jeudi 3 avril 2008

A Short History of Cambodia

This book traces the history of Cambodia from the Indian-influenced
state of Funan, which predated Angkor (founded in 802), to the present:
a grand sweep of over 2000 years. Also included is a brief discussion of the
pre-history of what is today Cambodia in Chapter 2. The Cambodian
monarchy is over 1200 years old; King Sihamoni, who sits on the throne
today, is the latest incumbent in a line dating from the reign of King
Jayavarman II, the shadowy founder of Angkor, the first unified polity of
Cambodia. It is not an unbroken bloodline of kings, but was disrupted
by usurpers on many occasions. The institution, however, has remained
constant for almost all of this time. If we count Jayavarman II’s prede-
cessors, the monarchy is even older, and epigraphic evidence indicates
that Khmer culture predates him by around 200 years. Whether those
that lived here before were Khmers, we cannot say, although it is prob-
able that they were.
If the monarchy has been remarkably resilient, so too have been
the Khmer people and their culture, which sustained the kingdom.
Although there have been some sharp discontinuities in Cambodian history,
the Khmers today, particularly the rural dwellers who still make up the
majority of the population, live much as their ancestors did. In their heyday,
the martial Khmers carved out an immensely powerful empire with Angkor,
the largest city of antiquity, at its centre. Today we see only the stone heart
of a city that has long since rotted away, and can trace the pattern of
the city’s veins, the network of canals that carried life-giving water from
the distant heights of Kulen. Then, as now, the largest class was the
peasantry, although they doubled as soldiers and builders. When the first
European visitors arrived in the 16th century, the empire was in decline
and the centre of gravity of the Cambodian state had shifted downstream
to the Quatre Bras region at the head of the Mekong delta, where it remains
today. The possible reasons for this shift are discussed in Chapter 3.
Later years saw Cambodia gradually squeezed on two sides by
powerful enemies, the Siamese (today’s Thais) to the west in the Menam
Valley, and the Vietnamese to the east. The Vietnamese, who had
migrated much earlier from what is today the Canton region of China
to the Hanoi region, steadily pushed southwards and by 1780 they had
completed their occupation of Kampuchea Krom, the formerly Khmer
lands around what is today Saigon in the lower Mekong delta. In the
same period, the Siamese kings carved off chunks of Cambodian terri-
tory, and both neighbours demanded tribute. Cambodia had gone from
empire to vassal state and by the late 18th century its sovereignty was
in peril. The country had entered into a Dark Age. Rival armies of
foreigners fought on Cambodia’s soil and sacked its towns. The Viet-
namese directly administered the country for 30 years during the first
half of the 19th century, placing puppets on the throne and striving to
assimilate the Khmers, whom they regarded as ‘barbarians’, into Viet-
namese culture. Cambodia almost became a Vietnamese province: the
earlier fate of the Khmer lower Mekong delta lands. King Ang Duang
restored order and a measure of sovereignty, but after his death in 1860
the country was once again plunged into chaos. This period is discussed
in Chapter 4.
Most historians conclude that Cambodia would have disappeared
if Duang’s successor and eldest son, King Norodom, had not negotiated
a treaty with France to keep his neighbours at bay. Under the terms of
the treaty, as discussed in Chapter 5, his kingdom became a protectorate
in 1863. The Siamese seethed, but could do little against superior force.
The French gradually tightened control over the Kingdom to create a
de facto colony, administered by a powerful official known as the Résident
Supérieur. In 1887, Cambodia became part of the newly created Indo-
chinese Federation under a governor-general with his capital at Hanoi.
Along the way, French heavy-handedness provoked a huge revolt and
Norodom died some years later a broken old man. Despite this, the
French did preserve the country’s territorial integrity and much of its
traditional way of life. The downside of the colonial period was that
the French left a model of authoritarian rule and failed to develop the
country socially and economically, thus contributing to later tragedies
that befell Cambodia.
The colonial period lasted until 1953, when King Norodom
Sihanouk led his ‘royal crusade for independence’, which saw the resto-
ration of Cambodian sovereignty even before the 1954 Geneva peace
conference agreed to independence for the rest of French Indochina.
Sihanouk was a complex man and although an unpredictable autocrat,
he managed to sustain his country’s neutrality throughout the 1950s
and 1960s. In this he resembled an acrobat on a high wire; when he
slipped—or was, rather, pushed in a right-wing pro-American coup in
March 1970—his pride was badly damaged, but the consequences for
his subjects were much direr. The ‘Sihanoukist’ period is the subject
of Chapter 6.
Between 1970 and 1979, Cambodia blundered into a modern
Dark Age. Civil war, cataclysmic aerial bombardment and Pol Pot’s
bloody revolution almost destroyed the country. These disasters are
examined in Chapters 7 and 8. Since the overthrow of the Pol Pot
regime by Vietnamese forces in 1979, the country has struggled against
the odds to rebuild itself, and this is the subject of Chapters 9 and 10.
The rebuilding was not straightforward, but was a confused and contra-
dictory process. As the American writer Evan Gottesman has noted in
his insightful book on post-DK Cambodia, ‘Cambodia did not arise from
the ashes of the Khmer Rouge with anything approaching ideological
clarity. Rather, it emerged—after twelve years of conflict and confusion
. . . [emphasis added]’. Cambodia today is beset with myriad problems,
most notably underdevelopment, corruption and authoritarian rule, and
one can only hope that the tenacity of the Khmers, which has sustained
them through the long centuries since the decline of their empire,
will prevail.
Footnotes have been kept to a minimum, as these tend to impede
the flow of the work, but a full bibliographic essay and glossary of terms
are to be found in this book. Also included is a list of abbreviations
on page 234. The book is intended for tourists, students and general
readers with an interest in Southeast Asia and world affairs. Many will
be drawn to a discussion of Cambodia’s more recent past, but I hope
they will also take the time to read about the more distant history of
what is a fascinating country. Others might begin by only considering
Angkor, and might wish to explore other periods of the country’s history.
Perhaps even young Khmers might wish to look at this book as the
first step in the study of their history. Finally, I should add that this book
is not a guide to the Angkor ruins. A number of excellent guides, some
lavishly illustrated, do exist and I have listed some of these in the biblio-
graphic essay. My chapter on Angkor is more concerned with social
history than with the monuments as works of art, although this is not
to belittle them.
Firstly, I would like to thank Dr Milton Osborne, the series editor, for
inviting me to write the Cambodia volume of the Allen & Unwin Short
Histories of Asia series. Milton has been an attentive editor, making
many thoughtful suggestions and intervening (as a Cambodia special-
ist himself) to remove some of my more egregious errors. I would also
like to thank my wife Professor Dorothy Bruck for her painstaking
reading of the manuscript. She brought her acute intelligence to bear
on the manuscript, making many helpful suggestions for changes in style
and asking, as an intelligent non-specialist, for elaboration of points
that I had taken for granted. I should not forget, either, to thank my
friend Tony Dewberry for reading the chapter on the Pol Pot regime
and discussing its implications. I should also thank my friend and old
teacher Professor David Chandler for his encouragement and advice on
several occasions, and Catherine Earl for her index. More generally,
I must thank the School of Social Sciences at Victoria University for
making the time available for me to work on the book. Finally, I would
like to thank Rebecca Kaiser, Allen & Unwin’s editorial manager, for
her patience in waiting for this work to be completed. Naturally, any
errors are my own responsibility.
The modern Khmers are the inheritors of an ancient tradition, the most
noteworthy signs of which are the ruins of Angkor. Although other
archaeological sites are widely spread across the country, from the
Mekong delta to the vicinity of Battambang, the Dangrek Mountains
and even into countries which are today separate states, most tourists
come to visit Angkor. Some, indeed, fly in and out of nearby Siem Reap
airport from Thailand or Vietnam and remain ignorant of the rest
of this fascinating country. Its fascination is not lessened by the fact
that Cambodia is among the poorest countries in Asia. While it has
made much progress since the end of the destructive Pol Pot regime in
1979, there are disturbing recent signs of retrogression within under-
development, with rising infant mortality rates and declining economic
growth. On the other hand, the literacy rate of rural women, who are
the poorest and most downtrodden of the poor, increased from 52.7
per cent in 1998 to 65.3 per cent in 2004, according to the United
Nations-assisted National Institute of Statistics at Phnom Penh. (Some
of the problems of underdevelopment are discussed in Chapter 9.)
The land of Cambodia
During the Angkorean period Cambodia stretched between the South
China and Andaman Seas, but today it comprises a little over 181 000
square kilometres: not a large country, but not a tiny one either. It is
roughly half the size of Germany and three times as large as Belgium.
It has a tropical climate: warm the whole year round, with a six-month
dry season with frequent drought, and a monsoon of astonishingly
intense rains.
Physically, Cambodia is a vast, shallow bowl with the edges rising
steeply to the north, the east and the south into wild, jungle-cloaked
mountains and plateaux. These jungles are home to a variety of birds
and animals, including tigers, wild cats, wild buffaloes, monkeys,
elephants and rhinoceros, various kinds of snakes including the cobra,
and the Siamese crocodile. Their numbers, however, are falling steadily
due to logging, hunting and the encroachment of human settlement.
The Siamese crocodile was thought to be extinct, but zoologists recently
found small numbers of them living in the remote Cardamom Moun-
tains, protected by the people of a nearby village. That tigers still exist
is attested to by my friend Mathieu Guérin, who was stalked by one in
the isolated mountains of Mondulkiri province while doing fieldwork
in the late 1990s.
On the west and the south-east of the great central basin of
Cambodia, the flatlands stretch across into Thailand and Vietnam,
forming ‘gates’ as it were into the kingdom, through which throughout
the centuries invading armies have often poured. The central basin is
dominated by an intriguing natural hydraulic system, on which the pros-
perity of the kingdom has long depended. At the centre of it is a vast
cocoa-coloured sheet of water, Lake Tonlé Sap (the Great Lake), the
largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. In the north of the country,
the Mekong, one of the largest rivers of the world, rushes from Laos
over a series of spectacular rapids and falls. Then, at a more sedate pace,
it courses into the Cambodian basin, past the towns of Stung Treng,
Kratie and Kompong Cham, to the capital city of Phnom Penh, where
the waters form a giant St Andrews shaped cross known to the French
as the Quatre Bras, or ‘Four Arms’. Here, the main river splits into two
channels, the Mekong proper and the Bassac, the first of the many
distributaries of the Mekong delta, through which the waters pour
through Vietnamese territory into the South China Sea. Another river,
known as the Tonlé Sap, which most of the time is a tributary of the
Mekong, forms the fourth arm of the cross, winding upstream from
Phnom Penh.
A remarkable ecosystem
The Mekong, the world’s 12th longest river, rises thousands of kilo-
metres away on the Tibetan plateau and every year, after the spring thaw
in the mountains, the snow-fed waters surge downstream in a mighty
flood. In fact, so great is the volume of water that it is unable to drain
through the delta and backs up into the Tonlé Sap past the capital,
reversing the flow so that the water flows upstream, past the old capital
at Udong and into the lake of the same name as the river. When this
happens, the surface area of the lake expands enormously, forming an
immense inland sea of over 13 000 square kilometres and attaining a
depth of up to 10 metres. In October or November, the direction of flow
changes and the waters are carried away to the sea. The enormous
volumes of water, silt and nutrients give rise to a teeming population
of over 200 varieties of fish, and these form the major source of protein
for the people of Cambodia. Over one million people earn their living
directly from fishing and some three million live around the lake, some
by flood retreat farming.
Contrary to popular perception, not all of Cambodia’s soils are
fertile, but the most fertile tend to be in the vicinity of Lake Tonlé Sap
and the Mekong, and it is here that the densest concentrations of people
are found. This invaluable ecosystem, sadly, is under threat from both
logging and pollution from chemicals and sewage. Already, many species
of fish, birds, turtles, snakes and crocodiles have disappeared. During
Sihanouk’s time, signs warned people (roughly translated): ‘Don’t waste
our national patrimony, the forest’ and ‘If we degrade the soil, we will
perish’. The message was ignored.
The people of Cambodia
According to Cambodia’s National Institute of Statistics, there are today
over 13 million people living within the frontiers of the Kingdom of
Cambodia. Some hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Khmers live
outside of the country in the Vietnamese-administered lower Mekong
delta, and in Thailand, particularly to the north of the Dangrek Moun-
tains but even to the west of Bangkok. The overwhelming majority of
the population is rural and the only real city is the capital, Phnom Penh,
which is home to over one million people and is more than eight times
the size of the largest town, Battambang, which has around 125 000
Phnom Penh is a sprawling tropical city running along the Tonlé
Sap and Bassac rivers and contains an intriguing mix of architectural
styles, from the crassly modern and the jerry-built to the elegant cream
and lemon-painted French colonial buildings. The central market is a
fine example of Art Deco architecture, although its lines are partially
obscured by the tarpaulin-draped stalls of the traders outside. The city
took its name from the Khmer word for hill, phnom, and the hill in ques-
tion, which is surmounted by a large bell-shaped stone stupa, is situated
in the northern outskirts of the central city. Although Phnom Penh is
over 500 years old, until the coming of the French in 1863 it was little
more than a collection of ramshackle brick and wooden shops and
houses close to the river. By the early 20th century, their efforts had
transformed it into what the French writer Rose Quaintenne described
as ‘a very picturesque town . . . [which was] very pretty and seductive’.
Alongside the dominant Khmers, there are large minorities of
Chams, Vietnamese, Chinese and hill peoples. The Chinese, who have
been present in the country since pre-Angkorean times, are primarily
city dwellers, as are many Vietnamese, although the latter also make
their living as fishermen on the Tonlé Sap, the Great Lake of central
Cambodia. The Chinese and Vietnamese have provided a dispropor-
tionate number of the country’s traders, businessmen and skilled workers.
The Chams, who speak their own language and practise the Sunni
variant of Islam, are the descendents of the once mighty empire of
Champa, sacked by the Vietnamese in 1471, mixed with more recent
Muslim Malay immigrants. They have been renowned as cartwrights
and woodworkers. Although their number fell by around 36 per cent
under Pol Pot, there are today about half a million Chams in Cam-
bodia. They live in their own villages, replete with mosques, to which
they are summoned to prayer not by the cries of a muezzin as elsewhere
in Darul Islam, but by drums and gongs.
The hill peoples (known politely as Khmer Loeu by the Cam-
bodians, but more generally by the derogatory Phnong, meaning ‘savage’
or ‘slave’) generally live in the remote uplands around the perimeter of
the country and speak a variety of dialects and languages, some of which
are related to Khmer. Many are animist and traditionally they have been
non-state peoples who have paid little regard to frontiers. Tradition-
ally they have practised swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture and live
a semi-nomadic communal life. There are also smaller minorities of Lao,
Thais and Shans, the latter once well known as workers on the Pailin
gem fields near the Thai border. With the probable exception of the
hill peoples, all of the minorities suffered cruel discrimination during
the Pol Pot period (the Cham mosques were defiled as pigsties) and
there is still widespread animosity towards the Vietnamese.
Most Khmers are peasants, steeped in traditional ways of life, and
it is arguably this tenacity of tradition that has enabled them to survive
their country’s appalling catastrophes. In many respects, the countryside
has not changed much since ancient times. The wooden buffalo carts
and ploughs are timeless, sugar palms still dot the landscape above the
intense green of the ripening rice in paddy fields that are too irregular
in shape and size to belong to the more orderly Vietnamese country-
side. This contrast hints at what is one of the sharpest cultural divides
in Asia, between Indianised Cambodia and Sinitic Vietnam. Many rural
Khmers live in the same kinds of houses as their remote ancestors: palm
thatch huts with bamboo frames raised on stilts against floods and
reptiles, with a few modest possessions and frugal diets based on rice,
fruit, vegetables and prahoc (a pungent, fermented fish paste that
provides the bulk of their protein). Many still wear the dress of their
ancestors, simple black garments enlivened by the colourful checked
scarf known as the krama, and at times the ornate sampot, the ankle-
length skirt of the women. The rural folk are mostly burned almost black
by the sun, but the better-off urban dwellers, particularly the women,
are often of a lighter complexion.
Khmers are devoutly religious, practising the Theravada strain of
Buddhism, mixed with elements of folk religion, superstition and
remnants of Hinduism, or more accurately Sivaism (see Chapter 3).
The central focus of village life is always the Buddhist temple, or wat,
and the saffron-clad monks beg for alms as they have done for many
hundreds of years. For many Khmers, religion and life are inseparable
and one of the greatest horrors of the Pol Pot period was the govern-
ment’s attempt to stamp religion out. Theravadism is so closely
interwoven with Khmer life that 600 years of Christian missionary ac-
tivity has been a dismal failure, unlike in some neighbouring countries.
Iberian Catholic priests lamented the hold of Buddhist ‘wizards’ over
the people and subsequent American Protestant missions secured few
converts despite vigorous proselytism. What remains a mystery is why
the Khmers rejected their earlier Sivaism and Mahayana Buddhism and
embraced the Theravada doctrines with such fervour in the 13th century,
although scholars such as George Coedès have made educated guesses,
as is discussed in the chapter on Angkor. Whatever the reason, it has
been a lasting element of Khmer culture, and has enabled them to
endure what has too often been a melancholy history.
For most people, the ancient city of Angkor is synonymous with Cam-
bodia, but the Angkorean Empire dates only from 802 AD, when King
Jayavarman II moved upstream from the Mekong Valley to found a new
capital on higher ground near the north-western tip of the Great Lake,
the Tonlé Sap. The country, however, was inhabited long before that.
Stone Age remains indicate human presence in what we now call
Cambodia for tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years. We cannot
say if these people were the distant ancestors of the present-day Khmers,
but it does seem that the Khmer–Mon people settled in the area between
Burma and the South China Sea some time before the third millen-
nium BC, after migrating from the north. For most of this gulf of
unrecorded time, the inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, nomads who
roamed the forests and marshlands in search of game and vegetable
foods. It is likely also that others practised swidden, or slash-and-burn
farming, much as the Khmer Loeu tribes or hill peoples still do today,
cutting and burning clearings in the forest and growing crops for a year
or so before moving on when the soil is exhausted.
There is archaeological evidence to show that some of these
nomads began a more settled, agriculturally based existence around 3000 BC, particularly east of the Mekong near the present-day settlements of Chup and Snuol. At some stage during this process,
rudimentary state societies must have replaced the ‘primitive communism’ of these people’s ancestors, which if like the simple societies of
the hill peoples today, was based around a collective, non-state way of
life. The early sedentary people used copper and bronze tools from at
least 1500 BC. One thousand years later, these people—or others like
them—lived in fortified settlements, using iron tools, in sophisticated
social systems made possible by the creation of a social surplus product
based on efficient agriculture and animal husbandry.
It is highly unlikely that there was any single unified state during
this period; probably there were numerous petty principalities, ruled
over by local chieftains, or pons. It might be tempting to impose the
idea of ‘Cambodia’ on to the distant past, but all the evidence indicates
that there was no unitary Cambodian state until after the foundation
of Angkor at the beginning of the ninth century AD. Moreover, there
is no hard evidence to prove that these early inhabitants were Khmers
at all—it is not until the seventh century AD that stone inscriptions
in the Khmer language began to occur. It is entirely possible that the
inhabitants of the early settlements were ancestors of the modern
Chams, or of some other people who might have died out or been pushed
out by later settlers. After all, by way of comparison, until the fifth
century AD, with the onset of the Dark Ages and the Saxon in-
vasions, the inhabitants of what is today England were Romanised
Celts, the ancestors not of the modern English but of the Welsh and
the Cornish.
Ancient Funan
Whoever they were, by the beginning of the first century AD the inhab-
itants of Cambodia had achieved a high level of civilisation, influenced
by the culture of India. One polity (or perhaps group of polities), known
to us as Funan, has left an extensive record of its existence and way
of life. The pre-Angkor scholar Michael Vickery has warned against
assuming that Funan was a unified state—it is possible that it was
a loose alliance of port towns in the lower Mekong delta. However,
the existence of large canals suggests a strong state power capable of
planning and managing the large numbers of labourers required for
such projects. Such workforces would have depended on regular food
supplies, produced by efficient agriculture and with an efficient tax
collection system. On the other hand, we know that the city-states
of Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy were capable of building
public works and large monuments without direction by overarching
‘national’ or supra-national polities, so Vickery is probably right about
pre-Angkorean Cambodia.
The Chinese chroniclers claim that the first king of Funan was a
man called Fan Shih-Man, but we have no way of telling whether that
was his real name, or if indeed he was the first king, or if he ruled over
a much greater territory than the other pons or petty chieftains of the
time. The name Fan Shih-Man bears no relation to any of the South-
east Asian languages; it is a Chinese corruption of an indigenous name,
but the question is, a corruption of what? The American scholar
Lawrence Palmer Briggs believed that ‘Fan’ might have been a corrup-
tion of the Sanskrit suffix ‘varman’, which means protector, and which
was appended to the names of many subsequent kings and petty kings
in Cambodia. Michael Vickery argues more plausibly that ‘Fan’ is a
corruption of the Khmer–Mon pon, which died out before Angkor.
Again, we have no way of knowing the ethnicity of the inhabi-
tants of Funan, although if Vickery is right in his speculation about the
origins of words such as pon, perhaps we might call them proto-Khmers.
What language they spoke in everyday life we do not know. Although
Funan was a literate, Indianised society, all trace of the books in what
the Chinese described as impressive libraries have disappeared in the
heat and humidity, and all stone inscriptions from before the seventh
century are in Sanskrit. Indeed, we have no way of knowing even what
the Funanese called themselves: Funan itself is a Chinese word, and
although scholars have suggested it might be a corruption of the Khmer
word phnom, this will remain speculation unless further evidence comes
to light. On the other hand, Khmer folklore has it that the Cambodian
people built a town at Angkor Borei, in the Mekong delta, around the
time of Funan. However, folklore cannot put precise dates on places
and events and there is no evidence to support the existence of Khmer
speakers in the lower delta until the seventh century (although this
does not mean that they did not exist).
What we do know of Funan comes from three sources: Chinese
dynastic chronicles, Sanskrit stone inscriptions and the archaeological
record. The earliest account of the kingdom is contained in the ‘Chin-
shu’, or the history of the Chin Dynasty, from 265–419 AD. Its reliability
is a matter of debate, given that the writers often wrote hundreds of
years after the events they were describing and on the basis of hearsay
and second-hand reports. Nevertheless, the chronicles do give us some
tantalising details of a long-gone civilisation. They tell us that the
common people originally went naked, even in the streets of their towns,
and that they were ‘ugly, black and fuzzy haired’—a common (and unfair)
criticism by the ethnocentric Chinese, who valued light skin colouring and spurned the ‘barbarians’ of the tropical lands. Puzzlingly, the
Funanese are also described as being peaceful yet warlike, honest yet
cunning. Probably, like human beings in general, they were a mixture
of traits, although the discrepancies perhaps point to multiple authors,
poor editing or muddled data available to the writers.
The Funanese, unlike the later Khmers, appear to have been keen
seafarers, trading with India and China and sending tribute to the Chinese
emperors. If Funan were a unitary state its capital is not known, with
conflicting claims made by modern writers for Vyadhapura, Angkor Borei,
Banteay Prei Nokor and even Prey Veng, all situated in the Mekong
delta or reasonably close to it. Another Funanese centre, the port town
of Oc Eo in what is today called the Camau peninsula, was excavated
by the French archaeologist Louis Malleret before World War II.
Oc Eo was laid out geometrically, which suggests that it was
planned—again by a strong state power, however geographically limited
the extent of its authority might have been. The ruins of some brick
buildings remain; stone is rarely found in the alluvium of the delta and
the wooden or bamboo houses of the common people have long since
disappeared. The brick buildings were probably temples and/or
mausoleums, but they are of a simple design and do not appear to have
housed bas-reliefs (stone friezes) as in the later temples of Angkor.
One intriguing building at Oc Eo was a square brick structure, called
‘Edifice A’ by Malleret. He speculated that perhaps it was a ‘tower of
silence’ similar to the raised platforms on which the Parsees of India to
this day leave out their dead for consumption by vultures. Other writers
have disputed this, noting Chinese accounts that the Funanese dead
were cast into the delta waters and presumably eaten by the crocodiles.
As elsewhere in Cambodia, further exploration of archaeological
sites was interrupted by the subsequent decades of war, domestic
upheaval and international isolation. It is likely that what we know of
Funan will be greatly enhanced by the current work of the Lower
Mekong Archaeological Project (LOMAP), coordinated by the University of Hawaii.
Water was a significant element of life for the Funanese. Rainfall
averages 2540 millimetres per year in the delta, and immense quanti-
ties of water pour through the network of distributaries of the Mekong.
Although some writers concluded that the canals of Funan were the
model for the presumed ‘hydraulic city’ of Angkor, based on irrigation,
in fact Funan had too much water, rather than seasonally too little like
its illustrious successor. In order to farm the low-lying, swampy delta
lands, excess water had to be drained off into the Mekong’s distributaries
and provision made to prevent flooding. Essentially, the canals were for
drainage. It is possible, too, that they served also as communication
routes, linking Oc Eo with Angkor Borei and other centres for trade
purposes. Oc Eo itself seems to have been, like Venice, built on canals,
which the Chinese tell us were swarming with crocodiles.
The Chinese have left us fascinating details of the customs of the
people. Like the modern Khmers, the Funanese lived in simple houses
made of wood or bamboo, with palm thatch roofs and elevated on stilts.
Their staple foods were, as today, rice and fish, the latter being plenti-
ful in the streams and marshes. They also cultivated and ate fruits such
as oranges and pomegranates, and grew sugar cane, perhaps fermenting
the juice for alcoholic drinks. The French scholar Paul Pelliot tells us
that they shaved their heads to mourn the dead, that at some stage they
adopted loincloths to cover their nakedness, perhaps on the orders of
their ruler, and that they watched cock and hog fights for diversion.
The Funanese also had advanced metallurgical technology. They used
bronze and iron tools and were capable of designing and smelting intri-
cate bronze ornaments, some of which have survived and are housed
in museums. Slavery was an integral part of what must have been a
highly stratified society. Justice was rudimentary, but a legal code probably existed and like that of India (and that of Angkor and
post-Angkorean Cambodia) included trial by ordeal. Innocence might
be decided if a suspect was not eaten after being thrown to the ubiquitous crocodiles.
Although there is no evidence to suggest, as some writers have
done, that the civilisations of the region were built by waves of immi-
grants from India, Indian cultural influences were crucial in shaping
societies such as Funan. Indian traders arrived in the region in at least
the first century AD and Funan became linked to a system of trade
routes stretching as far away as Persia and Europe to the west and China
to the north. According to the Chinese chronicles, the Funanese also
had a powerful navy, which suggests that they themselves ventured onto
the seas to trade. Excavations of Funanese sites have unearthed Roman
coins, although it is unlikely that any Funanese sailors travelled as far
as Europe and the coins probably changed hands many times across
the continents and oceans before they arrived in Funan.
Indian influence was above all religious and cultural, but this would
have had political ramifications, too. The Funanese adopted Sanskrit
in the same way that European societies later used Latin for liturgical
and intellectual purposes. Chinese visitors in the third century AD
saw large libraries, with extensive collections of Sanskrit books. None
of these have survived the insects and humidity, but it is probable that
they resembled the religious books still in use in 19th century Cam-
bodia, which were made of palm leaves stitched or glued together. Perhaps
too, like the books the Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan later observed
at Angkor, the pages were dyed black and written on (or scratched)
with a sharp stylus. The Indians most certainly brought the Hindu religion, with the worship of Siva, Brahma and Vishnu and the Hindu
world view, with the idea of Mount Meru as the centre of the world,
surrounded by oceans, to be replicated in the erection of temples on
hilltops, with water around the perimeters of the sites. There are also
examples of early Buddhist art in Cambodia from this period. It is likely
that in those days, as is the case with Buddhism in Cambodia today,
Indian religion was blended with earlier folk religions and superstitions.
The decline of Funan According to the Chinese accounts, the last king of Funan was called
Rudravarman and he was chiefly distinguished in their eyes because he
offered the gift of a live rhinoceros to the Emperor at Beijing in 539 AD.
After this, the historical record becomes somewhat blurred. For many
years, it was believed that Funan declined or disappeared because it was
threatened by the rise of another, more powerful state called Chenla or
Zhenla to the north. Again, Chenla, like Funan, is a Chinese corruption of an indigenous word, but we do not know what. There is a Chinese account of seventh century Cambodia, but it was written by
Ma Touan-Lin in the 13th century, many hundreds of years after the
events it describes. Although it contains many details, one is inclined
to be sceptical given that the author believed Funan was an island. (It
is, however, possible that Ma Touan-Lin believed this because one or
more of the Funanese towns might have been built on islands in the
delta.) Chinese sources also mention a King Bhavavarman, who lived
during the late sixth century, and whom the scholar George Coedès
believed might have been descended from Funanese royalty and married
into a Khmer family from further inland.
Some authors even claimed that there were two Chenlas—one
dubbed Chenla-of-the-Land, and the other Chenla-of-the-Water. This
is possibly an echo of the confusion of a time in which the Cambodian
lands were divided into a number of principalities. There is not even
agreement about where Chenla might have been, or hard evidence to
back up claim and counterclaim. Some accounts place Chenla in the
Champassak region of what is today southern Laos. However, Michael
Vickery points out that the inscriptions left by the chieftains of the
adjoining Dangrek region make no reference to Chenla, and that it is
most likely that Chenla existed within the boundaries of the modern
Cambodian state, somewhere between the Great Lake to the west and
Kampot, Takeo or Kompong Speu to the east, and within the Mekong
Valley. The question is whether Chenla was a unified state, or whether
Cambodia was divided into a number of principalities in the sixth,
seventh and eighth centuries; probably the latter is the case. As Vickery
points out, there was an ‘explosion’ of Khmer epigraphy from the seventh
century, with the earliest recorded Khmer stone inscription dating from
612 AD at Angkor Borei. None of this refers to what the Chinese called
Chenla. Probably, the decline of Funan was relative, with power devolv-
ing to a multiplicity of petty kingdoms along the Mekong.
What is at least clear is that the people who lived in the lower
Mekong Valley and delta in this period were the ancestors of the modern
Khmers, speaking an archaic form of the Cambodian language. The last
years of the pre-Angkorean period appear to have been a dark era for
the Khmers. It is probable that the Javanese invaded Cambodia during
the eighth century and enforced vassal status on to the Khmer kings. A
travelling Arab merchant, Suleyman, has recorded how a disgruntled
Cambodian monarch, perhaps King Mahipativarman, expressed the wish to have the head of Saliendra, the Sultan of Zabag (Java), handed
to him on a platter. Saliendra heard of this, and resolved to punish his
unruly vassal. He dispatched troops, who put the Khmers to flight, decap-
itated the unhappy Khmer king and placed his head on a platter for Saliendra.
