This was a relatively peaceful time, which continued until the death of King Sisowath in 1941. The French, wanted a ‘King’ compliant to their wishes - they did not want the heir-apparent, Prince Sirik Matak, to ascend the throne. They preferred another royal bloodline, and chose 19 year old Norodom Sihanouk to be the new monarch.

King Norodom Sihanouk

World War II and the rapid control of Southeast Asia by the Japanese changed the regional power structure. The Japanese allowed Sihanouk to continue to rule, while permitting the pro-axis Vichy French to administer control of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. The Japanese also began to stir the nationalistic feelings of these countries with the hope of simultaneously developing pro-Japanese and anti-European sentiment. As occupiers, the Japanese proved to be even less welcome than the French, but even as they were losing control of the region towards the end of WWII, they encouraged the ‘Kings’ of Cambodia (Sihanouk), Laos (Sisavong Vong), and Vietnam (Bao Dai) to declare their independence from France.

During WWII, factions within Vietnam had fought the Japanese with American support in return for the promise of independence at the wars end. In spite of the promise, the Treaty of Potsdam attended by Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt, handed back all three countries to the control of the French. Vietnamese reaction was immediate. Ho Chi Minh and his forces refused to accept the French directed leadership of the country by Bao Dai, and briefly occupied Hanoi, but were quickly forced into a guerrilla warfare action after being forced into the countryside by the French, who were supplied with American material. 

Faced with a guerilla war in Vietnam, France did not have the resources to deal with a similar situation in Cambodia, so with some clever International politicking Sihanouk won Cambodia’s independence in October of 1953. The French suffered a defeat of huge proportions at the hands of the Vietnamese (now Communist) forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In an effort to bring peace to the region the Geneva Accord of 1954 recognize North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam, led by Bao Dai.

Independence Monument, Phnom Penh (copyright Ethan Crowley)

Both Cambodia and Laos were to be guaranteed their neutrality under this agreement.

In a brilliant political, maneuver Sihanouk took advantage of the reverence his people held for him as King, trumped by his winning the independence of the country. He abdicated the throne to his father so he could run in the first free elections in the country.

In 1955 Sihanouk was elected as Cambodian President. Over the next several years, he solidified his power through purges, arrests, prompting the flight of a small cadre of Cambodian Communists, among them Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), to the remote eastern area of the country bordering Vietnam.

On a recent trip to Cambodia, during a visit to Chuong Ek (the killing fields) our guide stated that Saloth Sar’s nom de guerre Pol Pot was an acronym for Political Potential. Whether or not if that is a fact, Saloth Sar adopted the revolutionary name Pol Pot.

© R.J. Carver 2010

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The opinions and information expressed  in "Surviving Angkar" are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tabitha Foundation.