Jayavarman II moves his capital to the Great Lake region Out of adversity, however, came triumph. In the last years of the eighth century, a restless Khmer king, Jayavarman II, resolved to move his capital from the lower Mekong to what is today the Siem Reap region
north of the Great Lake. Vickery believes it likely that Jayavarman II
came from eastern Cambodia, close to the Cham lands. In all proba-
bility, when he reached adulthood he would have been one petty Khmer
kinglet among many. Yet he was to achieve extraordinary things. He
was to reign for 48 years, to unite and pacify the multifarious statelets
of the Khmer lands and to throw off the Javanese yoke.
Curiously, given his pivotal importance in Cambodian history, we
know relatively little of Jayavarman II’s reign. The surviving stone
inscriptions don’t reveal much and the Chinese chronicles are silent.
Yet in 802 AD, according to the inscriptions, this man was to found
the Angkorean Empire and establish a line of devarajas, or god-kings,
that was to last for over 600 years and establish a mighty civilisation
that could rival any of the other states of antiquity. His reign marks a
sharp punctuation in the relative equilibrium of Khmer politics and
The world loves a good mystery, especially if it is an ancient one.
Ancient Egypt provided the ‘riddle of the Sphinx’. Religious zealots
have claimed the antique cities of the Americas were the work of extra-
terrestrials. The temples of Ancient Angkor—the largest ruins in the
world and the only archaeological site visible from outer space—have
presented their own share of riddles and these have prompted fanciful
explanations for generations of visitors and readers.1 The novelist Pierre
Loti wrote in the first decade of the 20th century of Angkor as a remote
place steeped in impenetrable mystery: nothing could be known about
the purposes of the ruins, a brooding, unfathomable Other. Even the
age of the city was exaggerated in many accounts.
The French naturalist Henri Mouhot is supposed to have ‘discovered’ Angkor by accident, allegedly whilst chasing butterflies in
the jungle—a claim he himself never made as he was guided there
by a French priest, Father Sylvestre. Another French missionary, Father
Bouillevaux, had left an account of an earlier visit and Mouhot was
aware of this. When questioned about Angkor’s origins, Khmer peasants said giants built it. Europeans commonly believed that the builders
belonged to a ‘vanished race’. Others claimed that the city was of Indian, Roman, or even Italian origin, alleging common features with Mediterranean architecture. Victorian etchings depict intrepid Frenchmen in tropical whites and sola topees treading resolutely amidst broken
masonry festooned with the roots of giant trees. So potent was the image
that people reacted with horror when archaeologists of the École
Française d’Extrême-Orient began to clear the forest and restore the
temples. Even today, the root-bound ruins of Ta Prohm pander to this
taste for the ‘exotic’.
The truth about Angkor is rather more prosaic and yet, on another
plane, more fascinating, because it is a story not of giants or extraterrestrials, but of people just like us. The ancestors of today’s Khmers built Angkor and the temple complex of the Heritage Area as the centre of a powerful empire and of a dispersed city with between 700000 and one million inhabitants; it was the most populous city
of antiquity, sprawling over an area of 1000 square kilometres or more.
Today, in the elegant words of George Coedès, we see only ‘the religious skeleton of the city’, for the humble peasant dwellings and the
richly decorated pavilions of the kings have long since rotted into the
earth. The city was abandoned rather later than the romantics would
have us believe and there is firm epigraphic and bibliographic evidence
that it was still inhabited in the 16th century when Iberian monks first
visited Cambodia. Although there is lively debate about a number of
features of Angkorean civilisation, recent technological advances have
enabled archaeologists to provide plausible answers to the puzzle of
why the city was deserted. Although it is likely that a number of inter-
linked causes contributed to the collapse of this great civilisation,
perhaps the most important was ecological degradation of the forests,
water and soil. The fate of Angkor is a warning to the modern world
that we are part of nature and must live within natural laws or face
our ecological nemesis. If I have mentioned crocodiles more than once
in this book, it is because I am aware of the ecological changes that
have greatly reduced the numbers of this awesome, yet vulnerable, creature in Cambodia.
Sources of information
Thanks to the painstaking work of generations of archaeologists, philologists and other scholars, we now know a great deal about the society
that built Angkor and the other architectural marvels of Cambodia.
The ruins themselves are the most obvious record of Khmer material
culture, and the bas-reliefs of the Bayon and Angkor Wat provide an
extensive pictorial record of Khmer society. These illustrate the every-
day lives of the people and the deeds of the rulers. They show how the
inhabitants made war, fished, farmed, sold their merchandise, played
games and erected the great monuments.
One problem has been that, unlike other ancient civilisations, the
Khmers have left us no books. When H.G. Wells’ fictional time trav-
eller ventured far into the future, he found the ragged remnants of the
books of a long-dead civilisation within the solid walls of an ancient
library. The ancient Khmers had libraries, but the books have vanished.
The Chinese chronicles provide a record of the world’s longest civilis-
ation and the ghosts of the Romans, Greeks and Indians speak to us
through the pages of their books. The Irish have the splendidly illus-
trated Book of Kells, which dates almost exactly from the time at which
Jayavarman II founded Angkor. The Dead Sea scrolls are even older,
dating from the first century AD, a time when thousands of miles away
on the other side of Asia, the Funanese had begun construction of
their towns and libraries and canals. The soft Irish climate and the dry
desert air have been kinder to paper and papyrus than the tropical heat,
humidity and voracious insects have been to the palm leaf books of
the ancient Khmers.
There is only one written eyewitness record of Angkor, The
Customs of Cambodia, written during the late 13th century by the Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan (Chou Ta-Kwan), who spent a year in
the capital shortly after the death of King Jayavarman VIII, the last
great builder of Angkor. The country appears to have been completely
unknown to Europeans. The great Venetian traveller Marco Polo visited
neighbouring Champa in 1288, and the peripatetic Italian friar Odoric
of Pordenone wandered through Indochina in the 14th century, but
neither mentioned Cambodia in their accounts of their travels. When
Iberian travellers arrived in Cambodia roughly two centuries after
Odoric’s visit to Champa, Angkor’s glory days were past, and the city
was menaced by its powerful neighbours, Siam and Vietnam.
The Khmers of course did leave a written record, but it was carved
in stone rather than written on paper. There are around 1200 stone
inscriptions in the Angkor region, written in either Sanskrit, Khmer
or, from the 13th century, in Pali, the sacred language of the Theravada
Buddhists. Most of the Sanskrit inscriptions are prayers to the gods or
to Buddha, or tell us the genealogies of the kings, ruling families and
Brahman priests, together with praise of their putative good works and
military and civic virtues.
While the Sanskrit inscriptions are an invaluable record of the
religious life of Angkor, the Khmer epigraphy tells us much more about
the everyday lives, customs and occupations of the people. The epigraphs
tell us a great deal about the earthly city, the empire and the complex
and hierarchical system of administration. They show that Angkor
was a highly literate society, at least among the elites, and that those
who wrote the inscriptions had a lively sense of style, with a love of
puns and figures of speech and an appreciation of tragedy and comedy.
However, much of the literary treasures of Angkor perished when
the frail materials on which they were written rotted to dust after the
city was abandoned. Between them, the sources allow us to understand
much about a society that was once held to be impossibly mysterious.
Yet the sharp edges are blurred, the voices are muted, and we see this
civilisation through a glass darkly. There are murky lacunae in our
knowledge and perhaps our explanations of Khmer society might still
come under challenge in the future as fresh evidence emerges with the
new archaeological tools of aerial and satellite photography, radar
imaging and radiometric dating. There are some heated debates about
Angkor, particularly around the archaeologist Bernard-Philippe
Groslier’s ‘hydraulic city’ hypothesis, yet as another French archaeolo-
gist Christophe Pottier has cautioned, we should ‘put aside theoretical
dogmatism’ until more facts are in.
Why was the capital moved?
The founder of Angkor, King Jayavarman II, is a shadowy figure and we
still have no entirely satisfactory explanation as to why he moved his
capital from the Mekong Valley to the drier region at the north-west
tip of the Great Lake. He left no inscriptions that we know of. We know
that he established his court in the region in 802 AD and that he reigned
for almost 50 years before his death at Roluos, south-east of the main
complex at Angkor.
The Angkor region was not virgin land when Jayavarman II
arrived. Archaeological evidence shows that the land between the Great
Lake and the sandstone hills to the north was inhabited at least as far
back as 1200 BC, with Iron Age remains at Phnom Bakheng. Prob-
ably, there were small farming settlements in the region ruled over by
petty kinglets. Jayavarman II’s arrival was to transform the region. From
his base at Angkor the king was able to unify the petty Khmer princi-
palities into the single polity that was to become the centre of one of
the most powerful, wealthy and populous civilisations in ancient history.
At its zenith, Angkor was to control an empire that stretched from
the South China Sea to the Isthmus of Kra and the Andaman Sea,
and northwards into what is today Laos. As historians Ian Mabbett
and David Chandler have pointed out, many of the subjects of this
vast empire lived at remote distances to the capital city; even if they
had obtained permission to travel, an elephant journey of only 50 miles
from Battambang to Angkor would have taken five days, as it still did
in the 19th century. This was no nation-state, but a multi-ethnic empire
in which one ethnic group, the Khmers, was dominant. The core of the
kingdom was the dispersed metropolis of Angkor—larger than Rome
or any of the ancient Chinese cities, if we are to believe the most recent
archaeological evidence—and Angkor was a Khmer city.
King Jayavarman II’s restlessness did not end when he moved his
court to the Great Lake region. During his reign he would build three
capitals, abandoning each before he made his final choice at Roluos.
Regarding his move to Angkor, Michael Vickery has suggested that it
resulted from military and political pressure from the hostile kingdom
of Champa. Angkor was also remote from the coast of the South China
Sea—and seaborne enemies such as the Javanese—with access hindered
by the numerous sandbars and treacherous currents of the Mekong delta.
At that time, too, the Siamese threat to the west did not exist. Other
writers have suggested that the lake region was the ‘natural centre’ of
the Cambodian state, at the junction of roads linking the valleys of
the Mekong and Menam, at the highest point of navigation upstream
from the Mekong delta, with ample supplies of sandstone for building,
rich in natural resources such as timber and fish, and with fertile soil
to grow rice to feed a growing population.
Yet although Cham, and perhaps Javanese, hostility might well
have contributed to Jayavarman’s decision to move his capital to a more
defensible site, the other explanations noted above are not very convinc-
ing.2 The English writer Christopher Pym argues in his excellent book
on Angkor that the current capital, Phnom Penh, lies at a more
commanding site, the Quatre Bras. Moreover, it is likely that the land
routes were only developed after the foundation of Angkor, and the most
direct route between the Mekong and Menam valleys follows the path
of the French-built railway through Battambang, to the south-west of
the Great Lake. Nor is sandstone as close by as some writers claim.
The Phnom Kulen quarries lie some 40 kilometres to the north of the
centre of Angkor and the soils are not as naturally fertile as those in
the Mekong Valley, although they are probably more fertile and less
sodic and saline than those in many other parts of Cambodia. It is true
that the Great Lake is an almost boundless source of the fish that, along
with rice, is the staple of the Khmer diet, but fish are just as plentiful
elsewhere in the lake and especially around the entrance to the Tonlé
Sap River that drains it via the Plain of Mud into the Mekong at the
eastern end. It is also true that there was ample timber close to Angkor
for domestic buildings, scaffolding for construction of the temples and
for fuel but, then again, much of Cambodia is equally well endowed
with forest.
The relative paucity of inscriptions from the reigns of Jayavar-
man II and his son of the same name do not help us explain the move.
Perhaps, as Pym sensibly argues, the move was sparked by Jayavarman’s
desire to get out of the ‘centre of things’ in Southeast Asia by relo-
cating to a remote site. However, one intriguing suggestion is that
climate change might have contributed to the move. James Goodman,
an engineer with an interest in archaeology, argued at a recent conven-
tion of Angkorean scholars in Japan that the move ‘coincided with a
series of remarkable changes in global climate patterns’ associated with
the Southern Oscillation Index (ENSO). The late eighth century saw
the onset of the ‘medieval warm period’, with a ‘wet anomaly’ in Cam-
bodia and ‘dry anomalies’ elsewhere on the Pacific Rim, including Java.
The wet anomaly might have caused increased flooding in the lower
Mekong Valley and delta, but would also have meant more humid,
favourable conditions for agriculture in the seasonally drier regions to
the north of the Great Lake. Angkor also lies on higher ground, normally
beyond the reach of flooding. Goodman also speculated that the rela-
tive decline of the power of Java, Cambodia’s former suzerain, might
have been due to the onset of the dry anomaly, which would have
unfavourably affected Javanese riziculture, as it did other civilisations
around the Pacific Rim. That such climate change did occur is attested
to by analysis of the pollen record, but more research needs to be done
to ascertain its contribution to Jayavarman II’s move.
The move did not mean emigration to a land of milk and honey.
Settlement near the tip of the lake required strenuous labour before the
virgin lands could become productive. Marshes needed to be drained,
embankments built to stop floods and—as Bernard-Philippe Groslier
argues—an intricate system of canals built for irrigation purposes, for if
the climate were anything like that of the Siem Reap area today, it
would have been one of six months’ rain and six months’ drought. The
hydraulic system, however, was not started until after Jayavarman II’s
death, when in 877 AD King Indravarman I ordered construction of
the Indratataka, the ‘sacred pool of Indra’, a large baray or reservoir
measuring 3.6 kilometres by 800 metres.
As we shall see, the question of whether Angkor depended on
highly developed irrigation is a moot point. It seems likely, therefore,
that the shift to the Great Lake region would have been due at least in
part to religious imperatives; Cambodia was, and still is, an intensely
religious society. As the Japanese scholar Yoshiaki Ishizawa has argued,
the choice of site has religious symbolism for the Khmers, who took
their cosmology from the Indians who believed that at the centre of the
world was Mount Meru, surrounded by oceans and seas and walled off
by the Himalayas. Khmers tend to build their temples on hills to reflect
this belief; Angkor stood on higher ground and just as India has the
sacred Ganges and the sacred mountains, so Cambodia had the Siem
Reap River and the Great Lake, with Phnom Kulen and the Dangreks
to the north. The decision to shift the Khmer capital to Angkor was
probably caused by a variety of overlapping political, economic, religious
and perhaps ecological factors. Short of raising Jayavarman II from the
grave, we will probably never know for sure.
The kings, their temples and monuments
A passion for grand monuments marks the greater part of the six or
seven centuries of Angkorean civilisation and this only abated with the
Angkor Wat showing the five towers. (Author’s collection)
spread of Theravada Buddhism, which spurned vanity and megalomania.
Slaves, serfs and artisans expended the sweat of centuries on the
sandstone mausoleums-cum-temples of the kamrateng jagat, the ‘lords
of the universe’, who ruled over them. Scholars disputed the purpose
of the temples for many years until in 1933 Jean Przyluski formulated
his thesis, daring for the time, that Angkor Wat was both a temple and
the tomb of Suryavarman II, and thus both a sepulchre and the centre
of a funerary cult. The grand buildings of Angkor are at one and the
same time funerary temples, mausoleums and tombs, the ‘distinctive
glory of the Khmer Empire’ in the words of the celebrated French epi-
grapher George Coedès. Although those who ordered their construction
have long since rotted into the soil, their monuments still bid us to ‘look
upon my works, ye mighty, and tremble’, for the kings assigned to them-
selves the title of gods—devarajas—though they were ‘creatures of clay’
like the meanest of their subjects.
Marvellous though they are as architecture and works of art, the temples of Angkor are the reflection of the overweening egotism and
peculiar religiosity of the hereditary rulers, for whom no sacrifice was
great enough provided it was made by their slaves and willing subjects,
whose warm blood and sweat could not outlive the cold stone they
placed block on block in the exquisite confections of Angkor. Perhaps,
when we gaze on these stupendous monuments, we should muse over
their human cost. That said we should be wary of extrapolating modern
attitudes and ideologies into the remote Cambodian past. For many free
men—serfs at least—it was probably an honour to toil on the monu-
ments for the glory of the god-kings; for many slaves, their condition
was one legitimised by age-old custom, as natural as the setting of the
sun. They had no words for freedom and liberty.
The purpose of these immense buildings had nothing in common
with the great cathedrals of Europe or the grand mosques of the Muslim
world. Nor were they like the modern pagodas of the Theravada Buddhists
of Cambodia and neighbouring countries. Angkor Wat is, on the face of
it, a temple dedicated to Vishnu, but the deity worshipped here is not
the same as the ancient god of the Hindu triumvirate. Rather it is King
Suryavarman II, the temple’s inspirer, who was seen in life as the incar-
nation of Vishnu. Hence, as eminent French scholar Paul Mus wrote,
these buildings are not so much shelters for the dead ‘as a kind of new
architectural body—a house of the dead but only in the same way that
his body lived in it while still alive’. Even the numerous statues of Vishnu
and Siva are dissimilar to most of their kind in India, for they have the
features of the kings who were the earthly incarnations of the gods. The
temples are the houses of the god-kings, the lords of the universe, immortalised in solid rock. They were not like pagodas, churches or mosques
where the common people might come to pray. If they were ever admitted, it would only be to grovel at the feet of the mighty devarajas.
The monument building obsession began some years after the
death of Jayavarman II’s son and successor, Jayavarman III; although
these first two kings did leave some hilltop shrines and smaller monuments, they were dwarfed by later developments. A new king,
Indravarman I, ordered the previously mentioned baray and also the
Preah Ko and Bakong temples. Indravarman was succeeded in 889 AD
by Yasovarman I, who built a new reservoir, the Yasodharatataka, with
the Lolei temple on an artificial island in the lake. Yasovarman also
ordered construction of the temple mountain of Phnom Bakheng, exca-
vating the slopes of a hill to form a pyramidal structure surmounted by
five central towers and 104 smaller ones. The 13th century Chinese
chronicler Zhou Daguan says that a Khmer king is buried at Phnom
Bakheng, and if this is the case it was both a temple and a mausoleum,
as Przyluski speculated. During Yasovarman’s reign, engineers appear
to have diverted the course of the Siem Reap River and built the large
Eastern Baray, the latter fact attested to in an inscription in its north-
east corner.
Subsequent kings continued the program of temple building and
waterworks. In the tenth century, King Rajendravarman ordered the
construction of a series of monuments, including the Pre Rup temple.
The temple of Takeo dates from the reign of Jayavarman V in the final
years of the tenth century. Suryavarman I, who reigned from 1002 until
1049, was responsible for the construction of the huge West Baray and
a number of temples including Preah Vihar in the Dangrek Mountains.
Suryavarman II, who reigned in the early part of the 12th century,
ordered the construction of what is arguably the most famous of the
Angkorean temples, Angkor Wat, the name of which is often confused
with the city of Angkor itself because of its imposing beauty and scale.
Suryavarman II’s successor, Yasovarman II, had the temple of Bakong
built. Jayavarman VII, a Buddhist king who reigned during the last
decades of the 12th century and the first two of the 13th, ordered
construction of the temple of Ta Prohm and the first stages of the Terrace
of the Elephants, along with the impressive Angkor Thom, dedicated
to Buddha (not Siva or Vishnu as is commonly supposed) and extensive waterworks including the Jayatataka baray.
These public works—if such is the name for private edification at
public expense—were augmented by more utilitarian infrastructure,
footways, bridges, rest houses, hospitals, canals, reservoirs and embank-
ments. The empire was administered and policed via a network of
well-maintained roads, which also served for trade purposes. These roads
often ran on stone causeways or earthen embankments, high above
the floodplains of lakes and rivers, and well-engineered bridges spanned
the rivers. Although the network fell into disrepair after the decline of
the empire, some of it was re-opened by the French and is still in use
today. One particularly imposing bridge, the Spean Praptos, crosses
the ravine of the Stung Chikreng and is still open to traffic. Guest-
houses were built at regular intervals along the major roads—22 between
Angkor and Kompong Thom alone—for shelter and security against
bandits who preyed on travellers. The wealthy rode in palanquins
(hammocks slung between Y-shaped poles and carried by muscular
servants), or astride horses or aboard tented structures on the backs of
elephants. But the poor travelled in buffalo carts, much the same as
they do today, or else they walked. During the six-month rainy season,
boats were used for some journeys, as they were all year round on the
Great Lake which lay to the south of Angkor, and along which Zhou
Daguan travelled on his way up from the far-away delta of the Mekong.
The climax of empire
Jayavarman VII’s reign, between the late 12th and early 13th centuries,
is regarded as the climax of the empire. Angkor stood at the centre
of a vast realm that extended from the Andaman Sea in modern
Myanmar to the South China Sea in today’s Vietnam, and far north-
wards into what is now Laos. Although it might have been ultimately
constrained by what modern historians call ‘imperial overstretch’,
Angkor’s expansion was checked by natural, rather than human
barriers—seas, mountain ranges and impassable jungles. However, as
George Coedès has written, the huge effort needed to carry out Jayavar-
man VII’s building program was an ultimately unsustainable drain on
the resources of the empire. The empire also sustained vast numbers
of unproductive people, including aristocrats and Brahman priests,
members of the religious orders and the royal family itself. An inscrip-
tion translated by George Coedès recorded that the devaraja cult
necessitated 306 372 ‘servitors’, who lived in 13 500 villages and ate
38 000 tons of rice every year. This does not take into account the
immense amount of riches in the form of silver, gold, bronze and stone
appropriated by the cult.
This empire was maintained by force of arms, often clashing with
neighbouring peoples such as the Chams and later the Thais, both of
whom were formidable opponents. In contradiction to the modern Euro-
pean stereotype of Cambodia as ‘the gentle land’, the Angkor bas-reliefs
depict a warlike society. Men march in formation, armed with a variety
of weapons including swords, lances, bows and arrows and clubs. Cata-
pults are mounted on carts or the backs of elephants. Commanders
canter on horseback while their men march past resolutely in grim
processions. Elephants were also employed for cavalry purposes, their
foreheads anointed with human gall which, as Zhou tells us, was drained
from the bodies of hapless passers-by by men armed with special
knives. Other scenes show naval battles, with unfortunates falling over-
board into the jaws of the lurking crocodiles. On the other hand, an
inscription at Ta Prohm extols Jayavarman VII as a ‘provident and
compassionate ruler’ and perhaps not without cause. Although he was
determined to bend the population to his will to make his mark on
posterity in the form of huge temples and monuments, he also built 102
hospitals during his reign.
The last great spurt of building activity occurred during the
reign of Jayavarman VII (1181–1219). These works included the con-
struction of Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan, Banteay Chhmar
and the magnificent Bayon. However, during the 16th century, when
the first Europeans visited Cambodia, King Satha I carried out exten-
sive renovations to monuments and the hydraulic system.
Building the temples
Visitors to the ruins often wonder how they were built and where
the immense blocks of stone used in their construction came from. The
Khmers certainly were ingenious engineers, but the construction
program relied on the muscle power of tens of thousands of labourers.
The temples are built of an assortment of materials—laterite, three
different types of sandstone, and brick, some of which was rendered
with stucco. The laterite was obtainable locally, but the sandstone was
brought considerable distances from the Phnom Kulen quarries, where
men cut it from the living rock with crowbars, chisels and fire. Many
of the blocks weigh up to five tonnes, and the very largest include one
of eight tonnes at Angkor Wat and another of almost ten tonnes at
Preah Vihar.
In the past, observers have speculated that the blocks were
dragged by elephants, loaded on ox carts, floated down the Siem Reap
River from Phnom Kulen, or sometimes taken on rafts down other
tributaries then across the lake and up the Siem Reap River to Angkor.
While these methods are possibilities for the smaller pieces of stone, it
seems unlikely they were used for the bigger blocks. Ox carts could not
support the weight and elephants probably lacked the stamina needed
to transport the blocks from the Kulen Hills, which stand approximately
40 kilometres from the temple sites. In 1999, an attempt was made to
float stone down the river from the ancient quarries. It was concluded
that this was an unlikely method; to move a five-tonne block would
require an enormous raft built of 1000 pieces of ten-centimetre diam-
eter bamboo. It is more likely that human muscle power was employed,
with the largest blocks requiring the strength of up to 160 men, their
task only made slightly less onerous by the use of wooden rollers, crow-
bars and rattan ropes. (Even today, heavy machinery is sometimes rolled
into position using similar techniques, but for a fraction of the distance.)
There is some evidence to suggest this on the Bayon bas-reliefs (upper
gallery, east side), which appear to depict men hauling stone blocks with
the assistance of rollers, although there is some damage to the bottom
of the frieze, which leaves this interpretation open to question. This
gruelling work in the tropical heat and humidity was more than likely
allocated to the lowest grades of slaves. There was probably a more
complex division of labour at the actual construction sites: general
labourers to supply raw muscle power; skilled masons and bricklayers,
carpenters, scaffolders and riggers, perhaps; metalworkers, who gilded
many of the domes; and finally, the most skilled artisans of all, those
who carved the statues and the exquisite and complicated bas-reliefs
in the corridors of Angkor Wat and the Bayon.
When the blocks were on site, the construction workers would
take over and the exhausted transport crews would perhaps be allowed
to rest a while before returning to Phnom Kulen for more stone. The
blocks were dressed on site and a close fit was achieved by grinding the
blocks against each other; joints are rarely at right angles and there are
rarely perfectly flat planes. After this, the blocks would be rolled to the
base of the worksite, ready to be lifted into position to where the masons
toiled high above on wooden or bamboo scaffolding probably very similar
to that which is still widely used in Asia today, as is shown on the Bayon
The builders probably used a variety of lifting gear to assist in their
work. There is some evidence of the use of metal lifting dogs and clamps
and it is highly likely that blocks were also lifted on rope slings, which
were attached to wooden pegs inserted into holes drilled in the stone.
Afterwards, the pegs were removed and the holes filled with mortar, as
we can see on many of the monuments today. We also know from the
Bayon bas-reliefs that Khmer sailors used windlasses and pulleys, so it
is probable that similar lifting gear was used at Angkor, logically in
conjunction with gin poles, sheerlegs, gallows frames, whip hoists and
rudimentary cranes. Perhaps other stones were winched up temporary
inclines of compacted earth. One can imagine the scene high above
the ground atop the scaffolding—workers spreading mortar compounded
of powdered limestone, vegetable juice and palm sugar, in the shadow
of a huge block of stone swinging above, the labourers inching it down
into position, their muscles aching from the effort. Construction work
is dangerous even today with vastly superior technology, so the death
toll must have been colossal with such enormous pieces of stone, dizzy-
ing heights and rattan ropes. We will never know how many workers
plunged to their doom or were crushed to death by falling masonry.
One of the most curious facts about Khmer building techniques
is that they never discovered the secret of the true arch, which employs
a keystone to prevent it from falling down. Instead, the Khmer builders
used the more rudimentary method of corbelling—gradually bringing
in two facing edges of wall until they touch—giving an almost gothic
appearance to the edifices. This technique can only be used with massive
stone or brick walls, not for lighter domestic architecture. It can be seen
on many of the ancient temples, and even on those Angkorean bridges
that are still in use today. Another curiosity is that the columns of the
temples are almost always square or rectangular in cross-section, prob-
ably because the Khmers were afraid that the natural round shape of
trees was the abode of spirits. Where columns are round in section,
this is because the Khmers wished to bring spirits into the building.
What kind of civilisation built the monuments?
Today, natural decay and the ravages of vandals and thieves (including
the French novelist André Malraux, it might be said) have left their
mark, but no one who visits Angkor can fail to be stirred by its grandeur.
Yet, although the spectacular stone and brick ruins the kings left behind
are the most visible reminders of Angkor’s past glories, they tell us
only part of the story and this chapter does not purport to be a guide
to the ancient remains. What is perhaps even more intriguing is the
question of what kind of civilisation was able to devote so much labour
and so many resources to such gigantic projects. We actually know a
surprising amount about the lives of the common people of Angkor. It
is now clear that the temple complex was the centre of an enormous
dispersed city, home to up to one million inhabitants, making it the
largest city of antiquity. The empire itself comprised some 90 provinces
at the time of Zhou Daguan’s visit.
Zhou Daguan, who visited Angkor the year after Jayavarman VIII’s
death in 1295, has left us fascinating details of what the city was like
during its period of human occupation, and although the decline had
already set in by then, Angkor was still an impressive place. Zhou tells
of a ‘walled city’ with five gates and lines of statues ‘brilliant with gold’.
Many of the buildings were gilded; Zhou describes a ‘square tower of
gold’ (Neak Pean) at the centre of a lake, the ‘Golden Tower’ of the
Bayon, and another of bronze. North of the Golden Tower was the royal
palace, an opulent wooden structure with long colonnades and floors
of yellow pottery and lead tiles. The immense lintels and columns of
the palace were richly carved and there was a frieze of elephants in the
chamber of state, lit by a golden window. In this setting, the king
(Srindravarman at that time) moved around in sumptuous garments
bedecked with pearls and precious stones. Although he had five of-
ficial wives, he also kept a huge harem, with ‘three to five thousand’
concubines and ‘palace girls’ who seldom set foot outside the palace.
The parents of noble families thought it an honour for their daughters
to be accepted. Anyone wishing an audience with the king had to abase
themselves, crawling across the floor, forbidden to actually look at this
exalted personage or, more strictly, god-king.
The king never left the palace except as part of a grand proces-
sion of soldiers, palace girls, royal ministers and princes, many of them
in palanquins and chariots or astride elephants with ‘flags, banners and
music’ and hundreds of golden parasols held aloft. The king himself
stood ‘erect on an elephant and holding in his hand the sacred sword’.
The royal elephant’s tusks were ‘sheathed in gold’ and around the royal
beast were the massed ranks of the king’s bodyguard. Any passers-by
who caught sight of the king ‘were expected to kneel and touch the
earth with their brows’. Marshals seized anyone who failed to comply,
and placed him or her under arrest.
The Angkorean social system
In total, 28 kings ruled over this vast and powerful empire for over
600 years. Although in theory kingship was hereditary and monarchs
were devarajas, or god-kings, in practice usurpers were common enough,
the qualification being that they had to prove they were blood descen-
dents of Jayavarman II, the founder of Angkor. It was for this reason
that dignitaries and military leaders were required to swear an oath
of loyalty to the reigning king, on pain of horrible punishments.
One such oath is recorded in an inscription translated by Coedès, and
promises eternal punishment in hell if it is broken. As the writers
Mabbett and Chandler remarked, although Angkorean society was hier-
archical, the fact of usurpation indicates that the rulers were not
‘worshipped as gods and given unquestioning obedience by all their
subjects’. The extraordinary security measures described by Zhou Daguan
above attest to this.
Nevertheless, although they feared usurpation, these kings were
absolute rulers in every sense of the term. As devarajas, their power
surpassed even that of the European monarchs who claimed to rule by
divine right. The inscriptions indicate that they were seen as incapable
of breaking religious laws, and they were the source of all legal power
in the empire. The law itself was administered via a hierarchy of courts
and legal officials. The lower courts dealt with routine matters, but
the royal court itself could deal with even the pettiest of matters. Zhou
Daguan records that every day the king held two audiences, for which
no agenda was provided and which could be attended by both ‘func-
tionaries and ordinary people’ for the adjudication of disputes. The
inscriptions show that commoners could bring lawsuits against one
another and a common method of ascertaining who was in the wrong
was to place the plaintiff and the accused in stone towers for a period
of three to four days. It was held that the person in the wrong would
always develop an illness, such as catarrh, fever or ulcers. The penalties
for convicted malefactors were often draconian. For the gravest crimes
the punishment was death, possibly by decapitation with a sharp sword,
as in the 19th century, but it was possible for felons to be buried alive.
Five of the worst crimes are mentioned in the inscriptions: murder
of a priest, theft, drunkenness, and adultery, or complicity in any of
these. (The tradition persisted: during the reign of King Norodom under
the French Protectorate, a young Vietnamese servant girl was put to
death for knowledge of the adultery of her mistress, a wife in the king’s
harem.) It is also very likely that the Cambodian kings sponsored
human sacrifice and that the custom predated Angkor and persisted
into the 19th century. A Chinese account of a visit in 616 AD claims
that the victims were dispatched during the night at a ceremony
attended by the king at a hilltop temple called ‘Ling-kia-po-pho’. David
Chandler believes that human sacrifice in post-Angkorean Cambodia
was reserved for those found guilty of serious crimes. The unfortunates
were decapitated as part of the loen nak ta ceremony during rice
planting as an offering to the consort of Siva.
The inscriptions also record a range of cruel punishments for lesser
crimes, including punches to the face, flogging, amputation of the hands
and lips, and squeezing of the feet or head in a vice. An inscription from
the 11th century records that one wretch had both his hands and feet
amputated. The methods of ascertaining guilt were no less cruel and
included, as in China and Europe, trial by ordeal. Zhou relates that the
accused might have his hand thrust into boiling water and would be
deemed innocent if the skin did not flake into ribbons.
Angkor, in common with most state societies throughout recorded
history, was never a democracy and although social stratification in
Cambodia has never been as rigid as the caste system of India, there
was little social mobility. The ruling elites owed their position to
birthright and the lower orders by and large accepted their status as
natural, particularly as it was closely bound up with the religious idea
of one’s station in this life being a reward or punishment for deeds in
past lives. Liberty was an alien condition beyond the social imagination,
without words to express it, although some ‘plebeian’ revolts do appear
to have broken out before being brutally suppressed. The doctrine of
reincarnation at least held out the promise of better luck next time,
if one had lived an honest, obedient and virtuous life. As we shall see,
life for the common people and slaves was onerous indeed and legends
such as the Churning of the Sea of Milk gave hope to the downtrodden.
This legend, depicted on the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat, shows lines
of people pulling a rope backwards and forwards, looped around a pole
which is resting on the back of Kurma the tortoise. The aim of the
exercise was to recover lost objects from the sea, foremost of which
was ambrosia, the gift of immortality. Ambrosia also meant prosperous
times, ample food, and well-deserved rest after the rigours of labour in
the fields or construction sites.
The strict stratification of Khmer society was reflected in the
division of the common people themselves into different categories;
the knum who were bound to the monasteries, temples and religious
orders; the peasants or the soldier-builder-farmer class; and slaves. The
Angkorean civilisation supported a number of large religious foundations and monasteries, which had great influence in Khmer society
and whose activities are recorded in some detail in the inscriptions.
These orders controlled vast tracts of land and employed large numbers
of workers. There is surprisingly little in the inscriptions about the monks
and abbots of these orders, but a great deal about those who did the
work, the knum, who appear to have been bound to the land in a con-
dition akin to serfdom or perhaps slavery, although perhaps this
condition was mitigated by the belief that they carried out the ‘work
of the gods’. Some of the knum appear to have been slaves in the strict
sense of the word; they could be bought and sold and were often prisoners of war or captured hill tribesmen from beyond the settled lands.
Others seem to have been villagers from the vicinity of the monasteries and foundations. The inscriptions are explicit on the division of
labour, with field hands, herdsmen who looked after the herds of sacred
cows, fruit pickers, guards and other outdoor workers. There were also
weavers and clothing workers, secretaries, kitchen hands and cooks,
even parfumiers and ‘guards of the holy perfume’. Still others were
employed as singers, dancers and musicians within the temples.
The most numerous class were the peasants, who also served as
labourers on the temple construction sites, and who were liable to be
mobilised into the army in time of war. These appear to have been a
different category to the knum, for they were able to keep slaves them-
selves; Zhou Daguan records that only the very poorest peasants did not
keep at least one slave. In many respects, the lives of this peasant class
appear to have been similar to those of the modern Khmer peasants,
who were until recently liable to serve as corvée labourers on the roads
and other public works, or work free of charge for the benefit of rural
notables. The men dressed in loincloths, the women wore a longer
garment much like the sampot of today and both went naked to the
waist. These garments were of simple design for, as Zhou tells us, the
poor were forbidden to mimic the sumptuous garments of their ‘betters’,
even if they could have afforded to do so.
Clothing reflected rank in this rigidly stratified society and only
the king was allowed to wear clothing with an overall design. Whereas
the common folk dressed in material of coarse fustian weave, the nobles
were clad in silk, which most likely came from abroad (as did wool).
Rank was also reflected in physical complexion, particularly for women.
The women of the upper class prided themselves, as they do today, in
their light complexions. They did not work outdoors and took parasols
when they ventured outside. The skin of the women of the poorer classes
was burned dark by the sun.
The soldier-builder-farmer class also included those who made
their living by petty trade. The Bayon bas-reliefs depict market scenes,
in which many of the traders were women, selling farm produce and
other goods—or rather bartering them, for the Khmers had no currency.
In addition, there were better-off Chinese merchants and a long history
of Chinese settlement and intermarriage in Cambodia. Zhou records
that Khmer wives were keenly sought after by Chinese settlers, who
valued their business acumen.
Perhaps different from the knum were the slaves-proper, who must
have been very numerous in Angkor. We do not know what proportion
of the population were slaves, but if the evidence supplied by Euro-
pean observers in the 19th century is anything to go by their numbers
must have been considerable—perhaps hundreds of thousands across
the empire. The evidence from inscriptions, such as that at Preah Khan,
suggests that slaves included debtors, hill tribesmen and prisoners of
war. Slavery was hereditary, although they could in exceptional circum-
stances be emancipated by the king.
We do not know how much of the work was carried out by slaves,
but it is likely that the Angkorean economy and public works schemes
relied upon them to a large degree, although according to inscriptions
they did not form the majority of the labour force. Most likely, they were
put to the hardest physical labour, including tasks such as canal build-
ing and maintenance, and quarrying and transporting the enormous
blocks of stone for the construction of the temples. However, other
slaves did higher or less onerous grades of work, employed for example
as clerks or scribes, domestic servants and musicians. Some were known
by titles such as ku—or ‘born for loving’—suggesting compulsory employ-
ment as prostitutes. Probably the worst treatment was meted out to
hill tribespeople who, even up until the abolition of slavery by the
French in the 19th century, were viewed with contempt. This is reflected
in their names, one of which was recorded as ‘Stinking’.
The price of slaves varied depending on individual age, strength
and skill. Inscriptions from religious orders indicate that female slaves
might be bought for twenty measures of unhusked rice. Another inscription records that a particular slave was exchanged for a metal spittoon.
Yet another slave was bartered for a buffalo which itself was valued at
five ounces of silver. Runaways were savagely punished; the milder retributions included slicing off the ears.
The religion of Angkor
Life for all except the Brahmans and the aristocracy must have been
hard in Angkor, yet suffering was mitigated by the consolations of re-
ligion. Angkor, like modern Cambodia, was an intensely religious society,
with all aspects of life inextricably bound up with faith. The religion
of Angkor, as with Funan and the other Khmer principalities earlier,
was imported from India, but was modified by local tradition. There was
a caste of hereditary priests (a remnant of the broader Indian caste
system, perhaps) who purported to trace their ancestry back to those
who had served Jayavarman II. For most of the 600 years of Angkor,
Hinduism cohabited fairly comfortably with Mahayana (Greater
Vehicle) Buddhism, albeit mixed with Khmer folk beliefs and superstitions. At times the pattern was broken by periods of religious
iconoclasm, during which partisans of the different sides damaged
religious statues in sectarian frenzies much as the early Christians de-
faced the works of pagans in the Roman Empire. A number of Buddhist
statues in the Bayon, for instance, were damaged—perhaps by Brahmans,
as statues of Siva and Vishnu were not damaged.
The Cambodian variety of Hinduism differed in some ways from
that in India. In India, Brahma was the chief god of the Hindu trinity;
in Cambodia, Siva and Vishnu shared first place. During the 13th
century, however, a new religion, or perhaps a variant of an older one,
appeared. This was Theravada Buddhism, or the Lesser Vehicle.
Although it shared many of the beliefs of the older Buddhist sect, Theravada Buddhism taught that one would arrive at nirvana via a saintly
and ascetic life, during which one should be resigned to suffering. Quite
simply, good karma was determined by doing good works. The Greater
Vehicle held, in contrast, that one could achieve nirvana via appeals
to incarnations of Buddha, or bodhisattvas. The two older religions
had also merged with the devaraja cult, whereas Theravadism tended
to undermine it. Some writers, George Coedès notable among them,
have pointed to the possible role of this gentle religion in the decline
Apsara, celestial nymphs and dancers, were represented at the beautiful Banteay Srei.
(Author’s collection)
of the empire. Yet it brought solace for the common people, on whom
the demands of their rulers for labour on the temple construction sites
had become an intolerable burden.
The idea of reincarnation was prominent in all of these religions,
yet the very wicked and disobedient could suffer eternal damnation.
The hell scenes on the Angkor Wat friezes show that blasphemers and
those who destroyed religious artefacts, along with those who bore false
witness and gluttons, adulterers, arsonists, liars, poisoners and thieves
could expect to go to hell. Interestingly, given that hell in the western
tradition is a place of perpetual fire, the Khmer version is one of eternal,
bone-chilling cold. One frieze shows another Khmer vision of hell, with
sinners climbing thorn trees as punishment for their wicked ways. Life
and religion were inseparable; indeed, life without religion would have
been unthinkable. And although the Khmer religion, particularly in its
Theravada form, is in line with Marx’s characterisation of religion
as ‘the sigh of an oppressed creature in a heartless world’, the Hindu
and Mahayana priests were an integral part of the ruling class and the
caste system.
Everyday life in Angkor
Zhou has left an account of the houses of the common people, which
were remarkably similar to those of the peasants today; built of wood
or bamboo and standing on stilts, and thatched with woven sugar
palm fronds, for they dared not imitate their social superiors who were
allowed to put tiles on their roofs and live in larger dwellings of more
intricate design, built of more durable woods such as koki. (Pieces of
this tropical hardwood, richly decorated, have survived at Angkor Wat.)
The interiors of the houses of the poor were much as found today in
rural Cambodia: simple places, spread with palm mats and without tables
or chairs. The common people had few possessions apart from some
ceramic pots and other basic kitchen utensils.
Although they do not seem to have been a particularly sybaritic
people, sexual morality was somewhat more liberal than in many other
societies. Khmer mores allowed a wife or husband to have another sexual
partner if a partner was absent for more than ten nights, although this
could be dangerous as a husband could have a man who cuckolded
him put in the stocks. Khmers married in their teenage years and once
a couple were betrothed, premarital intercourse was accepted. A major
rite of passage for girls was the custom Zhou Daguan has recorded
as the chen-t’en, which tends to shock modern readers. Following
lavish celebrations, a priest would deflower the girl with his hand, for
which he would be rewarded with gifts of alcohol, rice, cloth, silver,
betel and silk. In wealthier families, the ceremony happened when
the girl was aged between seven and nine years old, in poorer, when she
was 11. Some slave women appear to have been made to work as prostitutes, and male prostitution and homosexuality existed.
Although some Khmer customs, such as women urinating while
standing up, struck Zhou as ‘absurd’, the Khmers for their part were
equally shocked or amused by the behaviour of the Chinese, particularly
by the latters’ habit of cleaning themselves with paper instead
of water after defecation. The Chinese custom of using human
manure to fertilise the fields also shocked the Khmers, who abhorred
it as bodily pollution, a belief probably inherited from India. These attitudes have continued to the present. More puzzling is the matter of
how the ancient Khmers disposed of their dead. Zhou Daguan claims
that corpses were either left outside the city for wild animals to dispose
of, or were buried or cremated. (Earlier, in Funan, cadavers were cast
into the rivers.) Zhou’s belief that cremation of the dead was a new
practice when he visited in the 13th century is contradicted by another
Chinese account, which records that the custom was already established
in the early seventh century. Although the Khmers believed in rein-
carnation, death was nevertheless an occasion for grief, and the mourners
would shave their heads as a mark of respect and loss.
The staples of their diet were rice and fish, which was plentiful in
the artificial and natural watercourses of Angkor, and which was cooked
fresh or added to other dishes in the form of the pungent fermented
paste, prahoc, as it is today. These staples were supplemented with
fruit, particularly oranges and bananas, of which there were numerous
kinds, but also tamarind, edible flowers (from the dipterocarp hard-
woods, for example), coconut milk and flesh, mangoes and mulberries.
A number of varieties of beans, along with sorghum millet and sesame,
were also cultivated. Fermented alcoholic beverages were made from
sugar cane and perhaps rice and honey. We know from the inscriptions
that the Khmers ate venison and pork, but these meats were perhaps
beyond the reach of the poorer members of society. They drank milk,
but this, along with meat, was largely proscribed when Theravada
Buddhism arrived. Although the fiery chillies with which Southeast
Asians love to flavour their food were imported into the region by the
Portuguese after the demise of Angkor, the ancient Khmers spiced up
their food with a variety of condiments including cardamom, turmeric
and black pepper (all of which are still grown in Cambodia today) and
salt, which was brought by boat from the Kampot district adjacent to
the Gulf of Siam.
There is a wealth of detail about the customs and amusements in
Angkor. From these we know that the Khmers had a variety of musical
instruments, including percussion (drums, cymbals, tambourines and
bells) and stringed instruments resembling harps and guitars, or perhaps
mandolins. Rockets and firecrackers were set off during major festivals,
as Zhou observed. The bas-reliefs also depict: elephant, pig and cock
fights; snake charmers, raconteurs and strolling minstrels; pugilistic
games and archery contests; and team games, one of which resembled
polo and which is depicted at the Terrace of the Elephants at Angkor
The hydraulic city debate
It is something of an understatement to say that water was important
to the ancient Khmers. Angkor is situated in a region that is subjected
to six months of drought and six months of rain every year, unlike the
delta, where Funan was, which has high, year-round rainfall and a surfeit
of river water. The early archaeologists quickly became aware that the
ancient Khmers had built three enormous barays, or artificial lakes,
the largest of which, the West Baray, measures some 8 kilometres by
3 kilometres. More recently, satellite imagery has revealed that there
was a fourth baray, long since drained. The West Baray, started between
c.975 and 1020 and completed in 1050, was formed by throwing up
10-metre high earthen ramparts, which extended for over 20 kilometres:
a project that took colossal amounts of man-hours and human sweat
to build. The first baray, the Indratataka, had been built earlier, in
877 AD, during the reign of Indravarman. Yasovarman I, who succeeded
him to the throne, built a new reservoir, the Yasodharatataka, in 889 AD.
In 1961, the archaeologist Jacques Dumarçay found a length of
copper pipe on the artificial island in the centre of the lake and this,
together with other evidence, led him to surmise that the king would
regularly visit and use the pipe to measure water levels to ascertain
whether rice planting could begin. Dumarçay, like others before him,
assumed that the purpose of the barays was at least partly to do with
irrigation. This idea found its fullest expression in the work of the
celebrated French archaeologist Bernard-Philippe Groslier, who devel-
oped his controversial ‘hydraulic city’ hypothesis in two articles
published in 1974 and 1979. According to Groslier, a vast irrigation
system of canals, tanks and larger reservoirs, of which the barays were
part, had allowed the Khmers to plant two, and even three rice crops
per year instead of one (Zhou Daguan claimed three or four crops annu-
ally). This highly efficient agricultural system had enabled the Khmers
to provide for a huge city population of perhaps close to two million.
The social surplus product also enabled the leisure time needed for the
creation of sophisticated high culture, including the ‘plastic arts’ and
literature. It also provided stockpiles of food to feed the enormous
numbers of labourers and artisans necessary for the construction of the
monumental temples of Angkor.
Although it is likely that Groslier’s original population estimate
was too high, Angkor was probably the largest pre-industrial city in
the world. The most recent archaeological work indicates that one
million is a reasonable estimate of the city’s size. Groslier’s hypothesis
was important because it represented a shift in focus away from the
monuments themselves to an investigation of the society that had
produced them. This does not mean that scholars such as George Coedès
had ignored the social dimensions of Angkor, but the emphasis did begin
to swing to a more anthropological approach.
The hydraulic city debate soon came under fierce attack and the
debate still rages, often with more heat than light. In 1980 and 1982,
the distinguished writer W.J. van Lière published two articles in which
he wrote that ‘not a drop of water from . . . the temple ponds was used
for agriculture’. Van Lière claimed that there was no evidence of the
existence of a network of irrigation canals, or of intake or outfall struc-
tures at the barays. The ancient Khmer rice crop, he insisted, had
depended on bunded fields and flood retreat agriculture, much as today.
(The former refers to the practice of erecting low dikes around paddy
fields to trap rainwater, the latter to a system of embankments to trap
retreating floodwaters to irrigate crops.)
More recently, the American geographer Robert Acker has
disputed Groslier’s estimates of the size of Angkor’s population, at the
same time accepting van Lière’s claims that there is no evidence to
suggest the existence of irrigation works. James Goodman argues that
the key to understanding the extraordinary productivity of Angkorean
riziculture lies in the salient natural feature of the region—the Great
Lake. Every year, during the monsoon and after the spring thaw in
distant Yunnan, the volume of water in the Mekong is so great that it
cannot drain away quickly enough through the delta to the sea. Immense
quantities of water build up on the flat lands at Phnom Penh and, with
nowhere else to go, flood upstream into the Tonlé Sap River, reversing
the normal direction of flow and pouring into the Great Lake. As a
result, the level of the lake rises by between 7 and 9 metres and floods
an area of over 13 000 square kilometres. This, argues Goodman, made
food production ‘virtually climate proof’. Goodman also argues that the
main settlement pattern of the Angkorean civilisation followed the
flood line on the fertile lacustrine plain, with dense settlements between
Angkor and Banteay Chhmar, rather than in the immediate environs
of the temple complex adjacent to the modern town of Siem Reap.
Goodman also points out that the soil in the vicinity of the monuments
is poor and that it would have required heavy manuring to maintain
any fertility. Although human manure has been used as fertiliser for
many centuries in Vietnam and China, the practice, as noted previ-
ously, is abhorrent to the Khmers. Goodman asks why, if irrigation were
the preferred method in ancient Angkor, it accounts for less than one
per cent of rice produced in the Siem Reap region today. Finally, in the
view of these critics of Groslier’s original thesis, the barays and smaller
artificial lakes had a purely religious purpose.
It is unfortunate that the debate has become so polarised, with
supporters of the hydraulic city thesis dismissed as dogmatic Witt-
fogelians (see Glossary). Groslier never doubted that the barays and
canals had a ‘dual function’, both for utilitarian and religious purposes,
and argued that the Khmers would have made no distinction between
the two. The Japanese scholar Yoshiaki Ishizawa maintains that ‘in
reality, it is impossible to separate the everyday lives of the Cambodian
people from ponds and water’. The utilitarian purposes of the water-
ways (for example bathing, fishing, irrigation, flood control and
drainage) were inseparable from the Khmers’ religious faith. Many ponds
are associated with temples and often the barays and smaller lakes have
a religious shrine in the centre. It is very likely that the moats were originally dug to provide landfill for the temple mounds and that they served
thereafter for drainage purposes. It is also clear from the inscriptions
that the waterways served for purposes of religious purification and that
the temple mounds and moats and barays were a symbolic representation of Khmer cosmology. The temple represents Mount Meru, at
the centre of the world; the city walls represent the sacred Himalayas;
the moats and barays represent the oceans and seas. The Siem Reap
River, too, was the Khmer version of the sacred Ganges. So too were
the drops of water with which the Khmers bathed their bodies or watered
their crops seen as part of the sacred order of the world.
W.J. van Lière’s assertion that not a drop of water from the barays
and canals was used for irrigation has been repeated by Groslier’s
opponents without them checking the known facts. The evidence—
much of it new—suggests strongly that the waterways did have a dual
function. Many inscriptions refer directly to the waterways and although
the majority of these do refer to their religious functions, some ex-
plicitly mention irrigation. One inscription in particular refers to canhvar,
which means a waterway used for irrigation purposes. It should also be
remembered that a number of Iberian travellers who visited Cambodia

during the 16th century, when Angkor was still inhabited, remarked
that the prosperity of the kingdom relied on irrigation.
This does not mean that the Khmers did not employ other methods
for growing crops. It is altogether likely that they practised dry rice
farming in remote areas and that they built dikes around other paddy
fields to capture rainwater in other areas distant from the canals. They
probably also carried out flood retreat farming in the fertile areas subject
to inundation along the Great Lake. Indeed, if the estimates of the
population of the ancient city are correct and over one million people
lived there, it is altogether likely that they had to employ multiple
methods of farming. However, the latest archaeological evidence indicates that a vast system of irrigation canals and reservoirs was at the
centre of the Angkorean economy. W.J. van Lière claimed that as he
had not seen any intake or outlet structures at the barays, or any distribution systems, these did not exist. The latest evidence from aerial
photography and radar imaging indicates that Groslier’s critics were
quite wrong to assert that there were no canals at Angkor.
The Australian archaeologist Roland Fletcher insists that Angkor
was a ‘gigantic, low density, dispersed urban complex’ sprawling over
at least 1000 square kilometres between the Great Lake and the Kulen
Hills to the north, and that the irrigation system was vital to the city’s
survival. Some of the larger canals still exist, for instance at Beng Melea,
east of Angkor, where they took water from the temple moat to the rice
fields. Remote sensing also shows the existence of a network of dis-
tributor channels, and larger canals of up to 40 metres in width are
visible from the air with the naked eye, leading from the East and West
barays and the Angkor Wat moat. Although W.J. van Lière categori-
cally ruled out the possibility of the ancient Khmers creating temporary
breaches in the baray embankments to drain off water for irrigation
purposes during the dry season, this still remains a distinct possibility.
In 1935, M. Trouvé of the Hydraulic Service of Indochina conducted
an experiment at the West Baray. A breach was made in the embank-
ment, a pipe inserted and the earth replaced around it. Shortly afterwards
the dike broke, but was repaired more carefully and remained intact
thereafter. It is possible that the ancient Khmers inserted laterite pipes
through the embankments and remote sensing shows possible breaches.
It is also now known that the barays had permanent outlet/inlets in
their eastern walls.
Even more importantly, the latest evidence shows the existence
of a large feeder canal, perhaps 20 metres in width, which ran north-
wards for some 40 kilometres from Angkor Thom to the hills. This trunk
canal fed a fine network of distributors and embankments, which
covered a large area to the north of the central city. This area, which
naturally was rather dry for six months of the year, was converted by
the Khmers into what Roland Fletcher describes as ‘a highly structured
anthropogenic wetland’, criss-crossed with canals and embankment-
cum-roads and capable of supporting the largest concentration of people
in the pre-industrial world. These people lived in a dispersed pattern,
strung out along the canals and embankments, ringing the paddy fields,
or clustered around the numerous smaller reservoirs. The slope of the
land is gentle, so erosion would not have been a major problem except
in the foothills of Phnom Kulen.
Fletcher also suggests that the barays could have functioned as
‘complementary opposites’—both as reservoirs and as settling ponds
for silt brought through the canal system to the north from the hills.
It is probable that the city was able to function in a state of ‘dynamic
equilibrium’ for many centuries before increased population pressure
caused the people to seek additional land to settle on and cultivate. It
was then, argues Fletcher, that the fine ecological balance of the city
began to break down and the city and its empire went into decline.
The decline of Angkor
That empires rise and fall is a cliché of history and Victorian melodrama. What are more difficult to establish are the specific reasons for
their decline. The puzzle of the Angkorean decline has taken a long
time to unravel and we still don’t have all the answers. It is likely that
the city’s decline resulted from a combination of political, social, religious and ecological factors. The conventional explanation held
that collapse came suddenly, around 1431, when the Siamese King
Paramaraja II sacked the city. Christopher Pym believed that the cause
was ‘the empire’s dismemberment from without and a loss of religious
equilibrium within’. The Siamese (or Thais), who had moved into
the Menam basin from Yunnan, were originally under Khmer suzerainty,
but after the death of Jayavarman VII they established their own sovereignty and began to challenge Khmer hegemony. Zhou Daguan records
that there were devastating wars between the Siamese and the Khmers
in the mid-13th century, with great loss of life and destruction of property
in the outlying areas of the empire. Even before they sacked Angkor in
1431, the Siamese had occupied large parts of the empire, carrying off
Khmers as slaves and possibly sabotaging the irrigation system accord-
ing to some writers.
While the incessant Siamese incursions undoubtedly weakened
Angkor politically, it is unlikely that they caused the empire’s collapse.
Although the Khmers shifted their capital to the Quatre Bras region
after the Thais sacked Angkor in 1431, the city was not completely
abandoned. When the Iberian missionaries Diego do Couto and Gabriel
Quiroga de San Antonio visited the city in 1550 and 1570 respectively,
it was still a going concern, the latter noting that the kingdom was still
densely populated. (Do Couto’s account of Angkor was lost for centuries
until re-discovered by the celebrated English historian C.R. Boxer in
Lisbon in 1954.) King Satha I carried out extensive rebuilding work
on the temples and the irrigation system during the same period
and an inscription from 1587 records restoration work on Angkor Wat.
Angkor Thom seems only to have been abandoned in 1629, but other
parts of the city were refurbished during the reign of King Ponhea Sor
in 1747. Tragically, a description of the city written by a European
traveller in the 1780s has been lost. When the French came in the 19th
century, there were still Buddhist monks at Angkor. The city, however,
was in ruins, with much of it lost to the rapacious advance of the jungle.
Something had happened, but at a later date than the Siamese attacks,
which suggests that although these might well have weakened the
empire, they are not the sole explanation for its decline.
George Coedès believed that the mania for temple building placed
an immense burden on the people, and was a huge drain on the resources
of the empire. (If the excesses of Louis XIV, the Sun King, absorbed no
less than 50 per cent of the wealth of 17th-century France, one wonders
at the exorbitant cost of the much larger building programs and other
demands of the Angkorean kings.) The excessive demands wore the
people down, drained their vitality and perhaps even led to rebellions,
although there is no real, hard evidence of this, just tantalising hints
in inscriptions. After the frenzy of temple building during the reign of
King Jayavarman VIII in the 13th century, during which monuments
were thrown up at feverish speed, the program ran out of steam. British
historian Arnold Toynbee might be guilty of hyperbole when he writes,
‘The Khmer civilization, like so many civilizations before and after it,
wrecked itself by indulging in these mad crimes’, but there is an element
of truth here. This great coda of temple building also coincided with
the arrival of the new religion, Theravada Buddhism, via a Burmese
monk called Shin Tamalinda, whose standing was no doubt enhanced
by his claim to be the son of a Khmer king.
The common people took to the new religious doctrines with great
enthusiasm. By the mid-14th century the country had converted to
the new creed and Sivaism and Mahayana Buddhism were displaced.
(Elements of Hinduism persist to this day in Cambodia, however, and
include aspects of royal court ritual, art and literature, and the recog-
nition of Indian gods.) Khmers even travelled to Laos to proselytise
for Theravadism. The new religion was ‘democratic’ in that there were
no hereditary priests, such as the Brahmans—anyone might don the
saffron robes and become a monk, and even a king who converted might
beg for alms in the street. The new religion made a huge impact on
those exhausted by the worldly demands of their sybaritic rulers. The
material world was one full of vanity and one’s best chance of a better
reincarnation and eventual ascendance to nirvana lay not with the
accumulation of power and wealth, but in renouncing it and dedicating
one’s life to good works. And what were the temples but monuments
to the monstrous vanity of men who presumed to be gods when, according to the Theravadins, not even Buddha himself was a god?
One can only speculate what effects the new religion might have
had on the economy. Pym says that because of Theravada Buddhism’s
spurning of the material world, the irrigation system fell into disrepair.
Again, there might be an element of truth in this. Although the modern
Khmer peasants are often scorned as being lazy, particularly in comparison with their industrious Vietnamese neighbours and by the yardstick
of the European Protestant ethic, this really is a misunderstanding.
For the Khmer peasants, like their Irish counterparts, ‘contentment is
wealth’. The purpose of life is not the accumulation of material goods,
but to live a good life, which includes the renunciation of earthly desires
in order to accrue merit. As the historians Chandler and Mabbett have
observed, the ‘indolence’ of the Cambodian peasants is ‘a form of
wisdom’. It is quite possible that the new religion did, as Coedès argues,
sap at the foundations of a society that was predicated on the existence of strong, centralised state power. Marx’s theory of the Asiatic
Mode of Production (AMP) has fallen somewhat into disrepute, not
the least because it is often confounded with Karl Wittfogel’s dogmatic
generalisations about ‘oriental despotism’. However, while the theory
of AMP does not fit with many of the diverse societies of Asia, it does
measure up remarkably well to Angkorean civilisation, a hierarchical
society based on a strong state, without landed property and with a
heavy emphasis on government public works schemes. If Groslier’s
hydraulic city thesis is established it is very possible that Theravada
Buddhism might have acted as a subtle yet powerful agent subversive
of Angkorean state power. This might also help explain why irrigation
is not widely used in modern Cambodia.
The new religion also forbade the taking of life, and although
this has not prevented subsequent generations of Cambodians from
warlike behaviour, it might have dampened the imperial ambitions of
the kings. It is not unknown for Khmer peasants to spurn other Khmers
who have taken human life. Anthropologist May Ebihara has recorded
that some villagers disdained those who had taken human life during
the Khmer Issarak insurrection of the 1940s and 1950s against France.
The legend of the kingfishers
The eccentric English writer Osbert Sitwell recorded a charming Khmer
tale which held that Angkor fell into decline because the supply of kingfisher feathers, which were exported to China, ran out. On one level
the tale is absurd, yet read as a parable it perhaps contains the key to
the decline of a great empire. Bernard-Philippe Groslier drew attention
to the possibility of ecological damage as a factor in the decline of
Angkor, and the thesis has been fleshed out by the more recent work
of Roland Fletcher. Groslier believed that there was probably extensive
environmental damage in Angkor, with deforestation of the slopes north
of the city leading to leaching, soil compaction, sheet and gully erosion
and the silting of watercourses on the flatter lands. It is likely too that
deforestation caused a decline in the amount of water available from
convectional rainfall. The conventional wisdom that silt is immediately fertile is in fact untrue. Soil is a complex biosystem and to become
fertile it needs the addition of humus from plant material along with
the actions of worms, insects and microscopic organisms. While the
barays might well have functioned as a dialectical balance between
storing water and as sediment traps, deforestation of the watersheds
could have drowned the canals in silt faster than it could be cleared. It
is also possible that rotting waterweeds depleted the amount of oxygen
in the canals and moats, a process known as eutrophication. This most
certainly is a problem in modern Cambodia, with a plentiful supply of
water-borne nutrients providing ideal conditions for the rapid growth
of plants such as hyacinth and lotus. Rapid growth and decay seriously
depletes the amount of oxygen in the water and reduces its value for
irrigation and smothers fish life.
Groslier also speculates that the large quantities of slow-moving
water would have provided a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes.
In fact, there is evidence that irrigation systems in British India did
increase malarial infection rates, and it is well known that Mussolini’s
actions in draining the Pontine marshes near Rome led to a decrease
in infection rates. Within a decade of the opening of the Sarda Canal
in India in 1928, the irrigated areas suffered problems of evaporation
and seepage, but also ‘waterlogging, salinity and malaria’. Earlier British
attempts to use the waters of the Cauvery and Coloroon for irrigation
purposes largely failed because of silting. Salting might have been a
problem in Angkor too: many Cambodian soils have problems with salt
and sodicity; for instance, 50 per cent of the soils of modern Kompong
Speu province are sodic at a depth of 30 centimetres.
In the language of systems-theory, the Angkorean irrigation system
was a delicate balance of human and natural inputs and outputs—a
dynamic equilibrium—which was capable of sustaining a population
that was huge by the standards of antiquity. The system was thrown
out of ecological balance by the cutting of large areas of forest, particularly on the watersheds in the Kulen Hills. Roland Fletcher believes
that the trees were cut down to provide more farmland for an expand-
ing population and that there was ‘a vast consumption of timber . . .
for the scaffolding of the temples [and] for building the palaces and
houses . . .’. Timber would also have been used for cooking and ‘industrial’ purposes, both in the peasants’ houses and on the monastic estates.
Put in this context, the legend of the kingfishers is not so far-fetched
after all. Damage to the ecosystem of Angkor might well have first
manifested itself in the disappearance of the birds. With no scientific
explanation for this, the Khmers might well have regarded the dis-
appearance of the birds as a harbinger of doom.
If Fletcher is right, the fate of Angkor is a lesson for modern
Cambodia and the rest of the world. There is mounting evidence that
Cambodia is suffering an accelerating environmental crisis that could
mimic the calamities of the ancient Khmers. Logging—much of it
illegal—is widespread on the hills and ridges. As a consequence, sheet
and ravine erosion is increasing, with silting of land and watercourses
downstream. The results of such recklessness are compounded with
the effects of the current Chinese dam-building program in Yunnan,
which has led to record low water levels in Mekong and the Great Lake
in Cambodia. The loss of habitat, which has seen a marked decline in
the numbers of wild animals including tigers and crocodiles, might well
be a re-run of the habitat loss that ended the trade in kingfisher feath-
ers with China and heralded the decline of Angkor. As Jean Lacoursière,
the former head of the Mekong River Commission’s environmental unit,
put it: ‘Today we have the technology to repeat, on a larger scale, what
happened at Angkor . . . The principles are the same: reduction of
habitat, and changes in the overall ecology of Tonlé Sap.’
Although the Angkorean system was in decline some centuries before
1431, when the Siamese burned the city, the sack was probably a turning
point in Cambodia’s history. There was a sharp discontinuity between
the civilisation of Angkor and that of its successor state, when a differ-
ent kind of economic and social order evolved in the country. According
to the 16th century Iberian visitor Diego do Couto, the Khmers had
forgotten Angkor’s existence, although we should be cautious about
accepting such evidence. The pre-Angkorean scholar Michael Vickery
argues that the decision to shift the capital to the Quatre Bras region
was prompted by an expansion of Cambodia’s trading relationship with
China rather than because of Angkor’s collapse. Other writers assert
that the country was plunged into a downward spiral and transformed
seamlessly from a mighty empire into a vassal state. On the other hand,
David Chandler has claimed that Cambodia’s misfortunes during this
period were episodic rather than perpetual. The evidence for either side
is tantalisingly thin, but what is clear is that Cambodia did suffer a long-term decline relative to its own former power, and to the growing
strength of its rivals. From the 17th century, internal political strife
often weakened the vitality of the kingdom, and external enemies were
quick to take advantage. The French had their own motives when they
set up their Cambodian protectorate in 1863, but there can be little
doubt that they prevented the final absorption of the kingdom by its neighbours.
By the 15th century the Siamese, former vassals of the Angkorean kings, had become deadly rivals, and another menace was
growing as the Vietnamese were slowly but inexorably drawn south-
wards down the coast of Annam. Between them, these neighbours
would come to so dominate Cambodia’s fortunes that by the late
18th century the Khmers would dub them the Tiger and the Crocodile. At times, Cambodia almost ceased to exist and for much of the time it was a tributary state of one or another of its powerful neighbours.
Ironically, Cambodia’s long-time Cham rivals were the first to
suffer from Vietnamese expansionism. The Cham kingdom extended
between what is today northern Cochin-China and the Danang region
of Annam, and when Marco Polo visited in 1288 it was still powerful.
While Champa held out, the Khmers were reasonably safe from Viet-
namese incursions. In 1471, however, the Vietnamese sacked the Cham
capital and reduced the kingdom to a tiny rump vassal state before
they destroyed it entirely in 1693. Over 70 years earlier, the Vietnamese
had moved into the adjacent Khmer littoral and in the process
had begun to strangle Cambodia’s maritime trade. By 1780, they had
expanded more or less to the current border between the two states
and turned the Khmer population of the region into a minority in their
own country. By the late 18th century, a terrible Dark Age had
descended on the country.
The coming of the Europeans
When the first Europeans came to Cambodia in the early 16th century,
they could have had no inkling that they were walking on the soil of
what had once been the most powerful empire in Southeast Asia,
centred on the largest city of antiquity. The ruins of Angkor, while
impressive, were only the ‘skeleton’ of the former city. Cambodia had
also been territorially truncated, stripped of her outer provinces, which
had once stretched clear to the Andaman Sea and the boundaries of
Burma, and northwards into what is now Laos. The Siamese had occu-
pied much of the western part of the Khmer srok (see Glossary) including
Angkor, and the Vietnamese would soon nibble at its eastern flank.
Yet, if the sack and occupation of Angkor in 1431 had bloodied
the nose of the Khmer king, it did not signify the total collapse of
his kingdom. The Cambodians fought back fiercely against the Siamese
occupiers. When the Siamese king Paramaraja II put his own son, Indrapath, on the Khmer throne in 1431, the Khmers assassinated the young
man. In 1432 the new Khmer king, Ponhea Yat, moved his capital
first to Srei Santhor and then to Phnom Penh. There are a number
of hypotheses to explain the move: perhaps it occurred because
Srei Santhor was less accessible to raiding Siamese forces; perhaps it
was to take advantage of burgeoning trade links with China; perhaps
it was to escape the effects of the ecological degradation of the Angkor
region. It is possible that the Siamese attacks only sped up the implementation of a decision that would have been taken regardless. Ironically,
over 600 years earlier another Khmer king, Jayavarman II, had moved
his capital in the opposite direction, in part to escape pressure from
hostile Champa.
The wars continued and by the early 16th century the Khmers
had managed to expel the Siamese from much of the older Khmer heart-
lands occupied around 1430. Around 1510, the Khmer king, Ang Chan,
regained control of the province of Angkor. Fifty years later, after a
confused period of attacks and counterattacks by Siamese and Khmer
forces about which we have only sketchy information, Chan’s son,
Barom Rachea I, made the region a springboard for an invasion of Siam.
According to an inscription at Angkor, Barom Rachea’s own son, King
Satha, partially rebuilt the capital after he came to the throne in 1576.
It was still a bustling society when the Iberian friar, Gabriel de Quiroga,
visited in 1570 and found it to be ‘very densely populated’. In contrast,
later travellers would comment on the melancholy vistas of a sparsely
populated land. One can only wonder at what had become of the million
or so people who had inhabited the city.
Increasing numbers of Europeans arrived in Southeast Asia by
sea following the voyages of Diaz and Vasco da Gama round the Cape
of Good Hope in the late 15th century. The Spanish and Portuguese,
it is often said, came with a sword in one hand and a crucifix in the
other. In 1511, the Portuguese annexed the strategic Straits seaport
of Malacca, and the Spanish conquered the Philippines after 1565.
Covetous of souls and gold, they cast their eyes to the mainland and
Cambodia did not escape their notice. In a letter published in 1513,
the Spanish King Manuel informed Pope Leo X that Cambodia was a
strategically important and powerful kingdom in the Far East. The first
European account of Cambodia, the Suma Oriental of the Portuguese
apothecary Tomé Pires, dates from the years between 1512 and 1515,
although it was based on hearsay. Pires’ book casts doubt on the idea
that Cambodia had collapsed as a military power, and perhaps it helped
restrain his countrymen from precipitate imperialist action against the
kingdom. Pires noted that the Khmers were a warlike people and none
more so than the king, who was ‘a heathen and knightly’ and who was
‘at war with the people of Burma and with Siam, and sometimes with
Champa, and he does not obey anyone’. Cambodia had not yet been
reduced to vassal status.
Nevertheless, by the last decades of the 16th century (during the
period of the Iberian dual monarchy over Spain and Portugal between
1580 and 1640) the Spanish had pacified most of the Philippines and
had converted much of the population to Christianity. Fired by religious
zeal and the baser passions of greed, they turned their eyes to the Asian
mainland. Tomé Pires had already noted Cambodia’s riches, remarking
that the Khmers produced large quantities of rice, meat and ‘wines of
their own kind’, together with gold, sticklack (see Glossary), ivory and
large quantities of dried fish. In 1584, the Catholic bishop of Malacca
produced detailed plans for the invasion of the Southeast Asian mainland, after which the conquistadors would turn their attentions to the
glittering prize of China. In the event, King Philip II refused to endorse
the bishop’s plans, viewing them as a distraction from his own designs
for the sea-borne invasion of England (the doomed Spanish Armada).
In any case, Iberian missionaries were disheartened by the indif-
ference of most Cambodians to the gospels, an attitude the wandering
Portuguese friar Gaspar da Cruz put down to the malevolent influence
of the Buddhist monks, whom he described as ‘wizards’. Nevertheless,
Lisbon and Madrid were a long way from Goa and Manila, and the local
authorities had a great deal of autonomy. They were perhaps also worried
about the possible designs of their archrivals, the Dutch and the English,
on the Southeast Asian mainland. Indeed, the English queen, Elizabeth
I, authorised the setting up of the East India Company in 1600, and
shortly afterwards the directors petitioned her to allow them to trade
with, among other places, ‘the Kingdome of Camboia’. For his part, the
Dutch adventurer Jan van Linschoten displayed a keen interest in the
possibilities of trade with Southeast Asia in his book Voyages into Ye Easte
and Weste Indies, which included an account of his visit to Cambodia,
Siam and Champa in the 1570s. Soon afterwards, the Dutch East India
Company was set up in Amsterdam with a charter for trade and conquest
in the Far East. European imperialist rivalry had begun in earnest.
Conquistadors in Cambodia
As it turned out, the Iberians were never to gain more than the most
precarious of toeholds in Cambodia. Although today in Cambodia there
are still a number of influential families of Portuguese descent, Iberian
imperial ambitions for direct conquest were to founder during an invasion by a handful of desperadoes and religious fanatics in the closing
years of the 16th century. This curious affair began in 1593, when King
Satha of Cambodia dispatched an embassy to Manila, with promises of
friendship and trade if the Spanish would send military forces to help
fight off an impending Siamese invasion. Satha had gained a high opinion
of the Iberians because of his friendship with Diogo Veloso, a Portuguese
adventurer who had settled in the country in 1583, learned the language
and married a Khmer princess. The Governor of Manila was politely
non-committal and in the meantime the Siamese invaded Cambodia
and occupied the capital at Lovek. Satha fled into exile in Laos, never,
it seems, to return. The Jesuits in Manila were righteously indignant.
Satha had a reputation for friendliness towards Christians, so the priests
declared that the Spanish should send soldiers to throw back the Siamese
in what would be a ‘just war’. They proposed that in effect, Cambodia
would become an Iberian protectorate, and vowed that her rivals, including Champa and Siam, would be put down in ‘a war of fire and blood’
as part of the wider conquest of all of Indochina. The French would act
on a similar pretext some two and a half centuries later, when they subjugated Vietnam and set up a protectorate in Cambodia. History repeated
itself, but the first time as farce, as it turned out.
Although the Governor of Manila was reluctant to dispatch a large
force to Cambodia (there being no more than 1500 Spaniards in the
Philippines, exclusive of priests and monks at the end of the 16th
century), he sent what the historian C.R. Boxer described as a ‘motley
group of soldiers, vagabonds, Filipinos and Japanese’ under the command
of the Portuguese swashbucklers Diogo Veloso and Blaz Ruiz. The little
army sailed away in a fleet of ill-matched ships, ostensibly to assist Satha,
but with the desire for colonial conquest in their hearts. After a number
of setbacks, including the dispersal of the fleet in a typhoon and Veloso’s
temporary capture by the Siamese, the expedition managed to drive out
the Siamese, suppress an uprising by a Khmer usurper named Chung
Prei, and clamp down on anti-Iberian intrigues at the royal court. They
were able to do all this because of their superior weaponry, which
included muskets and cannon. Forgetting their earlier pledges of friend-ship to Satha, Ruiz and Veloso placed the king’s youngest son on the
throne, perhaps believing he would be pliable, for Ruiz declared that
the young man was ‘a child and addicted to drink more than was his
father . . . he thinks only of sport and hunting and cares nothing for the
kingdom’, although he worried that the young man ‘fears the Spanish
even while he loves them, for he dreads lest they deprive him of his
kingdom’. (French officials were to make similar estimates of their royal
protégés in 19th and 20th century Cambodia.)
In the end the arrogance, greed and general bad behaviour of the
conquistadors led to their deaths in a massacre at Phnom Penh in 1599
at the hands of an outraged mob stiffened by Tagals, the Cham and Malay
palace guards, who would have been equipped with firearms. Ruiz and
Veloso died with their dubious cohort and with them perished Spanish
hopes of carving out God’s Empire in Indochina. Afterwards, French
missionaries took over the work the Iberian Church Militant had initiated, albeit with no greater success, at least in Cambodia. But for their
avarice, incompetence and casual brutality, Veloso’s conquistadors might
well have established a European colony in Indochina and changed the
course of history. We should not jump to the conclusion, however, that
Cambodia was weaker than it was because a small number of Europeans
almost managed to annex it to their empire. Small numbers of determined men could defeat much larger numbers of soldiers because of
cannon and gunpowder, as the Aztecs and Incas learned to their cost.
The post-Angkorean social and
economic system
It is impossible to say how the Iberians might have fared against Angkor
at the apogee of its power, for it seems that a different kind of social
and economic system had supplanted the old model. Political power was less centralised, the old political and religious institutions were
waning, and perhaps this less organised society was less capable of
responding swiftly to the Iberian threat than Angkor might have been.
There were many similarities between late and post-Angkorean
Cambodia, but several key differences. Theravada Buddhism had already
implanted itself firmly before the fall of Angkor, and the monument
mania had ebbed. The people spoke the same language and had many
of the customs and beliefs of their Angkorean ancestors. Yet even in
the domain of language there were some big changes, in part because
of cultural cross-fertilisation with Siam. This led to Angkorean syntax
being supplanted by that of Siamese. This shift paralleled the emergence of a different kind of economy and society in Cambodia from
the 15th century onwards.
If the economic base of a society helps shape its political and social
system, then the decision to shift the capital from Angkor to the Quatre
Bras region must have led to, or been accompanied by, huge social
changes. If, as was argued in the last chapter, Angkorean Cambodia
exemplified some aspects of Marx’s so-called Asiatic Mode of Produc-
tion, with large state-directed public works and dependence on an
elaborate hydraulic system for food production, then the shift would
have meant an enormous break with the past. Irrigation plays only a
minor part in modern Cambodian food production and although
European visitors commented on the continuing existence of hydraulic
agriculture in the 16th century, it must have fallen into decline. If, as
the archaeologists believe, Angkor’s population was over one million,
it is puzzling to consider where they went. Were there mass migrations?
Perhaps as the hydraulic system fell into disrepair as a result of the
ecological crisis and possible sabotage by the Siamese, the population
would have had to relocate as a matter of survival. How many perished
during the Siamese invasions? Did the apparent ecological crisis lead
to famine and disease? Or did the population decline more gradually?
Cambodia twice suffered demographic catastrophe during the 19th
century—during the incessant wars of the ‘Dark Age’ and after the Great
Rebellion of the 1880s—so perhaps something similar happened in
the 15th century. Unless fresh archaeological or documentary evidence
emerges, we may never know.
Not all Khmers had lived in the enormous dispersed city of Angkor.
Large tracts of the countryside were owned and worked by the religious orders, with both free and slave labour. Many other Khmers
lived in villages distant from the city, growing rain-fed rice. This lifestyle,
or something like it, became the norm for most of Cambodia’s post-Angkorean population and perhaps they also found a less regimented
existence more congenial and more in conformity with Theravadist
exhortations to spurn worldly vanity and greed. King Satha refurbished
the city in the late 16th century, but he abandoned it again shortly after-
wards. Angkor Thom was deserted in the mid-17th century and although
King Ponhea Sor partly rebuilt the city in 1747 this did not arrest the
general decline of state power, and the centre of gravity of Cambodian
political life and population had shifted downstream to the lower
Mekong Valley. Angkor was to remain crucial to Khmer identity, and
was emblazoned on the country’s currrency, but it belonged to the past.
The era of gigantic monument building had ceased forever. The
irrigation channels were blocked with silt. At least one of the massive
barays disappeared from sight and the advancing jungle overwhelmed
the mighty feeder canal that had carried water from the mountains.
Roland Fletcher’s ‘gigantic, low density, dispersed urban complex’ had
vanished. The Angkorean road system gradually fell into disrepair, so
that by the time the French came, large tracts of the countryside were
linked only by dusty tracks that became impassable in the wet season.
The centralised, bureaucratic state gradually withered away. In some
ways, the changes were probably so slow as to be imperceptible. In the
words of J.A. Spender, ‘All that the historians give us are little oases
in the desert of time, forgetting the vast tracts between one and another
that were trodden by the weary generations of men.’
At Angkor, people had lived in ‘a highly structured anthropogenic
wetland’, criss-crossed with canals and embankment-cum-roads and
capable of supporting the largest concentration of people in the pre-industrial world. After Angkor, the Khmers lived an altogether different
style of life which, by the 16th and 17th centuries, had crystallised
into a pattern still seen today outside the major towns and cities of
Cambodia. Cambodia became an overwhelmingly rural country, very
different from the dispersed city of Angkor.
The Khmers now lived in small villages, of which David Chandler describes three broad types. The largest, the kompongs (from the
Malay kampong), stood on navigable waterways and were sometimes
home to a few hundred inhabitants, including local officials known
as chauvai srok. They might be enclosed behind a palisade for defence
against bandits, the armed followers of millenarian rebels or foreign
marauders. The second type were the rice-growing villages, which were
less permanent than the kompongs, although they might contain a
Buddhist wat and perhaps some government officials if they were large
enough. Lastly, there were remote villages located on the ambiguous
margins; maybe many days’ travel from the rice-growing villages and
sometimes with no organic links to the Khmer state, and perhaps inhabited by ethnic minorities practising animist rites.
Unlike the Vietnamese villages, the Khmer villages lacked formal
authority structures; disputes were settled informally and the remoter
the village, the more inwards looking and tradition-bound its inhabitants
became. Perhaps an analogy might be made between post-Angkorean
rural society and that of 19th century Haiti. After the French were
driven out of their West Indian slave colony of Sainte-Domingue, the
plantation system was replaced by private peasant agriculture. The
revolted slaves spontaneously reincarnated a society, based on the traditional African village, on the ruins of the hated plantations. In both
cases there was a change from highly efficient, large-scale, directed agri-
culture to small-scale subsistence farming, mirroring a privatisation
of life. Cambodia had no civil society, with no stable groups between
the family and the state, which was often remote from the agglomerations of families that made up the villages. As David Chandler has
observed, such non-state and non-family organisations as existed tended
to be of a temporary nature, as when villagers would band together to
fight off the ubiquitous bandits or to organise festivals. This is not to
say that the villages were anarchic. Religion acted as a social glue; as
the American-Asian scholar Theodore De Bary noted,
The [Buddhist] ideal is a society in which each individual
respects the other’s personality, an intricate network of
warm and happy human relationships: mutual respect and
affection between parent and child, teacher and student,
husband and wife, master and servant, friend and friend,
each helping each other upwards in the scale of being.
There were also patronage networks, in which the powerless would
attach themselves to local notables and others with more power. Indeed,
the anthropologist May Ebihara claims that at the time ‘All free men
had to be registered as clients of a particular patron’, who could be an
official, royal family member or local grandee. Slavery, too, persisted as
an integral part of Khmer society and was not eliminated until the time
of the French Protectorate.
Death and taxes were as certain in Cambodia as Benjamin Franklin
later observed of human life in general. Taxation was paid on demand
and in kind, generally one-tenth of the rice crop, give or take what the
peasants could conceal from the eyes of the tax gatherers. The peas-
ants were also liable for conscription into the army in times of war and
the state bureaucrats could call upon them to perform unpaid labour,
or corvée, on ‘official’ projects. There was little expectation that government officials would be anything other than corrupt and brutal, nor
that they would organise much for ‘the general good’, although it is
doubtful that any such concept existed in the peculiarly Cambodian
variant of feudalism that replaced the Angkorean system. Many officials abused their power to enrich themselves and Cambodian proverbs
exhort the peasants to be wary of the officials, who are portrayed as wild
beasts and venomous snakes. The proverbs also preach the wisdom of
resignation to one’s lot in life, although some peasants took to a life
of banditry, some of it perhaps of a ‘social’ nature, to survive. (Social
banditry, a term coined by the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm
in his classic book Bandits, suggests a quasi-political dimension of resistance against tyrannical rule.) The peasants had also inherited the
religiosity of their Angkorean forebears and it gave them consolation
in an often harsh and unjust world. The head of state, the king, was
venerated and seen as occupying a special place above the hierarchy of
officials. Nor was he held accountable for their misdeeds. Most villagers
stayed close to their homes and fields and never saw him in their lives.
He was, as Chandler puts it, ‘at once as real (and as unreal) as the Lord
Buddha’, an unearthly being with supernatural powers.
The shift of the capital to the Quatre Bras region had freed up
Cambodia’s sea-borne trade with the outside world, particularly China,
and indeed as Vickery argues this might have been a reason for the
move. By the first half of the 17th century, Cambodia was conducting
a thriving trade with China via ports on the lower Mekong. In the 16th
century, King Satha told the Spanish in Manila that he was keen to
trade with them. In 1702, another king permitted Allan Ketchpole to
set up a trading post for the English East India Company on the island
of Poulo Condore (then part of Cambodia), although it did not prosper.
Shortly afterwards, the Scottish sea captain Alexander Hamilton
published an account of two Cambodian seaports on the Gulf littoral.
He described the town of ‘Cupangsoap’ (Kompong Som, or today’s
Sihanoukville) as a place that ‘affords elephants teeth, sticklack and
the gum Cambouge or Cambodia . . .’ and its neighbour ‘Ponteamass’
(Banteay Meas) as being located on ‘a pretty deep but narrow river,
which, in the rainy seasons of the Southwest Monsoons, has communication with [the] Bansack [Bassac] or Cambodia River . . .’. Other
products traded with the outside world included 21 carat gold, and
‘raw silk at 120 dollars per Pecul’ (see Glossary), ‘elephant’s teeth at
50 to 55 dollars’, sandalwood, agala-wood ‘and many sorts of physical
drugs, and Lack for japanning’. Despite widespread subsistence agriculture, we know that Cambodia exported a variety of other products,
including rice, cotton, hemp, probably fish and fish products, also pepper
and cardamom. There was also a big enough social surplus product to
feed not only the thousands of state officials, but also a startling number
of Buddhist monks. Gaspar da Cruz claimed that at the time of his visit
in the 16th century a third of the population were monks, and that
there were 1500 of them in Phnom Penh alone. The gradual settlement
of the lower Mekong delta by Vietnamese did, however, block a major
trading artery and this contributed to Cambodia’s later decline.
Between tiger and crocodile
In his account of his visit to Cambodia, Captain Alexander Hamilton
remarked that the seaport of Banteay Meas had ‘flourished’ until it
was burned by a Siamese fleet in 1717 and that he had also gazed upon
the burnt ruins of ‘Cupangsoap’. The two towns had suffered what was
all too common a fate for Cambodian settlements from the 17th century.
The Siamese, perennial enemies of the Khmers, had emerged as a
formidable, rich and martial people. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French
Huguenot who visited Siam sometime during the 1640s, recorded
that there were ‘masses of gold’ at the royal court and that the king
travelled between gilded pagodas in an enormous boat propelled by
400 oarsmen. A century later, Captain Hamilton described the Siamese capital as a fine city built of stone and brick, with many canals,
and about 16 kilometres in circumference. There were ‘steeples gilded
in gold’ which, ‘at two or three miles distance . . . disturb the eye when
look’d upon’. The captain also wrote of Vietnam as ‘a country far larger
than Cambodia, and much richer, and the inhabitants [are] more
couragious [sic] and hardier . . . than the Cambodians, but are not so
conversable and civil to strangers’. The Italian Christoforo Borri, who
visited Vietnam during the first decades of the 17th century, had a high
regard for the Vietnamese, whose culture he adjudged to be little different to that of China. The people were strong, agile and brave, with
‘good intelligence’ and open to foreign ideas. Technologically they were
on a far higher plane than the Khmers and their system of government was much more centralised, with government power operating
down to village level.
The first independent Vietnamese state had been established in
939 AD and afterwards their expansion southwards was inexorable. They
began to annex the Cham lands as early as 1069, and after sacking
the Cham capital in 1471 they forcibly assimilated their new subjects.
The road was also clear for them to begin to move into Cambodian
territory. In the 1620s, they began to move into the Khmer lands adjacent to Champa north of the Mekong delta. Their task was made
easier by the disarray of the Cambodian government, which one historian
has described as ‘faction-ridden and under Siamese influence’. Vietnamese influence at the Cambodian court was also growing during this period.
Borri mentions that in 1620 the ‘king of Cambogia’ (Jayajetta II) married
a Vietnamese princess in order to cement an alliance against the Siamese.
Jayajetta’s marriage was part of what was to become an ongoing process
in which the Cambodian state sought to play off its powerful neighbours
against one another in order to maintain some measure of sovereignty;
King Sihanouk would play a similar game during the 1950s and 1960s.
Given Cambodia’s increasing weakness vis-à-vis its neighbours, it was
probably the best diplomatic option down through the centuries to the
international Realpolitik of the 20th century.
In 1623, King Jayajetta II granted Vietnamese traders and settlers
permission to live and work near the Khmer town of Prey Nokor, situ-
ated on a distributary of the Mekong delta, and the largest town in
that sparsely settled region of Cambodia. This was probably part of the
price of the king’s marriage to the Nguyen princess. The settlers’ numbers
steadily increased and in 1698 they set up a Vietnamese vice-royalty in
the district and renamed the town Saigon. Earlier, in 1658, a Vietnamese
army had penetrated deep into Cambodia-proper, only withdrawing the
following year. By 1780, the Vietnamese controlled almost the whole
of the lower delta region and the Camau Peninsula. In the delta, the
Vietnamese had carried out a process similar to that of the Israelis in
the present-day Occupied Territories of Palestine, of ‘creating political
facts on the ground’ by populating the region with settlers. It was a slow-motion annexation in which the hapless Khmers were pushed over
the de facto border, or onto marginal lands. The 19th century French
historian Adhémard Leclère claimed that the Vietnamese settlers
provoked border incidents so as to be able to demand indemnities in
land from the Khmers.
Although almost half a million Khmer Krom still live in the Vietnamese lower delta today, it is probable, as the distinguished
archaeologist and writer Louis Malleret has argued, that only the coming
of the French saved them from assimilation or extinction. The Khmers’
religion taught them resignation in the face of seemingly inevitable
misfortune and they would need every ounce of faith in a ‘historical
amphitheatre’ that, as Albert Camus reminds us, ‘has always contained
the martyr and the lion’ and where the ‘former relied on eternal
consolation and the latter on raw historical meat’. For their part,
metaphorically speaking, the Siamese tiger and the Vietnamese crocodile had voracious appetites for Cambodian flesh. However, the designs
of Cambodia’s external enemies were assisted by periodic bouts of dyn-
astic feuding within the country itself and by the late 1770s, during
which decade the Siamese burned Phnom Penh, the country’s fortunes
were at their lowest ebb.
From the 18th century onwards, Cambodia became a tributary
state of its neighbours, a common form of foreign relations in South-
east Asia and one originally developed by the Chinese. The Cambodian
kings were expected to pay annual tribute in ritual ceremonies in Hué
or Bangkok. Gifts and letters would be exchanged, underlining the
dependent status of the vassal monarch at Phnom Penh. In its turn,
Vietnam was expected to acknowledge its own tributary status with
regard to China. There were differences in the relationships between
Cambodia and its neighbours. There was a sharp cultural divide between
Cambodia and Vietnam; although both countries were based economically on wet rice cultivation, Vietnam was a Sinitic society and shared
much of its powerful northern neighbour’s cultural, social and political
institutions. Vietnam, like China, based its system of government
and administration on the principles of Confucius. The Vietnamese
also shared the cult of ancestor worship, Chinese calligraphy and many
aspects of family life. Like China, Vietnam was a bureaucratised state
with a high degree of centralisation and social stratification. Its people
generally ascribed to the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism, although
French missionaries had been rather more successful in Vietnam than
in Cambodia.
Cambodia, on the other hand, shared an Indianised cultural tra-
dition with its other neighbour, Siam, and both countries practised
the Theravada brand of Buddhism, leavened with residual Hindu
and animist influences. Government and administration was looser and
these dissimilarities were reflected in the differences in relations between
the three countries. For the Vietnamese, the Khmers were by definition
barbarians to be punished, patronised or civilised, depending on the
situation. The Siamese, who shared much of the culture of Cambodia,
were often more tolerant and tended to view the Khmers as children,
albeit unruly and disobedient ones. This would explain the frequent
resort to stern measures, as for instance when they burned down Phnom
Penh in 1772, and invaded the country in 1811, 1833 and again in the
1840s. However, it is clear they also felt some sense of responsibility
for the fate of their Theravadist neighbour, whose capital lay much
closer to Vietnam than to Siam.
Until the 19th century the actions of Siam and Vietnam in
Cambodia were usually constrained by the desire on both sides to avoid
an all-out military collision with each other. Although they continually intrigued and jockeyed for power and influence in the kingdom,
they both understood that it was in their interests to allow Cambodia
to exist as a semi-independent buffer state. This did not stop them from
pushing home the advantage when the other was preoccupied with other
problems, as when the Nguyen dynasty was confronted with the Tay
Son rebellion in Vietnam, or when the Siamese were distracted by wars
with Burma. The situation changed in the early 19th century when
the Vietnamese decided on a policy of territorial and cultural assimilation. The resulting chaos and instability almost destroyed Cambodia.
The Cambodian Dark Age
Norodom Sihanouk, king of Cambodia until his retirement in 2004,
has described the history of Cambodia in the 17th, 18th and 19th
centuries as ‘an immense, painful tragedy’. Most painful of all were the
years between the 1780s and the coronation of Ang Duang in 1848,
during which time the Khmer monarchy and national sovereignty almost
vanished. Perhaps the only darker period for Khmers was during the
1970s, the decade of civil war, carpet-bombing and genocide. As David
Chandler reminds us, the Siamese burned down the Khmer capital three
times in the first half of the 19th century and the Cambodian Royal
Chronicles lament a succession of plagues, famines, floods and other
natural and man-made calamities. It was a grim era in which rival states
fought over the carcass of Cambodia and in which peace was only a
time of recuperation from the last war and preparation for the next.
The Dark Age began around 1778, when the Siamese invaded
Cambodia only six years after an earlier incursion. When the Siamese
withdrew, the country exploded into a civil war that pitted rival
bureaucratic factions and court intriguers against one another, while
behind the scenes Vietnamese agents plotted in the murk. A rebellion
in southern Vietnam had spilled over the border into Cambodia and at
the other end of the country, in the vicinity of the Angkor ruins, a local
Cambodian official, or oknya, called Ben or Baen, of the Apheuvongs
family, suppressed dissidents and carved out a power base for himself in
the north-west provinces. Later, Ben set himself up as a kind of viceroy,
under Siamese patronage at the royal capital of Udong. Still later, he
retreated to his north-west bastion and, with Siamese blessing, set up
what amounted to a breakaway Khmer state—a de facto partition of
Cambodia that was to last until 1908 when the French negotiated the
return of Battambang and Angkor provinces from Siam.
During the course of these disturbances, the Cambodian king Ang
Non was killed and in 1783 his nine-year-old son, Prince Eng, sought
sanctuary at the court of King Rama I in Bangkok. It was a fateful flight,
for it was to re-establish Siamese suzerainty over Cambodia after it had
lapsed following a Burmese military victory over Bangkok in 1767. For
over a decade following Non’s death, the Cambodian throne was vacant,
with power in the hands of a pro-Siamese regent. Ang Eng came of age
and was crowned in a ceremony in Bangkok, but he died shortly there-after, in 1797 at the age of 23 years, possibly as a baptised Catholic.
His eldest son, Prince Chan, was only six years old at the time and the
country was placed once again into the hands of a regent.
The Siamese king, Rama I, allowed Chan to ascend to the Khmer
throne in 1803, at the age of 16 years. Although Rama might have
considered the new king’s youth would make him tractable, he was more
independent minded than his father and seems to have brooded on
slights and to have resented Siamese domination. Intrigues broke out
again at court between pro-Siamese and pro-Vietnamese factions, with
Chan’s own brothers aligning themselves with the former. Ang Chan’s
writ did not run far into the provinces, and not at all into Ben’s juristiction around Battambang and Angkor. When Ben died, the Siamese
appointed his nephew to succeed him and the districts became a semi-independent part of Siam, under a family of hereditary viceroys. Chan
was so angry that he refused to travel to Bangkok for Rama’s funeral.
Meanwhile, the internal intrigues had escalated so far that there was
danger of civil war. Perhaps sensing that the Siamese might intervene
to aid his enemies, Chan appealed to the Vietnamese for help and they
responded by sending ships and troops up the Mekong to guard his palace
at Udong. Whether he acted out of pique or calculation is difficult to
say, but the results were disastrous for Cambodia. The Vietnamese were
to stay for over thirty years and almost succeeded in turning the country
into a province of Vietnam.
The Siamese had not forgotten Chan’s calculated snub to the
memory of their ruler, which in their opinion transgressed the rules
of the client–tributary relationship. The Siamese invaded, perhaps with
the design of planting Chan’s brother Snguon on the throne, and Chan
fled into exile at Saigon. Ominously, his two other brothers, Im and
Duang, sided with Siam. Neither Vietnam nor Siam were prepared to
risk open war at this stage, as the former was weakened by internal revolt
and the latter was waging war against their Burmese neighbour. In 1813
the Siamese withdrew, taking Snguon, Im and Duang into exile at
Bangkok after burning the citadels of Udong and Phnom Penh. Chan
returned with a permanent garrison of Vietnamese troops and shifted
his capital downstream from Udong to Phnom Penh, presumably as it
was closer to his patrons. Cambodia had become a vassal of Vietnam,
although large parts of the west of the country remained within the
Siamese sphere of influence. Weakened by their wars with Burma,
the Siamese bided their time, grooming Im and Duang at Bangkok
and waiting for better days.
Vietnam, the only Sinitic state in Southeast Asia, always regarded
the Khmers as barbarians. When Chan died in 1835 they adopted the
policy of ‘civilising’ the barbarians, attempting to introduce a Vietnamese-style taxation system and bullying the Khmer mandarins to wear
Vietnamese-style bureaucratic dress. Later, they attempted to make
the general population wear Vietnamese clothing and hairstyles. They
also conscripted Khmer peasants to dig a canal from the Gulf of Siam
to the Mekong delta, and behaved with great brutality. In 1820, the
Khmers rose in revolt but it was a futile gesture in the face of a powerful occupier. The rising was put down with torture, public executions
and the burning of villages in a grim fore-echo of what would be done
to the Vietnamese themselves by the French colonialists.
In 1834, towards the end of Chan’s reign, the Siamese had
recuperated enough from the Burmese wars to send an invading force
deep into Cambodia via Pursat, one of the ‘four gates of Cambodia’,
which lies to the south of the Great Lake. The exiled Khmer Princes
Im and Duang rode with them. One can only wonder at what the pair
thought of the behaviour of their patrons, who burned down Phnom
Penh and looted it so systematically that ‘even the dogs were loaded
onto wagons’, according to French missionaries. When they retreated
after a Vietnamese counteroffensive, the Siamese troops forced thousands of peasants to accompany them into exile. So many others fled
into the forests that the region south of the Great Lake, severely depopulated, became a melancholy wasteland.
The Vietnamese reinstalled Chan on the throne, but they were
contemptuous of his ineffectuality in the face of the invasion and dismissive of Cambodia’s quasi-sovereignty. The gloom hanging over the
kingdom deepened after Chan’s sudden death in 1835, at the age of
44. The Vietnamese pondered who would replace him. Chan had not
left any sons, and the Vietnamese made a sharp break with tradition by
putting his daughter, Mei, on the throne. The ill-starred Mei was the
first and the last Cambodian queen. Even more than Chan, Mei was a
puppet, dancing for her life to tunes sung by Vietnamese ‘advisors’.
Meanwhile, the Siamese king, Rama III, was becoming more belligerent. In a chilling phrase, he threatened to ‘turn Cambodia into a forest’
if the Khmers resisted him when he launched a fresh invasion.
Rama III planned his new invasion for 1836. Im and Duang were
to play starring roles, and one of them was to be placed on the throne
if and when the Vietnamese were expelled. The Vietnamese responded
by sending an envoy to meet with Duang, asking him to come to Phnom
Penh to discuss his future. Duang declined, but Rama III got wind of
the plot and imprisoned him at Bangkok, despite Duang’s protestations
of loyalty. The invasion was postponed and in the meantime the Viet-
namese mission civilisatrice proceeded apace. As David Chandler has
observed, Queen Mei was ‘demoted to the status of a salaried Vietnamese
civil servant’ and the Vietnamese replaced the Khmer seals of office
with their own. The Phnom Penh region was given a Vietnamese administrative name and the aspect of the city became increasingly Sinitic,
just as Prey Nokor had become Saigon. The region looked set for absorption into Vietnam, just as the lower delta or Kampuchea Krom had been
during the previous century.
However, in 1840–41 the Khmers once again rose up in rebellion
against the foreigners, this time with more effect. The revolt lasted for
six months and although it was suppressed it did ensure the continued
existence of the Khmer state. Seizing the opportunity, the Siamese
assembled an army of over 50 000 men and prepared to invade. The
Vietnamese deported Queen Mei to Vietnam, probably to a life of concubinage, and executed her pro-Siamese sister Baen for treason. On the
Siamese side, Prince Duang swore an oath of loyalty to Rama, after
which he was released from prison and travelled to Battambang, which
was under the control of the Apheuvongs viceroy.
Siam and Vietnam were pretty evenly matched and the situation
bogged down into a military stalemate that lasted until 1845. For the
Khmers, there was no respite from the horrors of war. Both sides inflicted
mass deportations and public executions on the populace. Farmland was
laid waste and towns and villages razed as the rival armies attacked
and counterattacked, looting, raping and burning their way across the
countryside. The population fell dramatically to somewhere around
half a million, according to the accounts of foreign visitors such as Sir
John Bowring. Phnom Penh’s population was no more than 25 000
and that of Udong perhaps half as large. Famine and epidemics of disease
stalked the land. Trade had almost completely dried up and literacy rates
had fallen. The towns and villages were depopulated and much of the
agricultural land had reverted to nature.
The suffering ended only when the Vietnamese withdrew from
Phnom Penh and sued for negotiations with Siam. Both sides were weary
after years of war and the Vietnamese were increasingly worried—not
without foundation—about the designs of France on their kingdom.
They agreed to allow Duang to stay in the capital and eventually they
returned the royal regalia, without which the Khmers would not consider
him a legitimate ruler. In effect, both sides agreed that Cambodia would
become a neutral state, albeit a client of its neighbours. Both sides with-drew their troops (with the exception of the Siamese in the north-west
provinces) after more than three decades of occupation.
Relative peace and stability under Ang Duang
Duang was finally crowned in 1848 and became the first king to sit on
the Khmer throne since Chan had died in 1835. The unfortunate Mei
had died in exile in Vietnam and had never been accepted as a legitimate monarch by the majority of Khmers. For the common people it
was a time of celebration. The coronation was also a much-needed
confirmation of the proverb ‘the Cambodian srok will never die’, because
for much of the past period the country’s sovereignty and territorial
integrity had hung by the slimmest of threads.
Duang’s reign, in comparison with those before him and the interregnums between them, was peaceful and secure, and two revolts that
flared were crushed with relative ease. He introduced some administrative reforms, replaced certain grades of officials (chau muong) with
centrally appointed ones with the generic title of chauvai srok, and amalgamated some of the smaller provinces into larger units. Although it
would take decades for the damage of war to heal, towns were gradually rebuilt, old wats refurbished and new ones built. The people who
had fled to the forests returned and trade was revived to some degree.
When the British diplomat Sir John Bowring visited in 1855, he reported
that only one Cambodian seaport remained, the estuarine town of
Kampot, but that it carried on a ‘considerable trade’. Square-rigged
vessels regularly sailed to the Straits Settlements with cargoes of rice,
gamboge, pepper and dyewoods. They brought back cotton goods, hard-ware and, less happily, opium from British India. The French missionary
Monsignor Pallegoix described Kampot as a flourishing little town of
3000 people, with never less than 60 junks in the harbour.
Much of the king’s activities during this period consisted of giving
out titles and seals of office to ministers and government officials,
together with uniforms coloured according to rank. It would be easy to
dismiss this as mere bureaucratic protocol or ritual hocus-pocus, but
David Chandler has argued that it was in fact an essential part of the
reconstitution of the Cambodian state. The king needed the royal regalia
to confer legitimacy on his reign, and he also needed to dole out the
symbols of office to confer legitimacy on Cambodian officials. It was
also a purging of the alien bureaucratic customs that had been enforced
by the Vietnamese during the dark decades. Cambodia was reborn as
an Indianised, Buddhist state and the king acted as his subjects believed
he ought to do.
However, the degree of independence Duang enjoyed during his
reign should not be overstated. He reigned by courtesy of his powerful
neighbours and he was crowned by both Khmer and Siamese Brahmans.
The north-west provinces—which contained the great national symbol
of the ruins of Angkor—had been severed from Cambodia, seemingly
forever, and the boundary between the kingdom and Vietnam must have
been a source of private grief for the new king. Siamese influence
remained strong, although the soldiers were gone, and Duang’s sons
lived as guests-cum-hostages at Bangkok to ensure their father’s good
behaviour. An officer from the British Indian Army who spent some
time in the country during Duang’s reign remarked that the king was a
‘vassal of the King of Siam, being not able to bring above thirty five
thousand men into the field’.
On another level, lest we risk romanticising this king, the account
of the ‘Madras Officer’, who was a guest at Duang’s court, should be
considered. The king’s palace was a rambling wooden structure at Udong
which he shared with 300 dancers or concubines and four ‘married
wives’, wrote the officer. The shaven-headed sixty-year-old himself
was ‘enormously fat’, reported the British officer, and ‘his appearance
is not at all King-like or imposing, being dull-looking, with a heavy,
stolid air about him, and his face and breast much pitted with small-pox’. He was arthritic and short-tempered; in one incident he struck
The Royal Palace at Udong, circa 1863.
(Courtesy of Cambodian National Archives, Phnom Penh)
one of his wives or concubines with a cane in the presence of guests
because he thought she had taken some gold jewellery from him,
although it was lesser stuff that the visitors had electroplated for her.
Despite his age and ugliness, his women included ‘the best-looking girls
we had seen in the country’. Most of them were the daughters of minis-
ters and other dignitaries ‘who vie with each other for the honour of
furnishing a fresh inmate for the royal harem’.
The Madras Officer had also brought intriguing examples of
European technology to the royal court, including the electroplating
equipment and batteries, and the king asked him to repair his coining
machine, which was malfunctioning. Duang was an intelligent man
and would have had an appreciation of European power relative to that
of his Asian neighbours. Just as the British officer was scrutinising him,
he was no doubt shrewdly sizing up his guest and he would have known
that British influence was growing in Siam. Behind what the officer
considered a bovine appearance lurked an agile mind. In 1853, Duang
made diplomatic overtures to the French emperor, eager to find a patron
to counterbalance the power of Hué and Bangkok, and possibly that
of the British. However, other matters preoccupied Napoleon III, and
two years elapsed before he sent the Montigny diplomatic mission to
discuss Duang’s overtures. By this time, the Siamese had sniffed out
what was happening and brought pressure to bear on Duang to let the
matter drop.
Duang died in 1860, apparently depressed, leaving instructions
that his body be left for the wild beasts to devour. (This somewhat bizarre
order—which, however, followed a custom common in Cambodia up
to Angkorean times—was not obeyed and Duang’s body was cremated.)
Perhaps the old king despaired that he had been able to do no more for
his kingdom, but if so he underestimated himself, for he had brought
some stability and warded off chaos and disintegration. His death was
followed by another depressing interregnum of court intrigues, dynastic
squabbling, revolts and foreign meddling. Duang’s oldest son, Prince
Norodom, turned to the French for support, and this time the French
were quick to accept. During the monsoon of 1863, a bluff middle-aged French admiral sailed up the Mekong to Udong by gunboat to sign a treaty with this prince. A new era in Cambodian history was about to begin.
French colonialism arrived in Indochina in 1858, four centuries after
the Iberian conquistadors set sail from Manila on a doomed mission
to carve out an empire on the Southeast Asian mainland. This time, the
Europeans would succeed. French marines landed from warships anchored
off Saigon after a pogrom had broken out against Catholic missionaries
and their Vietnamese converts. What was ostensibly a ‘protective mission’
became a permanent occupation force. The Vietnamese troops were
no match for French marines armed with breech-loading rifles and
naval guns. Blocked from expansion in India and kept out of the rest
of Southeast Asia by the Dutch, the Spanish and the British, the
French were eager to plant the tricolour in Indochina.
Once the French naval officers had established a beachhead at
Saigon, they gradually wrested control of the surrounding districts from
the Vietnamese authorities. In 1863, they set up a protectorate in neighbouring Cambodia. By 1893, after a bloody war of conquest, they would
control all of the Vietnamese territories from the Chinese border in the
north to the tip of the Cape of Camau in the south, along with Laos
and Cambodia upstream on the Mekong. They partitioned Vietnam
into the protectorates of Tonkin and Annam, along with the direct
colony of Cochin-China in the south, and gradually tightened control
over the protectorates of Laos and Cambodia. The word ‘protectorate’
was a euphemism. After the conquest of Tonkin, French governors-general administered Indochina as a federated colonial unit from Hanoi.
Under these republican ‘viceroys’, power was deputised to the Résidents Supérieurs in the four protectorates and the governor at Saigon.
The French would stay in Indochina until 1954, when a peace conference in Geneva brokered a settlement to the anti-colonial war that
raged in the region after World War II. Cambodia secured its own independence the year earlier following King Sihanouk’s ‘royal crusade’,
although this must be seen in the context of France’s reversals in
Indochina as a whole, which culminated in catastrophe at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The tricolour comes to Cambodia
The first administrators at Saigon were naval officers, brisk, efficient
and patriotic men who were determined to carve out a place for the
Fatherland in the tropical sun. Their behaviour suggests that they had
entertained designs on Cambodia some years before the establishment
of the protectorate. French missionaries had proselytised in the kingdom
since the 17th century, and although they made few converts, they
had won the trust of King Duang and several of his predecessors. There
had also been a tremendous spurt of popular interest in the kingdom
following the posthumous publication of the diaries of the French travel-
ler Henri Mouhot. These contained a description of the ruins of Angkor,
which the popular imagination saw as an Eldorado in the East. To
acquire them would bring glory to la belle France.
There had been sporadic diplomatic contact with the Cambodian
court since 1853, when Ang Duang had sought French protection on
the advice of Catholic priests based at Udong. In 1855, the Montigny
mission arrived to discuss the request, but Duang, under Siamese duress,
declined to pursue the matter. Ang Duang died in 1860 and the follow-
ing year a French gunboat steamed up the Mekong to the royal capital
at Udong, ostensibly to protect Christians from persecution but more
likely to ‘case the joint’ as American gangsters might say, with a view
to annexation. Around the same time, the Viscount de Castelnau
attempted unsuccessfully to reach an understanding with the Siamese
about the future of their Cambodian vassal state, and the following year
Admiral Bonard made a preliminary survey of the country and its
resources. These were tempting prizes in themselves, but the French
had two other compelling reasons for their interest. Their old rivals,
the British, had an eye on Siam and a friendly Cambodia might act as
a buffer against the uncomfortable proximity of ‘perfidious Albion’ (a
traditional French appellation for Britain). Secondly, the Mekong was
one of the world’s great rivers, running down from distant Yunnan,
and the French were interested in its potential as a trading and military artery; what the Australian historian Milton Osborne has called a ‘river road to China’.
The treaty of 1863
When King Duang died in 1860, Cambodian fell into a familiar pattern
of instability. Duang’s three older sons, Ang Vodey, Sisowath and Si
Votha, jockeyed for the throne, and Cham insurgents marched on the
capital. Ang Vodey, the Siamese nominee for the Cambodian throne,
no longer had to fear Vietnamese designs on the kingdom, but the
Siamese now had a freer hand to meddle and they were jealous lest
France supplant them as ‘protector’ of the Khmers. Ang Vodey, who
was to reign as King Norodom after his coronation in 1864, sought talks
with France on the advice of French missionaries, and this time the
response came quickly. On 11 August 1863, Norodom signed a ‘treaty
of friendship, commerce and French protection’ with the Breton sailor
Admiral Pierre de La Grandière, whose gunboat was moored on the
river nearby.
Norodom signed under the muzzles of de La Grandière’s naval
cannon, and although the threat was implicit rather than open, the
French were determined to bring the country into their orbit. In the
circumstances, Norodom probably thought he had made the best of
the situation, for the terms of the treaty were apparently innocuous.
France was to have the right to station warships and soldiers at the
Quatre Bras. The Catholic Church was to receive special privileges
and the French could trade freely throughout the kingdom. A French
Résident would advise the king. On the other hand, the Cambodians
could maintain a representative at Saigon and could trade freely with
the French, and the special place of Buddhism as a state religion was
ensured. After centuries as a tributary state of Vietnam and Siam,
Norodom perhaps figured that he could have made a worse bargain.
Unsurprisingly, King Mongkut of Siam was furious at what he
saw as his vassal’s ingratitude. Norodom tried to placate Mongkut by
arguing that de La Grandière had bullied him into signing the treaty
before he had time to read the Khmer text. In December 1863, Norodom
signed a secret treaty with the Siamese king, which ran counter to his
pledges to France. His behaviour seems erratic, but perhaps he was uncertain of France’s willingness and ability to defend him against the angry
Siamese. The French were busy fighting Vietnamese insurgents at the
time and, perhaps more importantly, Emperor Napoleon III had yet to
ratify the treaty; indeed there is some evidence to show that the Saigon
admirals had acted with considerable autonomy in the matter and in
the context of factionalised politics at the imperial court. In fact,
Napoleon did not ratify the treaty until April 1864.
It seems that Norodom’s demeanour at the time did not inspire
the confidence of the Saigon admirals. Their misgivings intensified
when, in March 1864, they caught him trying secretly to slip out of
Udong for his coronation at Bangkok. A few salvos from a gunboat
convinced Norodom that he should abandon the plan. Instead, he was
crowned at Udong the following June in a ceremony presided over
jointly by the French and Siamese. The story did not end there, however,
for two months later the French learned (via a report in the Singapore
newspaper the Straits Times) of his secret treaty with King Mongkut,
the terms of which gave the Siamese the right to appoint ‘the kings or
viceroys’ of Cambodia and gave further slices of Cambodian territory
to Siam. Under French pressure (and on the advice of the British), the
Siamese formally agreed that their treaty was null and void.
For the first six or seven years of the protectorate, the colonial
hand lay relatively lightly on Norodom, whom the French shored up
against a series of rebellions, the most celebrated of which was led by
the pretender Pou Kombo. While they were privately dismayed by the
misrule of the Khmer administration and by the king’s indifference
to the welfare of his subjects, the French naval officers remained aloof
so long as they could guide Cambodia’s foreign affairs and their missionary and trading activities were unimpaired. During this period, they
were preoccupied with the pacification of the Vietnamese resistance
to the piecemeal annexation their country. Besides, France was itself
a monarchy at this stage and Napoleon III was no model of probity.
This brief pragmatic hiatus ended when the Second Empire collapsed
as a result of Napoleon III’s disastrous war against Prussia in 1870. With
the new Third Republic came a reforming zeal that coincided with
a more vigorous style of imperialism by the European powers. The inefficient and corrupt Khmer state would have to be replaced with
government and administration based on European ideas of fiscal
prudence, and legal–rational principles. Cambodia, which had been a
drain on the French exchequer, would pay its way.
The French reform program
Implementing the mission civilisatrice would prove harder than the French
realised. For the next thirty-odd years, the French Résidents would wage
a constant battle against Norodom and his ministers and provincial
officials. Too weak to actively oppose the French, Norodom’s preferred
Jean Moura, French Resident in the 1870s. He was also a naval officer,
a scholar and the author of a history of Cambodia.
(Courtesy of Cambodian National Archives, Phnom Penh)
method was passive resistance. To mounting French disbelief and irri-
tation, he would agree with their proposals for reform and then passively
sabotage them. The main planks of the reform program included: the
creation of private property in land, the abolition of slavery, legal and
administrative restructure, and cuts to royal spending and sinecures.
Although they might not have realised it, the French were following
in the footsteps of the earlier 19th century Vietnamese occupiers, who
had also grown frustrated by their fruitless attempts to reform the Khmer
bureaucracy (see Chapter 3).
Cambodia had no private landed property in the normally accepted
sense of the word. All land was crown land, the property of the king,
who was indistinguishable from the state. The French saw this as a barrier
to material progress. They believed it encouraged sloth and passivity
on the part of the peasants, who made up the overwhelming majority
of the Cambodian population. There was no doubt that it prevented
the establishment of a stable taxation base for state revenues. Under the
Cambodian system, which was a form of usufruct, anyone could work
the land with the king’s blessing. However, should the occupants leave
the land fallow for three years, anyone else was free to take it over. In
return for the right to use the land, the peasants had to hand over one-
tenth of their income, in kind, to the state. They were also expected to
perform corvée labour, in theory for a stipulated number of days per year
but in practice often at the whim of local officials, who often put the
peasants to work on private projects. The system entrenched subsistence
agriculture and discouraged private enterprise. The tax-in-kind system
also fostered corruption because tax collectors could understate the
amount of taxable farm produce in any particular year. On the other
hand, the peasants could understate their actual production to avoid
tax. By privatising land, the French reasoned, they could introduce fixed
land taxes, which would generate a stable source of state revenue and
which would be less prone to pilferage by dishonest officials.
The second aim was to abolish slavery, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. France had itself only finally abolished slavery a few
decades before, but the custom flew in the face of the (in theory) cherished Rights of Man and it was also economically inefficient (as Marx
had noted in Volume I of Capital, for instance). According to one estimate, 150 000 people out of a total Cambodian population of 900 000
in the 1880s were slaves. Those in bondage fell into two broad categories, hereditary slaves and debt slaves, but there were also slaves at
the royal court and even in the Buddhist temples. However repugnant
to modern eyes, slavery had been part of life in Cambodia since pre-Angkorean times, and Khmers—including the slaves themselves—saw
it as a natural part of life, and there was no indigenous emancipation
movement. Its eradication therefore proved extremely difficult.
The third major aim of the French reform program was the over-haul of the Khmer legal and administrative apparatus—later described
by French administrator Gustave Janneau as ‘worm-eaten debris’. Creaking, inefficient and corrupt, the French saw it as a system of licensed
robbery in which the main purpose of officials seemed to be personal
enrichment at public expense. The French believed that of a potential
revenue base of five million francs, two million francs either disappeared
into the pockets of shady officials, or were not collected. The country
was divided into 57 provinces, each of which was administered by a
member of the royal family or a high mandarin, and with considerable
duplication of functions between the provinces and the central government. Worse still, there was little comprehension of any difference
between private and public wealth, and this attitude became more
pronounced the further one scaled the ladder of status and privilege.
There were no public works schemes of any consequence, with Norodom
himself once questioning the need for the construction of a road because
he never went to the road’s proposed destination. There was no system
of education apart from limited instruction given to boys by monks at
the pagodas, and no institutions of social welfare or health (in contrast
to what had existed at Angkor). The legal system was often irrational,
cruel and unjust. The towns were ramshackle places, little more than
extended villages; the most imposing edifices in Phnom Penh, apart
from Buddhist wats, were a few jerry-built brick shop houses along
the riverfront.
At the top of the ramshackle social pile sat the considerable figure
of the king himself. He had proven himself to be an incompetent military commander during the Pou Kombo revolt of 1866 and the French
viewed him as greedy and vain. He smoked prodigious quantities of
opium, downed vast quantities of wines and spirits, and concerned
himself little with administrative affairs. Then there was the matter of
the royal harem, which Résident Étienne Aymonier claimed consumed
the ‘greatest part of the country’s revenues’. The harem was a town
within a town, inhabited by Norodom’s 400–500 wives and concubines,
with a total population of up to 1500 women and children, plus the
palace guards and other staff. A French report of 1894 estimated the
cost of maintaining Norodom at some 800 000 piastres per annum. (The
piastre, issued by the private Banque de l’Indochine at Hanoi, was worth
five French metropolitan francs.) We should also consider the numerous members of the royal family, each of whom was an idle belly kept
full at public expense. The French were intent on drastic cuts to the
royal expenditure and the introduction of a civil list.
The cost of administering Cambodia was a steady drain on the
French public purse. In 1881, a French official complained that the
‘situation in Cambodia is still the worst . . . The financial disorder
surpasses all bounds and the King takes all revenues for his personal
use’. The Colonial Minister at Paris ordered the French authorities to
take over Cambodia’s financial affairs and ensure that the king regularly put back a proportion of taxes into the costs of running the country.
Norodom played for time in his usual fashion, but French patience was
at an end. In March 1884, they insisted on a thoroughgoing revision
of the 1863 treaty. Three months later, after further procrastination
by Norodom, Governor Charles Thomson’s gunboat churned up the
Mekong from Saigon with a small army of French marines and Vietnamese riflemen aboard. Thomson hauled Norodom out of bed in the
predawn darkness and forced him to sign the new treaty, the first article
of which committed the king to accept ‘all the administrative, judicial, financial and commercial reforms that the government of France
deems useful in future’. Thomson gave Norodom a clear choice: sign
or abdicate and, under force majeure, he signed.
The Great Rebellion of 1885–86
An eerie calm fell over the country. Thomson was so flushed with success
that he floated the idea of annexing Cambodia outright and French
officials moved confidently to introduce the program of reforms. It was
a profound miscalculation. Forty years earlier, a heavy-handed campaign
by the Vietnamese to ‘civilise’ the Khmer ‘barbarians’ and force them
to adopt Vietnamese styles of government and administration had
triggered off a desperate insurrection. Thomson’s forced mission civilisatrice was to do just the same.
In early January 1885, Khmer rebels attacked a number of isolated
French military posts, heralding a general insurrection that was to
embroil almost all of the country. The central figure in the revolt was
Norodom’s half-brother Prince Si Votha, a seasoned guerrilla and royal
pretender who had already spent many years in the forests. The revolt
united the disparate factions of the Khmer aristocracy in the common
cause of driving the French back down the Mekong and won the
support of the common people, tacit or otherwise. Norodom himself
stayed out of the fighting, but others of his immediate family actively
supported the rebels. There is also evidence that elements of the
Chinese and Vietnamese minorities joined the fight against France,
despite ethnic animosities between them and the Khmers. As I have
written elsewhere,
For the French, it was a costly lesson in the futility of
waging war against guerrillas operating on their own terrain,
with natural refuge provided by forest, marsh and mountain . . . Not even 4000 heavily-armed French troops,
equipped with artillery, gunboats and quick-firing guns,
could quell the rebellion.
Many French soldiers fell victim to disease, while others fell under the
bullets of the rebels who eluded them in the forests and fields. Stung,
the French responded as many others would do in colonial wars, burning
villages and terrorising the peasants whom they suspected of secretly
aiding the rebels or of taking up arms themselves. By the middle of 1886,
it had become clear to the French Colonial Ministry that there would
have to be a negotiated solution to the conflict and that this would
involve backing away from the terms imposed upon Norodom in the
1884 treaty. Moreover, the French would have to solicit the king’s
support to end the uprising.
In return for a promise from the French that they would not try
to impose total control over the Khmer administration, Norodom agreed
to issue a proclamation for peace and to travel the country to ask the
rebels to lay down their arms. Within six weeks, he had achieved what
had proved impossible for the French. Resistance tapered off dra-
matically, although Si Votha held out intransigently in the forests until
his death in 1890.
The country was largely at peace, but it was the peace of an
exhausted and devastated land. The French estimated that 10 000 people
had died during the revolt, but other statistics show that the Cambodian population fell from 945 000 in 1879 to 750 000 in 1888: a net
loss of 195 000 people. Many of these must have died, but tens of
thousands of peasants had also fled to Battambang and Siam proper, or
else sought refuge in the jungle. Once again, famine and disease broke
out as farmland was abandoned or devastated. It was yet another
immense tragedy for a land that had never recovered from the wars,
famines, deportations and insurrections earlier in the century.
France’s strategic retreat
The French had been forced to back off from their reform program, but
later developments make it clear that they regarded this as a strategic
retreat and not a permanent defeat. Before the insurrection they had
toyed with the idea of putting Norodom’s more pliable half-brother
Sisowath on the throne. Sisowath had signed a secret agreement with
the French, promising his full cooperation if he were to be crowned
king. Norodom had, however, proved indispensable in ending the revolt.
For most Khmers he was the legitimate sovereign and the French realised
that to depose him would be to overplay their hand. In any case, they
reasoned, his life of excess meant that he would not live long. They
would bide their time, gradually tightening the screws on the Khmer
administration, careful not to force the pace lest it trigger a repeat of
1885. They also rebuilt parts of the capital, and many of its handsome
colonial buildings date from the 1890s.
The main street in Phnom Penh, 1894, prior to the demolition of shop houses.
(Courtesy of Cambodian National Archives, Phnom Penh)
As it turned out, Norodom’s constitution was more robust than
the French had hoped, and he resumed the old game of passive resist-
ance to reform. He agreed a number of times, for instance, to abolish
slavery yet the practice continued as before. By the 1890s, French anger
was simmering afresh and the increasingly infirm Norodom lacked the
stamina to resist. He was brow beaten by officials and one Résident
Supérieur appears to have threatened him with death for recalcitrance.
The French forced him to disown two of his favourite sons, one of them,
Prince Yukanthor, for acting as a go-between in an ill-fated attempt to
complain to the French government over his father’s treatment. The
other son, Duong Chakr, had died in exile in a dusty Algerian town on
the edge of the Sahara Desert. For some time before his death in 1904,
Norodom was a shell of a man, kept a virtual prisoner in his palace at
Phnom Penh, his health sapped by drink and opium. Perhaps he brooded
on the wrongs he had done his sons and regretted his role in ending the
Great Rebellion. Perhaps he even repented bringing the French to his
kingdom in the first place.
Sisowath and the Franco–Khmer accord
Norodom’s successor’s loyalties were never in doubt. Succession to the
Khmer throne has never been governed by strict primogeniture and
for a long period before the arrival of the French, Cambodia’s kings had
been chosen by Siam and/or Vietnam. The French had chosen the
new king, the Obbareach, Prince Sisowath, many years previously when
he had agreed to support their reform program. Shortly before his half-brother’s cremation, the 64-year-old Sisowath was crowned king (by
Governor-General Paul Beau in the name of the French Republic) in
a ceremony at Udong.
The French were eager to accelerate their reform program.
Although stymied by what they saw as the laziness and incompetence
of Khmer officialdom, the French were to achieve more in the first few
years of Sisowath’s reign than they had managed in the 40 years under
Norodom. Slavery was abolished, the Khmer legal code overhauled, and
a system of competitive entry to the civil service introduced. The insti-
tution of private property in land, long a key plank of the reform plan,
began with the introduction of a cadastral program and the distribution
of title deeds. Steps were taken to root out corruption, particularly in
the collection of taxes, and there was some expansion of public works
schemes such as roads and bridges, government buildings and dredging
of the port of Phnom Penh. A limited civil list was introduced to curb
spending on minor royalty. The system of apanage, under which district
administration was farmed out to members of the royal family and high
mandarins, almost as individual fiefdoms, was abolished. Most impor-
tantly, a new three-tier system of local government bodies was set up
under the supervision of French Résidents.
The extent of the reforms should not be overstated, however. In
most respects, the French were content for Cambodia to remain an
A fine example of French colonial architecture, the former French Residence at
Battambang. (Author’s collection)
economic backwater, as they had done for most of the 40 years since
the creation of the protectorate. So long as Cambodia paid its way, and
public funds were used for public purposes instead of personal enrichment, they would be reasonably content. In the colonial banquet,
Cambodia was a side dish compared with the Vietnamese main course.
Sisowath’s coronation in 1904, however, marked the beginning of
a new stage in Franco–Khmer relations. Sisowath was a docile supporter
of France, although he had proved himself a competent and physically
courageous military commander during the Pou Kombo insurrection.
His pliability reflected a pragmatic mix of self-interest, resignation to
the facts of Realpolitik, a genuine respect for French culture, and faith
in the ability of France to protect his kingdom. His reign, and that of
his son Monivong (who succeeded Sisowath after his death in 1927)
was one of Franco–Khmer accord, marked by social peace and stability—a break from the more turbulent Norodom years. The palace
intrigues of supporters of the Norodom wing of the royal family, who
felt one of them should have inherited the throne, were ineffectual.
Influential civil servants such as Thiounn were resolute Francophiles.
Sisowath’s loyalty to France was cemented early in his reign when
in 1906 he undertook an extended tour of France, his first and last overseas journey apart from his youthful sojourn as a guest-hostage of the
Siamese king at Bangkok. Sisowath was delighted by what he saw.
Cheering crowds of ordinary French folk lined the roads to welcome
him, there were dazzling displays of military power, and the President
of the Republic received him in the Elysée Palace at Paris. Equally
impressive were the civic and industrial wonders of the protector-nation.
He committed a major diplomatic gaffe in France when he called
publicly for the restoration of the lost provinces of Battambang and
Angkor to Cambodia, but he was rewarded soon afterwards when in
1908, after delicate negotiations, Siam agreed to their return. Shortly
afterwards—following an unsuccessful anti-French revolt by followers
of the Apheuvongs family who had governed the provinces on behalf
of Siam since 1795—a French archaeological team began the pains-
taking task of restoring the Angkor ruins. These had remained a symbol
of Khmerité—‘Khmerness’—since their loss over a century before, and
with their return Cambodia was almost whole again.
Sisowath’s gratitude showed in his wholehearted support for the
French cause during the Great War of 1914–18. Some 2000 Cambodians served as tirailleurs (sharpshooters or light infantrymen) in French
colonial regiments in Europe, while some hundreds of Khmers joined
the hundreds of thousands of colonial workers in the munitions factories
of France. Members of the Khmer Krom minority from Vietnam also
served in other Indochinese regiments. A number of Khmers won medals
for bravery in battles on the western front and in the Balkans. A number
of members of the royal family served in the armed forces. These included
Sisowath’s eldest son, Prince Monivong, who trained at the Saint-
Maixent military academy and rose to brigadier’s rank. Another prince,
Leng Sisowath, left his bones in a French military cemetery. However,
Young Khmers rally to the colours, Phnom Penh circa 1914. The statuary on the Wat
Phnom behind them commemorates the return of the lost provinces from Siam in 1907.
(Courtesy Archives d’Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence)
Monivong did not serve at the front because of the possibility that he
might be needed to succeed his elderly father on the throne.
The 1916 Affair
The sacrifices of the Khmer tirailleurs should not blind us to the fact
that the majority of the common people did not share Sisowath’s
enthusiasm for France’s war. Recruitment fell short of targets and
the authorities resorted to heavy-handed methods to meet quotas. The
resulting resentment combined with long-brewing discontent over
rising levels of taxation and abuse of the corvée regulations and sparked
off an extraordinary movement of peasant protest that the French
authorities dubbed the 1916 Affair. There is some evidence to suggest
that dissident circles associated with the exiled Prince Yukanthor, the
rebellious anti-French son of Norodom, had a hand in stirring up discon-
tent, and the synchronicity of events and striking similarity of demands
across the country suggests the existence of some kind of organisation
or resistance network. Some 100 000 peasants flocked into the capital
from the provinces, and although there were some instances of violence
against Khmer bureaucrats and Chinese traders and one recorded assault
on a French administrative office, in the main the demonstrations were
What is striking about the Affair is that, on the whole, the tens
of thousands of peasants involved ignored the French authorities and
took their grievances directly to the king. The vast majority of them
would never have seen Sisowath—he was as remote for them as the
man in the moon—yet they trusted him because of their faith in the
institution of kingship. The French were largely invisible, particularly
in the countryside where most Khmers lived, and the peasants blamed
the Khmer bureaucracy for the abuses they suffered, despite the efforts
of more political elements to turn the protests into an anti-French
crusade. The peasants saw the king as a devaraja with supernatural
powers: a being quite disconnected from the state apparatchiks who
collected the taxes, forced them to labour on the roads and often lined
their own pockets in the process. In fact, the French administration had
been increasing taxes for some years, but because Khmer officials
collected these the peasants held them responsible.
The movement ebbed as swiftly as it had begun, after the king
promised to investigate the peasants’ grievances and the French authorities agreed to tax relief and to end some of the more egregious abuses
of corvée. The Affair ended with tragedy, however. The authoritarian
Résident Supérieur François Baudoin—perhaps fearing a repeat of the
1885 rebellion—ordered a crackdown. ‘Agitators’ were hunted down
and many received long prison terms. There were reports of soldiers
machine-gunning crowds and tossing the corpses into the river, although
these were printed in anti-regime papers and should be taken with
caution. We cannot say with certainty how many died: the lowest
estimates claim half a dozen slain and Baudoin himself admitted
21 deaths. It is likely that scores or even hundreds perished.
French power was stretched thin during World War I, with many
troops and officials called to the colours in Europe. Yet despite the
spectre of 1885, France’s grip was never seriously threatened during this
period. A combination of repression and amelioration of the tax and
corvée burden—which the peasants probably attributed to the king’s
good influence—put the lid on further large-scale manifestations of
popular discontent. Nor were worries that returning soldiers and workers
might act as a conduit for radical ideas borne out, although some Khmer
soldiers did become moderate nationalist politicians in later decades.
The Allied victory in Europe probably enhanced France’s prestige among
the general population, and further strengthened ties with the Khmer
elite. The French built a huge commemorative monument in Phnom
Penh (later demolished by the Pol Pot regime) and the war hero Marshal
Joffe made a triumphal tour of the country, including to the Angkor
ruins. It was the beginning of the zenith of French power in the kingdom,
a period described by the Cambodian writer Huy Kanthoul as ‘a kind
of belle époque’.
By the 1920s the economic austerity of the war years had lifted
and there was something of an economic boom, marked by increased
spending on public works, health and education, and by the development of large-scale rubber plantations on the left bank of the Mekong,
upstream from Phnom Penh. The Angkor restoration project had
continued throughout the period, and under the able direction of French
scholar and linguist Suzanne Karpelès a Buddhist Institute was set up
to study and preserve Cambodian religious culture. There was also something of a revival of traditional Cambodian arts and crafts, many of
which had been threatened with extinction by cheap mass-produced
The relative prosperity and progress of the 1920s, however, came
to a sharp end with the onset of the Great Depression. The economy
stagnated, public expenditure was slashed to balance budgets and there
This French-built commemorative monument to the Allied victory in
World War I was later demolished by the Pol Pot regime.
(Courtesy David Chandler)
was great destitution among the Khmers. On the eve of World War II,
though, the economy was on the mend again and many colonial officials
and settlers must have believed that the belle époque would continue for
many years.
The Bokor and Bardez Affairs
But there was a dark downside to this period. The French Résidents gave
the police a free hand to use brutal methods against the Asian populations, and ratcheted up taxation levels in the 1920s to cancel out
the concessions granted as a result of the 1916 Affair. The French
authorities also encouraged increased Vietnamese immigration to
provide indentured labour for the plantations and construction projects.
Living and working conditions on the plantations were often appalling,
to judge by the French labour inspectors’ reports and by the strikes
and mass desertions that were commonplace. Not surprisingly, the
Khmers tended to shun plantation work. Two incidents underline
the arrogance and contempt of French officialdom for the common
folk during this period, the Bardez Affair and the construction of the
Bokor hill station.
After World War I, Résident Supérieur François Baudoin decided
to build a French pleasure palace at Bokor atop a mountain overlooking the Gulf of Siam behind Kampot. It would rival the British efforts
at Poona. There was to be a grand hotel, a casino, tennis courts, gardens
and paths along which colons and their wives could take the cool
mountain air. At an altitude of over 1000 metres, European fruits and
vegetables thrived, to the delight of French palates. Baudoin ordered
construction of a special bungalow for himself within the complex. The
project consumed an enormous slice of government revenues and led
to protests by the radical press at Saigon and in France at the excesses
of Baudoin, whom they dubbed the ‘tyrant of Cambodia’. The building
of Bokor also claimed many lives, particularly on construction of the
road, which snaked up through the jungle-clad mountainsides from
Kampot. The authorities never published any figures of the death toll,
but the French Saigon press claimed there were between 900 and 2000
dead and the novelist Marguerite Duras recalls her settler mother’s horror
at the brutality meted out to workers.
The French built Bokor to benefit themselves, but the peasants
paid for it in blood and sweat, and in taxes. Taxation levels crept upwards
again in the early 1920s and caused widespread discontent. This led to
tragedy in 1925, when Baudoin dispatched a peppery ‘trouble-shooter’
called Félix Louis Bardez to the Khmer village of Kraang Leav, in the
Kompong Chhnang district, to investigate complaints of excessive
taxation. Bardez, a decorated former non-commissioned officer and longserving colonial official, was not renowned for his tact. He summoned
the villagers and, via his interpreter, subjected them to an insulting
harangue. Later, when the sun rose high in the sky and after the
consumption of quantities of palm wine, the peasants battered Bardez,
his interpreter and a Khmer militiaman to death. Although the
administration claimed that the murders were in no way political,
dissident European elements in Saigon were able to turn the subsequent
murder trials into an indictment of the Baudoin administration. Be that
as it may, the assassination of Résident Bardez was the first overtly
political murder of a French official for many years, and it was to be
the last until the twilight days of the Protectorate after World War II.
Discontent was more likely to be channelled into endemic banditry or
into ethnic strife between Khmers and Vietnamese or Chinese. Indeed,
anti-Vietnamese feeling has coloured Cambodian nationalism from its
beginnings in the 1930s until the present day.
Cambodian nationalism’s hesitant beginnings
By the 1920s, the political passions of their homelands had spread to
the Chinese and Vietnamese minorities in Cambodia. These minorities were substantial, particularly in Phnom Penh where the population
was fairly evenly divided between Khmers, Chinese and Vietnamese.
After World War I, the tenor of the Chinese and Vietnamese political
and quasi-political associations was distinctly anti-French and anticolonial. Affiliates of the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang took root
in Phnom Penh after the war, and more militant, illegal Marxist-inspired
tracts appeared among the city’s Vietnamese population.
From the late 1920s, revolutionary cells were set up and attracted
much police attention. There were strikes among building workers
in the capital and persistent agitation against bad conditions on the
rubber plantations. In general, the Khmers stood aloof from these
developments, seemingly immune to the clarion calls of socialism and
nationalism. However, there was a gradual change in consciousness,
and although this was not always overtly political it arguably laid the
groundwork for Khmer nationalism.
Sirowath’s royal boat, Phnom Penh, in the 1920s was a showpiece for the revival
of traditional Cambodian arts and crafts.
(Author’s collection)
During the 1920s, a number of Khmer-language cultural magazines appeared. These were apolitical, but they did assist in the formation
of a Cambodian cultural–ethnic–political identity. In 1936, a group of
youngish Khmer intellectuals began publication of the Khmer-language
magazine Nagaravatta (Angkor Wat in English) and a number of Cam-
bodian novels and volumes of poetry appeared. This movement was
ambivalent towards the French because, as Huy Kanthoul has pointed
out, the Khmers had tended to look towards the French as protectors
against their neighbours. The perceived enemy during this period was
the Vietnamese, not the French, and what direct political comment
we find in the pages of Nagaravatta and other publications is charged
with the ‘politics of envy’ against the immigrants from down the
While it would be drawing a long bow to claim that the French
deliberately imported the Vietnamese in order to play a game of divide
and rule, the presence of so large a minority led to ethnic friction, and
the French made opportunistic use of it when it suited them (just as
they played off the Khmer Krom minority against the Vietnamese in
Cochin-China). Upon the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Khmer
nationalism was weak and unfocused, with most Khmers either indif-
ferent to the French or well disposed towards them. Even today there
are some very old Khmers who look back with nostalgia to the colonial era. However, war and French humiliation at Asian hands during
the Japanese occupation were to change the political situation forever,
and trigger a qualitative leap in consciousness that was to lead to independence within less than a decade after 1945.
War, Japanese occupation and French
The fall of France came swiftly in June 1940. The victorious Germans
partitioned the country into a nominally independent state with its
capital at Vichy in the south and a directly occupied zone in the north.
The authorities in some of France’s overseas colonies heeded the call
of General de Gaulle to continue resistance, but many others, includ-
ing those in Indochina, declared their loyalty to the quasi-fascist
pro-Axis regime at Vichy, led by the geriatric war hero Philippe Pétain.
In the case of the French Indochina Governor-General at Hanoi,
Admiral Jean Decoux, it was perhaps a matter of discretion being the
better part of valour to support Vichy. Battle-hardened Japanese armies
were on the northern borders of Tonkin after fighting their way south
through China, and the military forces at Decoux’s disposal were at best
mediocre in the case of his European troops, and downright untrustworthy in the case of his ‘native’ infantrymen. The Japanese, too, were
Members of the Yuvan youth organisation march in support of the Vichy government
in France. (Author’s collection)
Vichy’s nominal allies, however terrifying they appeared to Decoux’s
ramshackle army. Decoux became a zealous Vichyite, enforcing Pétain’s
version of the racist Nuremberg Laws, setting up concentration camps
and enforcing other tawdry symbols of European fascism in his tropical
fiefdom: the goose-step, the fascist salute and ritualised chanting of
Pétain’s name. As if at a word of command, the French-language press
in Indochina switched from pro-Allied propaganda to hate-filled invective against Jews and the English, and gloated over Allied reversals.
This calls into question Decoux’s later claims to have merely gone
through the motions to placate the Japanese.
The Japanese aim was to strike southwards into Southeast Asia
in order to gain control of the oil, tin and tropical commodities they
required for the Home Islands and to run their war machine. The French
government readily agreed to their request to station troops through-out Indochina, and also to provide them with rubber, coal and other
products. They were scarcely in any position to refuse. For their part,
the Japanese were content to leave the day-to-day administration of
Indochina to the despised whites, so that they could concentrate on
their war aims. It was a marriage of convenience that was to last until
the dying days of the war.
The French capitulation was a devastating blow to French morale
in the colony, and it must have given the Francophile Khmer elite cause
for grave concern. Worse was to come in early 1941, when the Japanese brokered a humiliating agreement between France and Siam—by
now renamed Thailand—following a short-lived war. The war had
broken out in late 1940, with the Thais taking advantage of France’s
weakness to demand the handover of Cambodia’s western provinces,
which they had ceded in 1908. While the land war was inconclusive,
the French had inflicted a stinging defeat on the Thai navy at the Battle
of Koh Chang in the Gulf of Siam, and might have expected a more
favourable outcome than that imposed by Japan. However, despite its
nominal alliance with Vichy, Japan’s underlying aim was to undermine
western colonial power in Asia, regardless of its political complexion.
They awarded Thailand almost all of the territories she had asked for,
with the exception of the area around the Angkor ruins, which France
argued bitterly to retain.
The Cambodians had tolerated the French and many, especially
in the elite, had welcomed them, so long as they acted as protectors
of srok khmer. Now, their protector’s sword and shield were broken,
and the ancient predators were at the gates of the kingdom. Percep-
tion of France’s weakness led on one hand to profound disillusionment
and depression, but on the other to the growth of nationalist sentiment
and to a new confidence that Asians could defeat the almighty
Europeans. The former effect was most pronounced in the case of
King Monivong, who had succeeded his father to the throne in 1927.
Monivong could pass as a ‘brown Frenchman’, for although he never
lost his identity as a Khmer, he spoke fluent French and had adopted
many western customs. He had risen to the rank of brigadier in the
French army and although he was a figurehead who played relatively
little part in government affairs, he was intensely loyal to France. When
the news came through of the forced cession of Battambang and Siem
Reap provinces, Monivong was plunged into deep gloom and retired
to his estates at Bokor where he refused to meet with French officials
and even ‘forgot’ their language. He died soon afterwards in the company
of his favourite concubine, Saloth Roeung, the sister of a man called
Saloth Sar who was later known to the world as Pol Pot.
While Monivong died without hope, the French humiliation had
electrified the young Cambodian intellectuals associated with the magazine Nagaravatta, and nationalist sentiment swept through some circles
of the Buddhist sangha. Nagaravatta openly criticised the French authorities, who responded with heavy censorship before banning it outright
in 1942. Monivong’s successor to the throne, a baby-faced 19-year-old
prince from the Norodom wing of the family, made little impression
on politics at the time. The young Norodom Sihanouk, whom Decoux
had installed on the throne in the belief that he would be a docile
puppet, initially surpassed their best expectations, preferring to chase
girls and watch films than worry himself with affairs of state or nationalist politics. Decoux was not the first person to underestimate him, but
Sihanouk’s nature had not formed and it is doubtful that he had a subversive thought in his head at the time, regardless of his later claims.
Another young man called Son Ngoc Thanh, a Khmer Krom from the
lower delta and a member of the Nagaravatta circle, came to symbolise
Cambodian nationalism at this stage.
The Vichy regime in Indochina was viciously repressive. The police
rounded up thousands of real and imagined opponents and interned
them in prisons and concentration camps, including the Pich Nil camp
in the coastal mountains south of Phnom Penh. It was also a period of
mounting austerity with widespread shortages of food and clothing and,
according to Cambodian nationalists, taxation grew steadily heavier.
The Allied navies cut Indochina’s overseas trade routes and the Japanese occupation forces requisitioned much of the country’s food and
The young Norodom Sihanouk.
(Author’s collection)
plantation products for their own consumption and for export to the
Home Islands. This built up a head of resentment against the French,
whom the Khmers held responsible for the shortages.
The Vichy political regime was also contradictory. While the
French authorities were repressive and insensitive, they were also
conscious of their extreme weakness, vis-à-vis both the Japanese and
their colonial subjects. The Japanese had ousted the British and Dutch
colonial authorities in Malaya and the East Indies and their rhetoric
was stridently anti-European. The French must have been fearful of the
longer-term intentions of their nominal allies. They responded by
attempting to mobilise the Khmers behind their regime. They encouraged Khmerité, and while this was in the main cultural and meant to
bolster French rule, it was to have unforeseen consequences. Vichy’s
quasi-fascist trappings were visible everywhere, at least in the towns,
with huge portraits of Pétain on the façades of buildings and exhor-
tations to uphold the imperatives of ‘Work, Family and Fatherland’. Khmer
boys were encouraged to join the scouting movement and a kind of mass
youth militia, the Yuvan, was set up to mobilise young Cambodians
behind the regime. However, these organisations brought young Khmers
out of their families and villages and gave them an inkling of potential
collective strength that would be turned against the colonialists.
The Revolt of the Parasols
Despite their promotion of Khmerité the French were inconsistent. In
1941, the French authorities decided to replace the ancient Khmer script
(based on Sanskrit) with a new romanised script known as quoc ngu
khmer after the reformed Vietnamese script.3 The move caused wide-
spread indignation, particularly in the Buddhist sangha and in the
proto-nationalist circles around Son Ngoc Thanh and Nagaravatta. Son
Ngoc Thanh secretly negotiated with the Japanese who, while they
counselled prudence, did not discourage his nationalist ambitions. The
quoc ngu khmer issue provided the Cambodian dissidents with a focus
for popular discontent; on the one hand, the French encouraged Khmerité, yet on the other they threatened the age-old Khmer customs.
In July 1942, a nationalist monk called Hem Chieu delivered
a vitriolic anti-French sermon to a group of Cambodian tirailleurs in a
Phnom Penh wat. An informer tipped off the French police, who
arrested Hem Chieu and a number of other monks and lay national-
ists. In response, several thousand angry Khmers, including monks with
their distinctive orange robes and parasols, marched on the Résidence
Supérieure demanding the prisoners’ release. A riot ensued, in which a
number of police and demonstrators were injured and more arrests made.
Further bloodshed was probably deterred by the presence of Japanese
military police, the Kempetei, who stood by but did not intervene. The
event entered Khmer political folklore as the Revolt of the Parasols,
after the monks’ sunshades. In another country, the incident might have
been relatively unremarkable, but in hitherto docile Cambodia it
was a significant milestone on the road to national independence.
Afterwards, the colonial authorities launched a general crackdown,
banned Nagaravatta and sentenced several of the perceived ringleaders
to death. The French government commuted these terms to life
imprisonment on the prison island of Poulo Condore in the South China
Sea. There, tutored by Vietnamese nationalist prisoners, the Khmers
gained an advanced anti-colonial political education. Son Ngoc Thanh,
meanwhile, had sought sanctuary with the Japanese, who spirited
him out of the country to Japan, where he was to remain until the
last months of the war, remaining in postal contact with his supporters
in Cambodia.
With hindsight, it is clear that the high tide of Japanese expan-
sion in Southeast Asia and the Pacific came in the months immediately
after the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the fall
of Singapore in early 1942. Thereafter, with her supply lines dangerously over-extended, Japan was to face the full might of American
military and industrial power, and soon suffered big defeats at the Battles
of Midway and the Coral Sea. The D-day landings by the Allies in
France in the summer of 1944 led rapidly to the liberation of Paris and
the fall of Vichy. Governor-General Decoux decided it was time to indicate that he was prepared to change his political spots and made a secret
agreement to back the Allies when the time came. Meanwhile, he
dropped the fascist paraphernalia and pro-Axis rhetoric and although
he was anxious not to provoke the Japanese these changes raised their
suspicions. With Vichy dead and a new anti-Axis government at Paris,
Decoux’s usefulness to the Japanese was in question.
The Japanese coup and puppet independence
On 9 March 1945, the Japanese staged an Indochina-wide coup de force
against the French, crushing feeble efforts at resistance with ease. The
brutal military police of the Kempetei threw the French soldiers and
civilians into concentration camps, treating them with neglect and great
cruelty, and murdered some in the streets of Phnom Penh. The Japanese government also decided that the time had come for King Sihanouk
to declare independence, as had already happened in Burma. They took
this step both from political conviction and from the desire to focus
their efforts on the military struggle, free of administrative distractions.
Sihanouk recalls that he was greatly amazed when Kubota, the Japanese special advisor to Cambodia, directed him to declare his country’s
independence from France. This he did, in an unusually restrained
broadcast; he must have been under no illusions about the coming Allied
victory and couched his statement in guarded terms rather than a ringing
Sihanouk’s new government trod warily, doing little beyond reversing the quoc ngu khmer decree and changing street names. He pointedly
ignored the newly liberated Khmer prisoners when they arrived back
from Poulo Condore, and offered them no posts in his government.
Perhaps he saw them as a potential threat to his position, but it is also
probable that he wished to distance himself from people whom the
Allies would call traitors upon their inevitable return to Indochina.
Later, seeking to cast himself as the sole architect of Cambodian independence, he attempted to write them out of history.
In May 1945, Son Ngoc Thanh returned from exile aboard a Japanese bomber and enormous crowds of supporters welcomed him at
Pochentong airport. Such was Thanh’s prestige among Khmers and
standing with the Japanese that Sihanouk stifled his jealousy and
appointed his rival as Foreign Minister. Nationalist firebrand or not,
Thanh did little to change the timid course of the government at this
stage, although he appears to have been an enthusiastic collaborator
with the Japanese. He was instrumental, however, in setting up a nation-
alist militia, the Greenshirts, as the core of a projected national army.
When the first atomic bomb fell on Japan on 6 August, Thanh’s
supporters grew restless. Although the Japanese army in Indochina was
intact, Germany had already capitulated. Two days later, the USSR
entered the Pacific War. If the hard-line nationalists were to take control
of government, they had to act soon before Japan’s collapse. On
9 August, the day the second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, a group of
militiamen burst into the royal palace, demanding the removal of old
retainers and bureaucrats from the government and their replacement
with nationalists. It amounted to a putsch. Some of the old guard ministers retained their posts, but Son Ngoc Thanh took up the post of prime
minister and other nationalists took key positions.
The whole affair had strong comic opera overtones. Son Ngoc
Thanh insisted on the centrality of the alliance with Japan even as
Tokyo was on the brink of unconditional surrender and news of the
horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima spread round the world. It was only
a matter of time before the French returned and they would not toler-
ate what they would see as a government of Japanese puppets and
traitors. In the meantime, Thanh took few initiatives apart from organ-
ising a referendum on the question of independence and the legitimacy
of his government. The vote was Stalinist style, with 99.999 per cent
voting for Thanh, but it probably did reflect a genuine desire for independence. It was also the first time that a government had allowed the
Khmers to vote for anything.
The return of the French and the fall of Son
Ngoc Thanh
The end came inevitably for Thanh’s government. An advance guard
of British troops flew into Pochentong airport in early October, soon
followed by General Jacques Leclerc, the French commander in
Indochina. Leclerc arrested Thanh at gunpoint and dragged him off to
prison in Saigon, to the slightly guilty bemusement of the British
commander, who had regarded Thanh as a ‘silly little man’. Sihanouk
assured the Allies that ‘the Cambodian people had always loved France’.
The French, for their part, did not publicly hold Sihanouk’s lapse
against him. Most likely they were aware of the deep reverence with
which the Khmers viewed the monarchy and were unwilling to stoke
nationalist fires by moving against him.
The French government was aware that there had been a sea
change in political consciousness in Southeast Asia. The hothouse of
war and Japanese occupation had caused a flowering of nationalism
across the region. The eternal colonial afternoon of the 1930s was over.
The Cambodians had enjoyed a kind of independence and they saw
no reason why colonialism should return. The British were already
preparing to depart from Burma. The Roosevelt administration in the
United States had been openly hostile to the reimposition of French
colonial rule in Indochina and the Cold War had not yet undermined
American sympathy for Asian peoples’ national aspirations. President
Harry Truman was committed to honour the US promise to quit the
Philippines by 1946. The Viet Minh controlled much of neighbouring
Vietnam and their uneasy truce with France would not last long.
In this atmosphere, it was prudent for France to make a number
of reforms. In the balance of things, it was better for them to work
with Sihanouk and to contain nationalist feeling by granting some
autonomy to Cambodia. In early January 1946, Sihanouk’s uncle Prince
Monireth and Major-General Marcel Alessandri signed a provisional
agreement that granted increased powers to the Cambodian government. The old colonial titles would be abolished and a high
commissioner would be responsible for supervision of the Cambodian
authorities. Plans were also made for an elected assembly as part of a
constitutional monarchy. It was not real independence, though, as
control over military affairs and foreign relations, finances, customs and
excise, posts and telegraphs and railways remained in French hands,
and French officials would supervise most aspects of the Khmer government, bureaucracy and the police.
The agreement meant that the future Cambodian government
would have less power than the Japanese had allowed to Sihanouk
and Son Ngoc Thanh, but it was an advance over what had existed
until March 1945. The Khmers could look forward, perhaps, to the
gradual extension of their government’s powers. Cambodia’s first ever
elections were scheduled for April 1946 and a number of political
parties emerged to contest them. Most of these parties represented the
interests of factions, extended families, and cliques within the Khmer
elite, and some of them existed for little more than the personal self-enrichment of their tiny memberships. Given that Cambodia had no
experience of democracy, and that political parties had never existed
before, this was not surprising. Such parties were fluid and transient and
won few votes, despite financial backing from the French administration.
In the lead-up to the 1946 elections, two major parties crystallised, the
Liberals and the Democrats, and these became, roughly, the right
and the left inside the national assembly and were to dominate parliamentary politics until Sihanouk amalgamated most of the parties after
The Democrat ascendancy
Despite their name, the Liberals were conservatives, with strong ties to
the monarchy, the Khmer elite and the French. Founded by Prince
Norodom Norindeth, their most important supporter was King
Sihanouk, who became a key political player during this period.
However, despite their influential backers in the Khmer elite, the support
of the king and the covert backing of the French administration,
the Liberals and other rightist parties were perennial also-rans in all the
elections in the period up to independence and were never a serious
electoral threat to the Democrats. Eventually, frustrated by their inability to win government by democratic means, Sihanouk and his allies
staged a coup to remove the Democrats from office—but this was some
years in the future, and for the time being there was a flowering of relative democracy in the country. Before the war, the few publications that
appeared were subject to approval by the French administration and
could fall victim to the censor’s blue pencil for trifling reasons. In the
postwar years, France’s new approach saw the appearance of numerous
Khmer and French language newspapers.
The first leader of the Democrats, Prince Sisowath Yuthevong, was
perhaps the ablest political figure during this period, with the possible
exception of the wily Sihanouk. A genuine intellectual with postgraduate degrees in astronomy and mathematics from French universities,
Yuthevong had a real commitment to the development of his country.
Cursed with ill health, he died young, to the great misfortune of his
country. Yuthevong’s fledgling party soon attracted support from former
members of the Nagaravatta circle, educated civil servants and intel-
lectuals such as Huy Kanthoul, and from the peasants and town-dwellers.
Whereas the Liberals stood for the status quo, with all of its atten-
dant privileges for their supporters, the Democrats adhered to many of
the policies of the French Socialist Party. They stood, broadly, for a
modernised and democratic Cambodia as an independent state and
constitutional monarchy within the French Union. Concretely, this
meant universal suffrage, a bicameral parliament and the gradual transfer of power from the French administration. Unlike the anti-French
Khmer Issarak guerrillas, who were already ambushing French patrols
in the countryside, the Democrats believed it was possible to win inde-
pendence by peaceful and constitutional means.
The ideological differences between the Liberals and the Democrats also translated into a different style of political organising. For the
first time in Cambodian history, a political organisation reached out
to the common people and sought to enrol them in its ranks. This
gave the Democrats the edge over the rightist parties, who believed
in authoritarian government and the divine right of kings, and saw
politics as a vehicle for self-enrichment. In the Liberals’ elitist view, the
people were a passive mass, not a power base. By contrast, right from
their inception in early 1946, the Democrats began to build up a party
organisation that stretched down to village level. Their message found
ready listeners among the peasants and town poor who had been radicalised during the war and Japanese occupation.
The Democrats won a landslide victory in the April 1946 elections. With 50 seats, they dwarfed the 14 Liberals and the three
independents in the National Assembly. Moreover, they had won despite
a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign and shameless vote-buying by their opponents.
This was to be the pattern up until Cambodia’s last relatively free election
in 1951. Even before the newly elected members took their seats in
this first Cambodian parliament, the king’s uncle, Prince Monireth, had
written the draft of a constitution for the country. The first task of the
newly elected national assembly was to ratify the draft, but if the Khmer
elite and the French administration had expected it to be rubber stamped
they were mistaken. Prince Monireth was an austere individual who had
moved away from youthful liberalism to a more traditional view of
authority, and this was reflected in his draft. After stormy debates, the
Democrats made major revisions to the document and produced something more in keeping with their ideals. Sihanouk, who was in a
somewhat democratic mood at the time, ratified the constitution in May
1947. The constitution enshrined the rule of law, guaranteed basic rights
and liberties, and placed limits on the powers of the monarchy. It was
not a revolutionary document, but it was nevertheless a significant departure from absolute monarchy and authoritarian colonial rule.
Unfortunately, Prince Yuthevong did not long survive the ratifi-
cation. Sickly from childhood, he retired for a holiday at the resort town
of Kep on the Gulf coast, only to contract malaria and to die in July
1947. As Huy Kanthoul later lamented, his death was ‘an almost irreparable loss’ to the Democratic Party. One could go further. In a political
climate all too often marked by corruption and unprincipled intrigue,
he stood out as an honest man—and one with great moral authority
among Khmers. Had he lived he might have acted as a counterweight
to Sihanouk’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Sadly, many Khmers
today seem to have forgotten his name, not the least because of a
concerted effort by Sihanouk to belittle him and erase his name from
Cambodia’s history.
The return of the lost provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap
later in the year must have lightened the gloom felt by Yuthevong’s fellow Democrats. The Japanese had awarded the provinces to Thailand in 1941 as part of a treaty they imposed to end the Franco–Thai War.
Their return largely restored Cambodian territorial integrity, although
Cambodian grievances over the loss of Khmer lands and people in the
lower delta to Vietnam remained. The following years, however, were
ones of tumult and change for Cambodia. Fighting between French
soldiers and Issarak guerrillas intensified and the Viet Minh controlled
much of the eastern part of the countryside. Parliamentary politics,
too, was proving to be much more problematic than first expected, with
horse-trading, bribery and corruption widespread.
The elections of December 1947 once again returned an absolute
majority for the Democrats, who could look forward in theory to a four year term in office. However, history has shown that huge and repeated
government majorities often carry the seeds of corruption within them.
Minority voices can be quelled and debate cut short by the parliamentary guillotine. Many MPs from across the party spectrum used their
office to line their pockets at public expense. One of the most ambitious
schemers was a Democrat called Yem Sambaur, who destroyed vital
evidence in a scandal involving the illegal sale of rationed commodities. Other MPs and members of the royal family ran illegal casinos
and enjoyed immunity from arrest due to the protection of the corrupt
police chief Lon Nol, who was to cast a long shadow over Cambodian
political and military affairs.
Parliamentary horse-trading and intrigue
The Democrats lost their parliamentary majority in 1949 when Yem
Sambaur left the party and set up his own group. Sambaur afterwards
led an unstable coalition government until the majority of MPs backed
a censure motion against him. Sihanouk dissolved parliament, but to
the disgust of the Democratic opposition he refused to call fresh elections and re-installed Sambaur in office. Sihanouk’s behaviour was an
ominous portent of his willingness to bend and break the constitution
to put his toadies in office and enhance his own power. Anger over his
manoeuvres was perhaps forgotten, however, by the passage of a new
Franco–Khmer treaty, signed in November 1949, which established
Cambodia as an ‘independent state’ within the French Union, with
more powers passing over to the Cambodian government. The French,
however, remained the real masters of the country and many countries
refused to recognise Cambodia as a fully sovereign state.
Meanwhile, political intrigues escalated into violence on the streets
of Phnom Penh. In January 1950, someone lobbed a hand grenade into
the Phnom Penh headquarters of the Democratic Party, killing a party
leader called Ieu Koeus. The circumstances surrounding the murder
were murky and many of the huge crowd that followed Koeus’ funeral
cortège believed that Yem Sambaur government ministers were impli-
cated. Others blamed the French, who for their part blamed the Issaraks.
Meanwhile, the economy deteriorated and public services sank into
disrepair. Further scandals followed and in May 1950, Yem Sambaur was
so hated that he resigned his post. Even then, Sihanouk declined to call
an election. He directed Prince Sisowath Monipong, one of the deceased
King Monivong’s sons, to form a new cabinet. Monipong was competent but aware that he lacked a popular mandate. Sihanouk finally
agreed to call fresh elections, but only after a bizarre charade in which
he publicly and histrionically declared he was about to abdicate; a crude
but effective Bonapartist ploy in which he invited the people, over the
heads of constitutional authority, to ‘dissuade’ him.
The Huy Kanthoul government
The Democrats won a convincing victory in the elections of September 1951, despite Sihanouk’s public support for the rightist candidates.
The French, too, had backed the Liberals with money and materials,
but the people again rejected them. The Democrats won 54 of the 78
seats in the National Assembly. The Liberals limped in with 18 seats
and smaller rightist parties made up the rest. The verdict on Yem
Sambaur was crushing: his party won not a single seat.
The Democrat leader Huy Kanthoul formed a new government in
October 1951. Had Sihanouk and the opposition parties respected the
constitution, Huy Kanthoul could have expected to remain in power
until October 1955. As it turned out, Huy Kanthoul’s government was
to be the last freely elected Cambodian government for many decades.
From its inception, intriguers such as Lon Nol and Yem Sambaur worked
to undermine it. The policeman-cum-politician Lon Nol was an
unsavoury individual—according to French police files, he had murdered
a political opponent at the Pich Nil concentration camp back in 1945—and he had little respect for the democratic process. Even without the
schemers, the new government faced a difficult time; the economy was
stagnant and the war against the Issaraks in the countryside raged
unabated. Huy Kanthoul’s problems were compounded by Son Ngoc
Thanh’s return from his French exile in October 1951. Again, huge
crowds flocked to meet Thanh at Pochentong and his reception must
have bolstered his radical mood. He founded a nationalist newspaper
and gave vitriolic anti-French diatribes that embarrassed the Kanthoul
government. He did not stay long in Phnom Penh, however, and soon
slipped away to join the Issarak guerrillas in the countryside.
Thereafter, the government’s critics stepped up their accusations
that Huy Kanthoul was in league with the Issaraks. Lon Nol was one
of the more vociferous of these critics and his behaviour crossed the
line between dissent and subversion. In one instance he drove round
the capital with a loudspeaker, openly calling for the overthrow of the
government. For his pains, he spent a night in the police cells with a
number of his allies. It was scarcely draconian punishment and his
feigned outrage was ironic, given his penchant for robust policing.
Sihanouk added his squeaky voice to the chorus, denouncing what he
called the Democrats’ disloyalty and alluding to a secret republican
agenda. The French joined in too, alleging that the government was
unwilling to take the necessary stern measures against the Issaraks. The
political right were clearly in the mood for a coup.
The coup came in June 1952. Although Sihanouk denied it, it is
most likely that he plotted with the French high commissioner to
remove Huy Kanthoul’s government. It is not credible that heavily
armed French troops equipped with tanks just happened to be in Phnom
Penh on the day of the coup, all the more so since they surrounded
the National Assembly building while its sacking took place. This time,
Sihanouk did not govern via an intermediary such as Yem Sambaur. He
assumed power directly and dissolved parliament. Huy Kanthoul, the
leader of the democratically elected government, went into exile in
France and his political career was effectively over. Sihanouk’s unelected
cabinet largely consisted of the old cronies, placemen and rightist
intriguers who had destabilised the elected government in the first place.
A wave of strikes and protests erupted, but Sihanouk was intransigent.
Many of the protest ‘ringleaders’ were detained without trial and others
arraigned on trumped up charges, a great irony given the claim that
Huy Kanthoul was a dictator for locking up Lon Nol and his cronies
The brave democratic experiment was over. Sihanouk would
govern either directly or through proxies for the next 18 years, until
he was himself removed in a pro-US coup led by the perennial
schemer Lon Nol. It was not surprising that the French were involved
in the removal of Huy Kanthoul, given the oppressive nature of their
rule. Sihanouk had learned too well the anti-democratic tunes of
Cambodia’s colonial masters. However, it is to his credit that he soon
afterwards embarked on a ‘royal crusade’ that would lead the country
to independence.
The Royal Crusade for Independence
Sihanouk launched his ‘crusade’ in quixotic style in March 1953. Irri-
tated by French refusals to grant the concessions of a new protocol on
self-government agreed to in early May 1952, the king flew to Paris to
argue his case with the French President, Vincent Auriol. The lack of
progress was undermining Sihanouk’s nationalist credentials and giving
ammunition to the Issarak and Viet Minh guerrillas, who denounced
Among the crowd waiting to welcome Sihanouk on his return from Paris was this
group of Buddhist monks. (Courtesy National Archives of Australia)
him as a colonialist stooge. Time was running out for the French in
Indochina. French public opinion had swung against the war with the
Viet Minh and although France’s catastrophic military defeat at Dien
Bien Phu was yet to come, the Viet Minh were increasingly confident
of victory. Such a victory would render Sihanouk’s position untenable
and he could well look forward to a life in exile should the Issaraks come
to power in Cambodia.
Shortly after his visit to Paris, Sihanouk spoke frankly to the press
in New York. He called for immediate independence, warning astutely
that if it were not granted his country could turn communist. He
repeated his claims in Montreal and arrived back in mid-May to a tumultuous welcome in Phnom Penh. Three weeks later, the portly king was
off again, travelling to Siem Reap under the protection of an ex-Issarak
ruffian called Puth Chhay. It was as if a US president had suddenly
sworn in Al Capone’s mobsters as bodyguards and gone on tour in
Nebraska or Oregon. From Siem Reap, he crossed over the border to
Bangkok, causing French officials to speculate that he had gone mad.
He later crossed back to Cambodia and announced that he would stay
in Battambang until the French agreed to grant full independence. In
the meantime, his supporters staged huge demonstrations and Sihanouk
spoke frequently on radio, his high-pitched voice full of indignation,
exhorting his people to keep up the pressure. On 17 August, the French
agreed to grant Cambodia full sovereignty and Sihanouk returned to
a rapturous welcome in Phnom Penh. Finally, on 9 November 1953,
the last French troops left Cambodia, marking the end of 90 years of
colonial rule. Sihanouk, in a brilliant display of political theatre, had
achieved independence months before the French capitulation at Dien
Bien Phu and almost one year before the final declaration of the Geneva
Peace Conference on 21 July 1954 brought independence to the whole
of French Indochina. He was now the undisputed master of Cambodia.
Ronald Reagan, the Hollywood actor-turned-politician, sometimes
appeared to confuse real life with the silver screen, in one instance
talking at Omaha Beach in Normandy as if he had actually taken part
in the D-day landings. Norodom Sihanouk, too, was also both a polit-
ical actor and a film star. He wrote, directed and starred in his own
productions and conscripted Nhiek Tioulong and other members of the
Cambodian political elite as actors, sometimes to play roles similar to
those in their real lives. Arguably, Sihanouk ‘wrote’ his kingdom as a
vast political screenplay in which he strutted in the starring role among
supporting players and hordes of extras before the vast audience of the
people. In 1970, the other major players would tire of the screenplay,
remove the star and rewrite the script, but for over a decade, from the
triumph of the Royal Crusade for Independence until the mid to late
1960s, when his grip on power began to falter, his courtiers performed
to order.
Sihanouk was only 30 years old when he led his country to independence. Yet his quick intelligence and driving ambition compensated
for his comparative youth, and he was able to shape a political system
in which he held almost absolute power. This power derived in part
from the respect afforded traditional Cambodian kingship and the
monarchy as a whole, but Sihanouk added elements from modernity,
and moulded the whole by force of his charismatic personality. Although
often lampooned in the US media as a saxophone-playing dilettante
and buffoon, Sihanouk was a complex and astute man, capable of
extraordinary bursts of hard work. He could be cruel and unforgiving,
and he was often arbitrary, but he nevertheless had some real achievements to his name: in Milton Osborne’s words, he was both ‘Prince of
Light and Prince of Darkness’.
Sihanouk’s least attractive trait was his craving for power; even
before his Royal Crusade, he had acquired the taste for it. The shy and
startled youngster who had reluctantly accepted the crown after
Monivong’s death in 1941 had metamorphosed into a confident and
forceful adult. The 1951 coup against Huy Kanthoul’s government had
thrown his Democratic rivals into disarray, and he had neutralised the
Issarak guerrilla chieftains by force or guile. He tolerated no rivals, recog-
nised no equals and branded political opponents as traitors. Democracy
and pluralism had no place in his script and although some who lived
through ‘Sihanoukism’ look back upon it wistfully as a time of comparative prosperity and peace, others remember it as a time of dark shadows
presaging future disaster. In truth, it was both. Sihanouk’s greatest
achievement was his commitment to neutrality, which kept his country
out of the Second Indochina War until 1970. In the end, however, this
achievement was undermined by his domestic policies and the country
plunged into the abyss of the Second Indochina War and Pol Pot’s
bloody revolution.
An ant under the feet of fighting elephants
Sihanouk was confronted with two challenges after the success of his
Royal Crusade for Independence. Firstly, as a would-be absolute ruler,
he had to consolidate his grip on domestic power, and secondly, he had to
maintain Cambodia’s sovereignty in the uncertain world of the Cold
War. The two challenges were interlinked and would remain so. Should
he falter in the latter task, his domestic enemies would pounce; should
he stumble in the former, he would give the cold warriors the opportunity to intervene internally. The best guarantee of peace and territorial
integrity, he reasoned, was the adoption of strict neutrality. It would also
strengthen his grip on power at home, by siphoning off support from
the centre-left Democrats and the pro-communist Pracheachon (People’s
Group), both of which preached neutrality to a responsive electorate.
At the time, world politics was dominated by the two postwar
superpowers, the United States and the USSR, both of whom controlled
informal global ‘empires’ or blocs of allies and satellites. Although many
of the emerging post-colonial states of Africa and Asia stood outside of
these two blocs, the pressure on them to join one or the other was enormous. In a number of locations around the world, the superpowers or
their proxies eyeballed one another across heavily fortified frontiers.
Indochina was one of these flashpoints. What had begun as an anti-
colonial war of liberation led by the Viet Minh had been transmogrified
into a confrontation between communism and the ‘Free World’, with
the French colonial army largely bankrolled by the US and the Viet
Minh aided by ‘Red China’ and the USSR. In 1953, large tracts of the
Cambodian countryside were still controlled by the Khmer People’s
Liberation Army (KPLA) and their Viet Minh allies. Cambodia was
a small country with insignificant military forces, lying close to the
ideological and military fault lines that divided the world. Sihanouk
summed up the situation by likening Cambodia to an ant unfortunate
enough to be under the feet of two fighting elephants.
Sihanouk’s first task, as he saw it, was to persuade the elephants
to do their fighting elsewhere, while trying to remain friends with both.
He feared the Viet Minh, but was careful to insist that ‘Although we
are not communists we have no quarrel with communism as long as it
does not seek to impose itself on us by force . . .’. Likewise, he was fear-
ful of the anti-communist zeal of the United States, and with good
reason: this was the time when US Vice-President Richard Nixon was
openly canvassing the idea of using tactical atomic weapons to prevent
a Viet Minh victory over the French in Indochina. Although the Viet
Minh would soon win a stunning victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu
and hasten French withdrawal, this was still some months off and
Sihanouk had every reason to fear that his country would become
embroiled in the war.
Sihanouk’s foreign policy was never ideological in the Cold War
sense. His imperatives were always pragmatic and he would seek friends
where he found them, regardless of their ideological complexion.
Initially, he had sought an alliance with the French, but their devious-
ness in the lead-up to Cambodia’s independence and their revealed
military weakness in the face of the Viet Minh made him reconsider.
Lining up with a declining colonial power would put him offside with
the Viet Minh and their allies, and the newly independent states in
Africa and Asia. The United States was another potential ally and had
been supplying Cambodia with military and some economic aid since
1951. Sihanouk, however, was mistrustful of the ideological bellicosity
of Truman and Eisenhower and their determination to use small countries as pawns in the global battle against communism. These two US
leaders saw Southeast Asia, and Indochina in particular, as a cockpit
in this battle, and whereas President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had
wanted the French out of Indochina, his successors saw them as a
bulwark against the spread of the ‘Red Peril’. Sihanouk was fearful,
too, of the emerging anti-communist regime in Saigon, seeing it as the
descendent of the Vietnamese invaders who had almost absorbed his
country during the Cambodian Dark Ages. As the foreign relations
expert Roger Smith has noted, Sihanouk’s imperatives were to prevent
any return to colonial or quasi-colonial status and to preserve the
integrity of his borders. If he sided with either of the two Cold War
antagonists or their proxies, he could end up losing some or all of his
territory. Siding with either side would guarantee the hostility of the
other bloc. Maintaining his distance from both might even lead them
to compete for his favour.
It was both a bold and a cautious strategy, for in early 1954 the
eventual outcome of the war in Vietnam was unclear. The French
armies were demoralised and public opinion at home had swung
sharply in favour of withdrawal, but it looked as if the United States
might step in to replace France. President Dwight Eisenhower was
determined to cobble together a ‘coalition of the willing’ against the
Viet Minh, or even to launch unilateral military action to destroy
them. In the event, Eisenhower was unable to get support for his
plans from the American public (which was war-weary as a result of
the gruelling conflict in Korea) or from Congress, and his close allies
were reluctant to get involved, so he opted for the negotiating table
at Geneva.
Geneva and Cambodian sovereignty
The Geneva Conference opened on 8 May 1954 with delegations from
the United States, France, Britain, the USSR, the People’s Republic
of China (PRC), Cambodia, Laos, the (communist) Democratic
Republic of Vietnam (DRV), and its anti-communist rival from the
South, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The main item of business was
to negotiate settlements of the Vietnamese and Korean conflicts.
Cambodia was a tangential issue in a conference dominated by the
superpowers and their big power allies, but the Cambodian delegates
Nong Kimny, Sam Sary and Tep Phan, instructed by Sihanouk, left their
modest mark on history. Very quickly, they were on their feet object-
ing to a proposal from the DRV’s Pham Van Dong (backed by the PRC
and the USSR) to seat representatives of the communist-dominated
‘resistance movements’ from Laos and Cambodia (including the Khmer
People’s Liberation Army). When it became clear that the issue was a
sticking point for Sihanouk’s delegates, the PRC’s Zhou Enlai and the
USSR’s Molotov persuaded Pham Van Dong to drop the demand—an
early victory for the Khmer delegates.
By mid-July, the delegates had come to an agreement on most
issues relating to Indochina.4 However, Sihanouk was unhappy with
the final proposals, for although they guaranteed his country’s neutrality they fell short of ensuring the complete withdrawal of the Viet Minh
and disarming the KPLA, and also forbade Cambodia from entering
into military alliances with other countries. After weary late-night
debates, the Russian and Chinese delegates pressured the Vietnamese
communists to bow to Cambodia’s terms and Cambodia signed the
final agreement on 21 July 1954. It was a significant triumph for
Sihanouk’s delegates, who had fought stubbornly for their country’s
sovereign rights.
Cambodia’s neutrality was reinforced shortly afterwards when
Sihanouk came to an understanding with the PRC and the DRV, both
of which guaranteed to respect Khmer sovereignty in return for
Sihanouk’s promise that no US military bases would be set up on
Cambodian soil. The agreement displeased the US, which initially
threatened to withhold all aid from Sihanouk’s regime. Sihanouk did
not back down and after 1955 Washington changed tack and promised large amounts of military assistance and also pledged its support
for Cambodian neutrality and sovereignty. In the same year, Sihanouk
attended the Bandung Conference of non-aligned nations, where he
met with such luminaries as Jawaharlal Nehru, Ahmed Sukarno and
Josip Tito, and was lionised as a leader of the anti-colonial struggle
of Third World people. The communist bloc countries also began
to provide Cambodia with economic aid on more favourable terms
than those of the Americans and other capitalist countries (although
US aid was consistently larger than that of all of the other donors
Sihanouk consolidates power
Sihanouk had come to sovereign power in 1953 with a fund of political goodwill. His achievements on the international stage enhanced his
prestige among his subjects and undercut the Democrats and the procommunist Pracheachon. He had steered his country to independence
and tacked skilfully to ensure that it would be maintained on course in
the face of gale force international winds. He was also a Khmer king
and could expect fealty from his loyal subjects; for him, they were chil-
dren and he was the father who knew what was best for them, and this
was the script he would follow on the Cambodian stage. In the immediate postwar years, Sihanouk had initially flirted with the ideas of
constitutional monarchy, but in 1951, when he used French tanks and
infantry to close down the Huy Kanthoul government, he set off down
an authoritarian path. He was not to deviate from this until his removal
from power in the coup of March 1970.
Nevertheless, Sihanouk still faced considerable domestic opposition in the first years of the independent kingdom. The Democrats
still enjoyed strong residual support and Sihanouk was fearful that his
archrival Son Ngoc Thanh might attempt a comeback into the political mainstream. Son Ngoc Thanh remained a symbol of nationalism
for the many Cambodians who could remember his role during World
War II, and if anyone could challenge Sihanouk, it was this bespectacled ascetic from the lower Mekong delta. Whenever Son Ngoc Thanh
had returned to Cambodia from exile, enormous crowds had flocked to
welcome him back. Although he was now in the jungles with the
remaining Issaraks, he was negotiating for an amnesty. Sihanouk had
to move quickly.
Abdication and the Sangkum
Accordingly, in a typically audacious, but astute move in early March
1955, Sihanouk suddenly abdicated in favour of his father, Prince
Suramarit. Sihanouk reasoned that Suramarit would not use his regal
powers to undermine his favourite son in the political arena. This would
give Sihanouk a free hand in politics. The move also preserved the
monarchy, which Sihanouk believed to be the social cement of the
nation. Sihanouk’s second (and linked) move was to create his own
political movement. He did so in part because he was disgusted with
the horse-trading and graft of the existing parties and was determined
to create a grand alliance that would put the interests of the country,
as he saw them, before self-interest and petty bickering. The Ministry
of Information estimated that around a dozen parties existed in Cambodia in 1955 and noted that many of them were ‘without defined
programmes’ and served as vehicles for the personal ambitions of their
leaders. While this was largely true, Sihanouk’s underlying motive was
to entrench his own power. He instinctively distrusted the party system
as a mechanism for diluting that power, and worried that it might elevate
his rival Son Ngoc Thanh to high office.
Sihanouk also had to contend with pressure from the party politicians for fresh elections. Sihanouk, realising that elections conferred
legitimacy on those who won them, was not opposed to ballots, but he
wanted to make sure that his power would be enhanced, not challenged
by them. He prepared the ground by bringing the motley collection of
parties under his direct control. Characteristically, he did this via a referendum, in which 99.8 per cent of the voters approved the merger of
parties into a grand ‘movement of national union’, which he dubbed
the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or Popular Socialist Community. This corporatist movement was to be the political umbrella for the whole nation
and Cambodia became a de facto one-party state in which civil servants
were expected to join the Sangkum. When the elections were held in
September 1955, only two opposition parties remained outside of the
Sangkum fold: the Left-leaning Democrats, whose existence dated from
1945, and the Pracheachon, the party which the communists had
founded in 1951 as part of their two-track ‘ballot box and bayonet’ strategy. Another independent party, the Liberals, had collapsed in disarray
when Sihanouk offered its leader, Prince Norindeth, a diplomatic post
at UNESCO in Paris, with the proviso that he join the Sangkum.
Meanwhile, Sihanouk’s diplomatic triumphs ensured him of
continuing high levels of support. In late April he had returned from
the non-aligned conference at Bandung, with the endorsement of the
world’s anti-colonial leaders. The following month, he signed an agreement providing for continuing US military aid, a move that soothed
fears about his country’s ability to defend itself, particularly among rightwingers who feared North Vietnam and China.
The 1955 elections
The elections for the National Assembly were held on 11 September
1955. Observers had expected a large vote for the Democrats and a
smaller, but still respectable tally for the Pracheachon (with the outside
possibility of these parties governing in coalition). The result, however,
was a landslide for the Sangkum, which secured 82 per cent of
the National Assembly seats, as opposed to the Democrats’ 12 and the
Pracheachon’s 4 per cent. Sihanouk had loaded the dice: although
the odds were that the Sangkum would have won anyway, he left
nothing to chance. Voters were required to throw away the voting slips
of the candidates they did not favour. This automatically favoured
the Sangkum, as Sihanouk’s face appeared on their ballot slips and it
was a punishable offence to show disrespect by discarding anything
carrying his image.
The flavour of these elections can be gauged by the fact that
Sihanouk had appointed the brutally unsavoury Dap Chhuon—the
governor of the north-western provinces—as ‘director of national security’ to oversee the process. On polling day, voters were harassed by
Sangkum thugs and police. Moreover, in the weeks leading up to the
elections, a number of opposition newspapers had been closed down
and their editors detained without trial—a tactic that Sihanouk had
earlier employed against dissidents during the 1951 coup. Opposition
campaigners had to be physically brave. The Democrat leader Keng
Vannsak, a prominent left-leaning intellectual at the time, was bashed
and his chauffeur killed, while a prominent Buddhist monk, the Achar
Chung, died in jail after publicly reciting poems deemed disrespectful
to Sihanouk.
The election was to set the country’s political tone for the next
decade and a half. Sihanouk was determined to run the country as he
saw fit, relying only on an inner circle of courtiers, including Prince
Monireth and his nephew Sirik Matak, along with elite commoners
such as Penn Nouth, Son Sann, Sim Var, Yem Sambaur, Nhiek Tioulong, Sam Sary and Lon Nol. These men sprang from a narrow ruling
class tightly bound together by ties of kinship and shared interests.
Although Sihanouk was not averse to making demagogic verbal attacks
on this elite, and claimed his Sangkum movement was socialist, these
were populist ploys to disguise his support for the status quo.
In its more honest moments, the Sangkum media justified struc-
tural inequality as the workings of karma: the poor were poor because
of the bad things they had done in previous lives, while the rich and
powerful enjoyed the fruits of their virtue. As David Chandler has
observed, independence meant that for the overwhelming majority of
Khmers life went on as before with a new set of rulers and they ‘contin-
ued to pay taxes to finance an indifferent government in Phnom Penh
(or Udong or Angkor) . . .’. Cambodia had undergone a political revolution, but Sihanouk suppressed any chance of social change while
cultivating the people with demagogic verbal assaults on the rich. This
royal populist also made a great show of going to the people, sometimes stripping to the waist to make one or two desultory blows with
shovel or mattock on a new public works project. It was cheap theatre,
but it worked.
‘Totalitarian democracy’
The new political system took some fine-tuning. The Sangkum was an
unwieldy instrument because the amalgamation of the old parties did
not end the old personal rivalries or intrigues of the corrupt cabals. In
addition, many of its candidates were poor human material, dullards,
grafters and time-servers unlikely to incline towards independent political thought or action. The 1955 election triumph was followed by a
series of cabinet crises and resignations. But even this was grist to
Sihanouk’s mill, enabling him to pick and choose his men and play off
rivals against one another. And if he chose, he could always have
recourse to what became a favourite ploy: threatening to resign only to
be ‘persuaded’ by stage-managed demonstrations to change his mind.
The 1955 election victory was followed by an even more dizzy
success in 1958, when Sihanouk’s personally handpicked Sangkum
candidates won 99 per cent of the votes cast. The vast size of this majority casts doubt on its legitimacy and mirrored the state-orchestrated
electoral charades of the Stalinist countries, with their party slates,
police surveillance and licensed ‘oppositions’. To adapt Henry Ford’s
words about the one choice of colour for his eponymous T-model car:
in the 1958 elections you could vote for whomever you wanted, as
long as they were part of the Sangkum. Opposition candidates were
terrorised into withdrawing from the lists and a single courageous candidate from the Pracheachon scored less than 500 votes. It should be
pointed out, however, that over 55 per cent of eligible voters in Phnom
Penh failed to vote, whether from fear, disgust, apathy or a combi-
nation of motives. The deposed former prime minister, Huy Kanthoul,
greatly overstates his case when he claims that by 1955 Sihanouk was
‘thoroughly hated, particularly by young people’, but there is no doubt
that Sihanouk was slowly squandering his fund of goodwill, especially
among town-dwellers and those with some education. Meanwhile,
Cambodia had drifted close to what Jacob Talmon has elsewhere
described as ‘totalitarian democracy’—that is, dictatorship under the
façade of mass participation in the political system.
Pressure from the United States and its proxies
The main potential for destabilisation of this system came from without.
The 1954 Geneva Conference had resulted in a truce between the

Sihanouk, star of the Cambodian stage, 1953–70
combatants in Vietnam and had guaranteed Cambodia’s sovereignty, at
least in the short term. But it was not to prove the lasting settlement
that its more optimistic participants had hoped for. The five years after
Geneva illustrate Thomas Hobbes’ melancholy dictum that peace is
only ‘recuperation from one war and preparation for the next’, with
both sides arming for a resumption of the fray. In 1955–56, after France’s
ignominious exit from Indochina, over 60 per cent of all US foreign aid
flowed to Southeast Asia, the overwhelming bulk of it military. Sihanouk
had persuaded the ‘elephants’ not to fight near his nest and had, more-over, succeeded in extracting considerable amounts of help from them,
playing one off against the other to extract the most favourable terms.
But the US was unhappy with Cambodian neutrality, which it
believed was a weak point in a cordon sanitaire against the communist
‘virus’. For the next 15 years US policy was to cajole, bluff, bribe or
bully Cambodia into the Free World as a front-line state in the war
against communism. Generally, the US brought pressure to bear indirectly on Cambodia via its Southeast Asian satellites and SEATO
partners, the Philippines, the Republic of Vietnam and Thailand in
particular. Thus, when Sihanouk made an official visit to the Philippines in early 1956, the Manila press speculated that Cambodia was
about to drop its non-aligned status and seek rapprochement with the
Free World. Apparently unfazed, Sihanouk reiterated his country’s
neutrality and cheekily announced that he had accepted an official
invitation to visit Beijing.
Thereafter, Cambodia’s relations with its anti-communist neigh-
bours—and traditional enemies—in Bangkok and Saigon deteriorated.
Cambodia complained of continual border incursions from Thailand
by right-wing, pro-US Khmer Serei (Free Khmer) guerrillas linked to
Son Ngoc Thanh and there were reports of similar harassment over
the frontier from southern Vietnam. These neighbouring countries also
imposed an economic blockade on Cambodia and in November 1958
Sihanouk broke off diplomatic relations with Thailand, restoring them
after US mediation in February of the following year, only to break them
again in 1961. Another running sore was the issue of Preah Vihar, an
Angkorean temple on the border that was claimed by both Thailand
and Cambodia (and eventually awarded to Cambodia by the World
Court at The Hague in 1962). While the hardline anti-communist rulers
in Bangkok and Saigon scarcely needed encouragement, Sihanouk
suspected with good reason that the United States was egging them on
and said that if Washington chose it could call them off. He stated
publicly that US policy was unjust and ‘dangerous for peace in South-east Asia’ and moved further towards diplomatic rapprochement with
the communist countries. In July 1958, some 13 years before the UN
and the United States took a similar step, Sihanouk gave de jure recognition to the PRC and two years later signed a treaty of friendship with
Beijing. Anti-communist zealots in Washington, Saigon and Bangkok
seethed with rage.
Pro-US plots against Sihanouk and neutrality
The overseas anti-communist chorus also struck chords in the hearts
of some of Sihanouk’s conservative courtiers. In 1958, Sam Sary, a long-time Sihanoukist minister and diplomat, suddenly informed Sihanouk
that he wanted to set up an opposition political party, and published
an independent right-wing newspaper, the Democratic People, which
attacked Cambodia’s ties with China. Sam Sary had recently been sacked
from his position as ambassador in London following a scandal involv-
ing his mistress, and it seems likely that he had come under the influence
of US intelligence. Observers noted that his political schemes had ‘no
visible means of support’. After Sihanouk denounced Sam’s party as a
plot cooked up by the Americans to undermine neutrality, the former
diplomat fled to join Son Ngoc Thanh in Bangkok. The two exiles were
not close and Sam Sary vanished a few years later, perhaps murdered,
as David Chandler suggests, by one of his foreign backers.
The pro-US intrigues continued into 1959. In February, Sihanouk
accused General Dap Chhuon, the governor of the north-west provinces
of Cambodia, of plotting to overthrow him. Sihanouk alleged that the
general had been bribed to support the installation in Phnom Penh of
a pro-American government led by Son Ngoc Thanh. The evidence
shows that the conspiracy was hatched by the Diem regime in Saigon,
with support from Thailand and a CIA agent called Victor Matsui. The
hapless Dap Chhuon was ‘shot while attempting to escape’ on the orders
of Sihanouk’s police chief, Colonel Lon Nol, a sinister character who
had begun a career of murdering political opponents as far back as 1945.
Six months later, a bomb exploded at the royal palace in Phnom Penh,
killing the palace chief of protocol, Prince Vakrivan, along with King
Suramarit’s personal valet and injuring a number of other personnel.
Sihanouk blamed Sam Sary and Son Ngoc Thanh and claimed that the
bomb had been sent from a US military base in South Vietnam, wrapped
as a gift.
While the Dap Chhuon and Sam Sary affairs did not present a
real threat to Sihanouk’s power, they heralded a much wider political
disgruntlement that was to lead to his downfall in 1970 at the hands
of other pro-US rightists. In the meantime, however, Sihanouk put
the neutrality issue to a referendum and 99 per cent of voters endorsed
his policy. While there were irregularities in the ballot, there can be
little doubt that the pro-US stance of the plotters was deeply unpopular and that neutrality was accepted across the spectrum of political
opinion. After the resumption of hostilities in southern Vietnam in
1959, few could doubt its wisdom.
The constitutional crisis of 1960
The system was plunged into sudden crisis, however, by the unexpected
death of Sihanouk’s father, King Suramarit, in early April 1960.
Although grief-stricken, Sihanouk had to act decisively to keep the
system together. His dilemma was to ensure that he kept all power in
his own hands, while simultaneously maintaining the monarchy, which
he believed to be the social glue that bound together the nation and
the political regime he had constructed. His father had been a loyal
supporting actor, never wishing to challenge his son’s hold on power
yet playing an essential role in the political script. There were any
number of potential candidates for the throne, but Sihanouk was fearful
of successors who might wish to wield real power. Sihanouk could not
risk crowning a prince who might wish to be more than a figurehead.
Nor did a republic appeal: Sihanouk was afraid that abolishing the
monarchy would allow his archrival Son Ngoc Thanh to challenge him
on new political terrain. Moreover, a republic would destabilise Cambodian society.
The logical choice for Suramarit’s successor was Prince Raniriddh,
Sihanouk’s oldest son, but he was not yet of age and Sihanouk—perhaps
forgetting his own frivolous youth—dismissed him as a lightweight more
interested in fast cars and being rude to the police than in serious matters
of state. Theoretically, there were around 100 other princes from whom
to choose, but many of them were hopelessly corrupt, incompetent or
debauched. Others craved power and the royal family was still driven
by personal and dynastic intrigues, including the squabble between
the Sisowath and Norodom wings. Although he did not say it publicly,
neither did Sihanouk want his mother, the strong-minded Queen
Kossamak, or his uncle, the stern disciplinarian Prince Sisowath
Monireth, to ascend the throne as both might seek to meddle in affairs
of state. Sihanouk’s solution to the constitutional crisis was typically
bold: he would become head of state (but not king) and Monireth would
become chairman of a regency council (but not regent). Sihanouk
would retain all power and monarchy would continue as the social and
political glue of the kingdom.
Two months after the crisis had begun, Sihanouk let himself be
‘persuaded’ by demonstrators to become head of state, with Monireth
as chairman of the ambiguous council. A day earlier, the National
Assembly had voted to revise the country’s constitution to allow for a
regency of indefinite duration. Again, Sihanouk had written the script
and he played the starring role beautifully for the opportunists and
the unsophisticated who made up the bulk of his supporters. He had
turned the crisis to his advantage and could now present himself as the
indispensable father of the nation. The regency council simply faded
from view.
Circuses in the style of Vichy
The modified regency had been Sihanouk’s private decision, but significantly he had first broached it publicly at a mass assembly on Men
Ground, adjacent to the royal palace in Phnom Penh. Going directly
to the people over the heads of his courtiers was a staple of the Sihanoukist system. It was a technique he had honed in the year before the 1958
election (although he was originally influenced by the mass pageantry
of the Vichy period when he had proudly reviewed the fascist-
saluting ranks of adoring Yuvan). Such spectacles made for exciting
political drama, indulged his ego and appealed to his instinctive belief
that politics could be reduced to an aesthetic experience.
Now he adapted the style of Vichy to his own state. In Septem-
ber 1957, Sihanouk summoned five prominent leaders of the Democratic
Party to a stage-managed ‘debate’ on Men Ground before a huge and
murmurous crowd. The victims sat silent and dejected as Sihanouk
harangued and insulted them in a marathon diatribe in his high-pitched
voice. They recanted their ‘heretical’ views and as they slunk from the
arena soldiers and members of the crowd physically assaulted them. It
was coarse theatre, with overtones of a Maoist struggle session against
Such bullying highlighted Sihanouk’s increasing narcissism, which
went hand in hand with a deep streak of cruelty in his nature: for the
Prince and crowd alike, it was a blood sport. Yet it served its purpose:
the immediate outcome was the final dissolution of the Democrats, and
Sihanouk was so delighted that from then on the assemblies on Men
Ground were held twice a year and given a place in the country’s constitution. With a cast of tens of thousands, these assemblies gave the ‘extras’
a sense of belonging and the illusion of popular power, and served as a
safety valve for pent-up passions, while entrenching real authority firmly
in the hands of the excitable little star. The Pracheachon suffered the
same fate in the lead-up to the 1962 elections, with party leader Non
Suon humiliated before an irate crowd, although he was spared a beating.
The large royal socialist youth movement, which boasted over half
a million members by the early 1960s, also had its model in the Yuvan
of the Vichy period. Again, it brought young people out of their fami-
lies and villages, gave them a new sense of identity and bound them
closely to the Sihanoukist state. Its members worked on public works
projects, paraded the streets and participated in scouting activities that
instilled them with a spirit of patriotism and loyalty to Sihanouk. The
unashamedly paramilitary style of the organisation was antipathetic to
democratic notions. Decisions were made at the top and orders were
to be obeyed—a paradigm for Sihanoukist society as a whole. Yet the
mass appeal of this movement and the other populist spectacles masked
long term structural weaknesses within the system.
The flaws of Sihanoukism
All dictatorships eventually crumble, and Cambodia was no different.
Sihanouk probably imagined that his system was the best in ‘the best
of all possible worlds’ and could last indefinitely. Yet it was fraught with
contradictions that would eventually lead to his political downfall. The
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues that the needs of a developing
country are best served by a democratic system with a healthy civil
society. If the Right to speak out and organise for alternative platforms
are denied, he contends, there is little chance of the errors of the rulers
being corrected. Cambodia was a case in point. Sihanouk’s ‘ruling style’,
as David Chandler has observed, was ‘totalitarian and absurd’ and had
the effect of ‘closing off any possibility of pluralism, political maturity,
sound planning, or rational debate’.
Authoritarian regimes lack accountability and checks and balances,
and encourage corruption, incompetence and plain wrong-headed
policies. The civil service should be free to give objective advice to
governments, but the Sihanoukist system encouraged obsequiousness,
incompetence, corruption and opportunism. Sycophants were rewarded
for telling their master what they believed he wished to hear, whereas
honest officials and ministers were punished for speaking the truth. One
suspects it was the honesty and independence of mind of the leftist ministers Hou Yuon, Hu Nim and Khieu Samphan as much as their ideology
that caused Sihanouk to turn angrily against them in 1962. It was also
farcical to suggest that Sihanouk had cleaned up corruption, for the
Sihanoukist state was riddled with graft. This was exposed in the Labat
Affair of 1960, which contributed to the resignation of the govern-
ment of the day. M. Labat was an old French colonial civil servant who
had stayed on after independence. When he died in early 1960 it was
revealed that he had looted the equivalent of US$2 million from the
public purse and that his peculations were not an isolated aberration.
Sihanouk’s positive achievements
Sihanouk did have some real achievements to his name. He was not
‘Snookie’, the authoritarian buffoon that Time and Life sneered at during
the 1960s, but he was a deeply flawed and fallible man, blinded to reality
by his huge ego and sense of destiny. Some of his domestic programs
were creditable. Compared to the cheeseparing French colonial administration, Sihanouk’s Cambodia spent heavily on education and health.
Education typically absorbed around 20 per cent of the budget throughout this period, compared with a mere six per cent in 1930, a fairly
typical year under the French. Sihanouk expanded Cambodia’s primary
and secondary education system, and set up the country’s tertiary system
almost from scratch. He was quite correct in his belief that education
was the key to modernisation. The trouble for the regime was that
employment opportunities failed to keep pace with the stream of secondary and tertiary graduates, and this created disaffection among educated
urban youth, which was to have important political repercussions.
Charles Meyer, the Frenchman who served as Sihanouk’s aide during
this period, is also rightly critical of the exaggerated claims that an
educational revolution had occurred under Sihanouk. Much of it was
‘smoke and mirrors’ designed to boost Sihanouk’s power and glory, yet
it was still an improvement on what the French had managed through-out their 90 years in the country.
The French also had scarcely developed any industry in Cambodia,
and although the country’s main exports by the mid-1960s were still
from the primary sector (including rice, fish and fish products, livestock,
rubber, maize, pepper, cardamom, sugar, soy beans, tobacco, cotton and
coffee) the country had built up a number of secondary industries since
independence. These included a major cement plant, jute, textile and
cotton mills, sawmills and paper and plywood factories and, towards the
end of the Sihanouk period, an oil refinery at Kompong Som. According to the French economist Rémy Prud’homme, the number of
industrial enterprises grew from just over 1100 in 1956 to just under
2700 in 1965. The government had also sought to develop the country
via a series of national plans, including a two-year plan in 1957–58
and a five-year plan between 1960 and 1965, and had opened a blue-water port at Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) on the Gulf of Thailand
in 1960. The new port was linked to the capital by an American-built
all-weather road and later by a railway line, thus easing the country’s
dependence on shipping up the Mekong via the hostile Republic of
Vietnam. Although still an overwhelmingly rural society, Cambodia’s
towns and cities expanded rapidly; Phnom Penh’s population doubled
in the ten years after 1956 to around 600 000. The 1968 Shell Guide to
Cambodia described Cambodia as ‘a modern, forward-looking state with
fast-developing industries, excellent communications, and first-rate
hotel and touring facilities’ with ‘up-to-date modern buildings . . . wide
boulevards, and [a] modern way of life in the cities . . .’. This is exag-
gerated, and was co-written by Sihanouk’s Ministry of Information,
but it is nevertheless true that the prince had done more to modernise
his country than the French protectorate had ever done.
The system begins to unravel
Beneath the propaganda, however, all was not well in the kingdom.
Although Dap Chhuon was a chronic turncoat, the defection of the
insider Sam Sary to the Khmer Serei in 1958 was symptomatic of a more
serious malaise within the Cambodian political system. In the follow-
ing years, dissatisfaction mounted on both Left and Right with the way
Sihanouk ran the country. The suppression of the party system had not
ended corruption; in fact, as the Labat Affair demonstrated, it had grown
worse. Even the expansion of the education system had an important
downside for the regime. It had produced the largest numbers of secondary and tertiary educated Khmers in the country’s history, and many of
them considered themselves intellectuals. Unfortunately, there were
few jobs for this growing pool of comparatively well-educated youth, at
least not in the type of employment to which they felt entitled. These
volatile young people were to turn against the regime they felt had failed
them, some siding with the extreme right and others with the extreme
left. Many of those educated overseas returned with ‘subversive ideas’:
Sihanouk claimed that 35 per cent of returning graduates from French
universities were ‘infected’ with communist beliefs. Sihanoukism relied
on the gullibility of the people, whereas education allowed them to
think critically and formulate alternatives.
The first inkling of the depth of opposition to the government
among young people came in February 1963, when students rioted in
Siem Reap to protest against local incidents of police brutality and
corruption. Significantly, the students also smashed portraits of
Sihanouk and denounced the Sangkum, showing that they viewed the
local problems as symptoms of a systemic malaise. Following student
solidarity demonstrations in Phnom Penh and Battambang, the government of the day resigned. Sihanouk and his courtiers blamed both the
extreme right and left for the disturbances: a convenient method to
cover up the deeper causes of discontent.
Terror against the Left
These destabilising pressures were boosted after 1959, when the Vietnamese communists launched armed struggle against the Saigon regime.
The war was soon lapping at Cambodia’s borders, and in January 1962
the first US bombs fell on the east of Cambodia, the precursor to what
would become one of the heaviest aerial bombardments in history.
Sihanouk was suspicious of the loyalties of the Cambodian communists:
were they with their insurgent Vietnamese comrades, or with Cambodia, which he identified with himself? Were they neutral or would
they attempt to extend the conflict into a wider ‘war of national liberation’ involving Cambodia? Many of the older generation of communists
from the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) had retreated to
Hanoi after the 1954 Geneva Accords and Sihanouk feared that they
would return to act as a pro-Vietnamese fifth column inside Cambodia. In addition, a new generation of leaders was rising through the
party’s ranks, and disaffected young people were attracted to an organisation that promised honesty and justice and which, never having
enjoyed power, had clean hands. A secret conference in September 1960
at the Phnom Penh railway station signified a new militancy among
Cambodian communists. The new party leaders included a comparatively young man called Saloth Sar, a former student in Paris who earned
his living as a teacher in Phnom Penh. He would later become known
to the world under his nom de guerre of Pol Pot.
In 1962, Sihanouk decided that the time had come to crush these
insolent Khmers Rouges (Red Khmers), as he dubbed them. Party general
secretary Tou Samouth, a veteran of the Issarak struggle against the
French, disappeared and although the Australian historian Ben Kiernan
speculated that he had been murdered on Pol Pot’s orders as part of a
factional struggle within the party, newer evidence suggests he was
assassinated by Sihanouk’s police and thrown into the Mekong.
The government staged a purge against the legal, pro-communist
Pracheachon, rounding up thousands of real and alleged members
and sympathisers on trumped up charges of treason. Many were
sentenced to death by kangaroo courts, although the sentences were all
commuted to long terms of imprisonment. By this stage, the Vietnamese
communists had established bases in the mountainous jungles along the
border with Cambodia, and as the dragnet intensified many Cam-
bodian communists quietly slipped away to join them, convinced that
their lives were in danger. Some leftists such as Khieu Samphan, Hu
Nim and Hou Yuon, who had been co-opted into the Sangkum, were
stripped of their offices and titles, but stayed on in the capital, where
they enjoyed a certain popularity as honest men in a den of thieves. In
the 1966 elections, these three leftists won increased majorities against
the ‘official’ candidates.
Sihanouk’s left turn
Paradoxically, while he attacked the Cambodian communists, Sihanouk
steered his domestic and foreign policies sharply to the Left. In January
1963, the government nationalised Cambodia’s banking and foreign
trade and embarked on a program of setting up state-owned industries:
policies that had been originally proposed by Hou Yuon and the other
leftists sacked from ministerial positions the previous year. On 1 May
1963, an auspicious date in the communist calendar, the Chinese President Liu Shaoqi arrived in Cambodia and shortly afterwards the two
countries signed a treaty of friendship. Three months later, Sihanouk
broke off diplomatic relations with the Saigon regime in protest at border
violations and mistreatment of the Khmer Krom minority in the lower
Mekong delta, and in November of the same year he abruptly cut off
all US military and economic aid.
Although China increased its economic assistance package shortly
afterwards, this could not compensate for the loss of US aid. Since
Cambodia’s independence, the United States had contributed almost
US$404 million to the Cambodian state, more than double the quantity given by all other donors combined and amounting to a 15 per cent
annual subsidy of the Cambodian treasury. The move away from US
support might have been good for Sihanouk’s pride, but the sudden drying
up of funds was a major trauma for the Cambodian economy and alien-
ated many army officers. Sihanouk’s tactics in repressing the Left while
adopting aspects of their economic program might have neutralised the
communist ‘peril’ to some degree, but it also had the opposite effect of
estranging the more conservative of his supporters. The Sangkum had
voted unanimously to endorse the rejection of US aid, but the anti-
communist technocrat Son Sann resigned in protest and subsequent
events indicate that many conservatives shared his misgivings. Many of
Sihanouk’s courtiers would have privately half-agreed with the opinion
of the U.S. News and World Report in April 1967, that Cambodia was
‘a country that’s “neutral” in favor of Communists’.
Brewing economic crisis
Nor was the government’s quasi-socialist experiment as successful as
Sihanouk had hoped, for incompetent and corrupt management and a
shortage of expertise at other levels hamstrung the nationalised industries, and the state monopoly of foreign trade led to a flourishing black
market. Whereas the profit motive provided incentives for efficiency
on the part of the managers of private firms, nationalisation Sihanouk-style gave dishonest civil servants new openings to divert state revenues
into their own pockets. By the mid-1960s, the country was suffering
from the effects of spiralling inflation and decreasing government
revenues. One cause of this was the trade in rice and other commodi-
ties with the Vietnamese communists in their bases along the
Cambodia–South Vietnam border. David Chandler estimates that by
1967, one quarter of total Cambodian rice production was being sold
to the Vietnamese communists. While this might have made individual Cambodian entrepreneurs rich, it led to a huge loss of state
revenues from export taxes.
By the mid-1960s, Sihanouk’s grasp on power was slipping. The
country was suffering an economic crisis, and he had managed to alienate both the Left and Right. The conservatives detested his ‘royal
socialism’ and believed his foreign policy was too closely aligned with
the communist countries. They were also fearful and angry over
Sihanouk’s tolerance of the Vietnamese communist military bases in
the east of the country, which they saw as an infringement of Cam-
bodia’s sovereignty and more fancifully as a threat to the Cambodian
state itself. In the far north-east provinces of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri,
the communist guerrillas fostered a rebellion of hill peoples against the
Phnom Penh government. Increasingly, Cambodian rightists must have
wondered if Son Ngoc Thanh and the Khmer Serei were not correct
in their calls for an anti-communist alliance with the United States and
the Republic of Vietnam. After the United States decided to commit
large-scale military forces to Vietnam in 1965, neutrality appeared an
even less attractive option. Surely, Cambodian rightists might have
reasoned, the Vietnamese communists could not stand up to the
awesome firepower unleashed against them by President Johnson.
However, Sihanouk’s foreign policy tilted still harder to the left.
Relations with the United States and South Vietnam deteriorated
throughout 1964, with mobs stoning the US embassy in Phnom Penh
on several occasions, Cambodian border villages attacked by South Vietnamese troops, and US military aircraft shot down by Cambodian
anti-aircraft fire. By the end of the year, Sihanouk appeared to have
made up his mind to tilt even more strongly against the United States.
He accepted MIG fighters and heavy artillery from China and the
USSR, and in March 1965, almost simultaneously with the arrival of
the first US marine forces in Vietnam, he hosted an Indochina People’s
Conference, which condemned US policy in Southeast Asia. The
process reached its logical end after US aircraft bombed the Parrot’s
Beak salient on his eastern border, giving Sihanouk the pretext to break
off diplomatic relations with Washington on 3 May 1965.
The US was unmoved, although it did make some conciliatory
overtures via third parties, including the Australian embassy at Phnom
Penh. As an internal US government memo to President Johnson
pointed out, ‘Cambodia has provided a variety of facilities for the Viet
Cong over a long period of time and is therefore in a poor position to
criticize a single Air Force error, however tragic it is for those who
were hit.’ Six months later, Sihanouk further reinforced his ties with
the communist countries with visits to China and North Korea. The
United States, for its part, authorised its forces to undertake ‘hot pursuit’
of fleeing Vietnamese communist forces into Cambodia and there were
a number of incursions by Khmer Serei guerrillas from both Vietnam
and Thailand. In 1967, the US military stepped up its armed incursions
into Cambodia with the clandestine Operation Daniel Boone search-and-destroy missions. However, a US intelligence report conceded that
Sihanouk had little control over ‘Viet Cong’ operations along the
965-kilometre border with South Vietnam. In other words, by 1967
Cambodia was in precisely the situation that Sihanouk had striven so
hard to avoid in 1953–54: it was an ant under the feet of fighting
Sihanouk was also facing increasing disaffection from the politi-
cal right inside Cambodia itself. Although the leftists Khieu Samphan,
Hu Nim and Hou Yuon kept their seats with increased majorities in the
1966 national assembly elections, the conservatives swept the board
and in October, the arch rightist Lon Nol (now promoted to General)
was installed as Prime Minister. Sihanouk offered cabinet positions to
Khieu Samphan, Hu Nim and Hou Yuon, perhaps hoping that they
would act as a counterweight to the growing power and independence
of the rightist deputies, but they declined, not wishing to be associated
with Lon Nol, the instrument of white terror against the Left.
The peasant uprising at Samlaut
By and large, the peasants had been quiescent during the years since
independence and many had retained a deep reverence for Sihanouk.
Their role in Sihanouk’s screenplay was as extras to keep the country’s
rice bowls full and to supply local colour to government pamphlets
and his own films. Their lives were hard, but their religion taught them
the virtue of resignation and they seemed passive and docile. However,
as King Norodom had warned back in the 19th century, they were like
buffaloes—long suffering, yet terrible in their anger when their patience
was exhausted. In April 1967, a peasant revolt flared when angry
villagers killed police and soldiers and burned down government offices
at Samlaut, in the north-west province of Battambang. The soldiers had
been sent to requisition rice at low prices set by the government, de-
priving the peasants of the higher prices paid on the black market, which
was controlled by private entrepreneurs who sold the rice to the Vietnamese communists. It is also likely that regionalist feeling was another
factor in an area with a history of armed opposition to central govern-
ments in Phnom Penh. Sihanouk ordered a cruel repression that dwarfed
anything carried out during the French colonial period. General Lon
Nol crushed the rebels with bloody zeal, eager to prove his loyalty, as
Sihanouk had recently humiliated him for allegedly allowing the
Cambodian communists to get out of control. According to Sihanouk’s
own offhand estimate, as many as 10 000 peasants were killed and he
has never apologised for the overkill. Disaffection spread, with scattered
revolts elsewhere in the countryside and students staging demon-
strations against the regime’s brutality.
The government sought scapegoats for the Samlaut affair and the
most obvious targets, given that most communists had gone to ground
or had fled to the jungles of the north-east, were the trio of leftist former
ministers who had remained in Phnom Penh and retained their seats
in the National Assembly. Shortly after the end of the revolt, and fearing
another anti-communist pogrom, Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphan quietly
slipped away to join Pol Pot in the jungles, followed later in the year
by Hu Nim. The rumour spread that they had been murdered on
Sihanouk’s orders and although this was not true, it further undermined
the moral standing of the regime. Moreover, with the departure of
the men who became known as the Three Ghosts, all hope of the
incorporation of a section of the Left in the existing political system
disappeared. The following January, the Khmers Rouges, as yet a small
guerrilla force, launched an armed offensive against the government
from the shelter of the eastern forests. By 1970, they either controlled
or made unsafe up to 20 per cent of the countryside.
Sihanouk loses control
Sihanouk, once so self-confident and assured, was losing his grip on
domestic politics and his foreign policy was increasingly becoming
erratic. In 1968, both the NLF and the DRV opened embassies in Phnom
Penh, but later in the year Sihanouk put out feelers via the French
Embassy, assuring the United States of his heartfelt desire for reconciliation. As evidence of his newfound goodwill towards the country he
had so often vilified, he released a number of US military personnel
who had been captured inside Cambodian territory. Sihanouk was well
known for dramatic changes of political course and quixotic gestures,
but these flip-flops pointed towards his growing powerlessness. He also
left an increasing share of the day-to-day running of the country
to Prime Minister Lon Nol and his deputy, Prince Sisowath Sirik
Matak. Matak, a strongly anti-communist career civil servant, was
becoming increasingly alienated by the incompetence and aimlessness
of his cousin’s system. Sihanouk had wanted all power, but now he
shirked the responsibilities it brought with it and spent much of his time
making films.
Sometime during this period, Sirik Matak began to think seriously
of deposing Sihanouk and began to stand up against him publicly. In
August 1969, he persuaded Lon Nol to refuse to form a new cabinet unless
he could choose his own ministers, who would be answerable to him and
not Sihanouk. Sihanouk was forced to agree, something that would once
have been unthinkable. The little rebellion struck a chord. Many prominent Cambodians were disgusted by Sihanouk’s self-indulgence,
highlighted in 1969 when he awarded himself a statuette cast from gold
ingots taken from the country’s treasury for winning first prize in a stage-managed film festival. Widespread dislike for Sihanouk’s wife, Monique
Izzi, also contributed to the growing disillusion and disrespect for the once
all-powerful prince. In late 1969, Sirik Matak and Lon Nol humiliated
Sihanouk at a conference of the Sangkum by forcing the closure of the
state-run Phnom Penh casino in defiance of his wishes. By this stage,
the possibility for compromise had disappeared.
Meanwhile, the war had escalated in the eastern border zones. In
March 1969, the United States launched its secret bombing of communist positions in the east of Cambodia. B-52s pounded large areas of
the countryside, with widespread loss of civilian lives and destruction
of property, farmland and forests in a sustained bombing campaign.
Cambodia was being sucked into the maelstrom and Sihanouk was
powerless to prevent it. In January 1970, he went to his villa on the
French Riviera to rest and regain his strength, and no doubt to ponder
his political options. While members of the country’s elite believed that
he should have remained at his post to handle his country’s mounting
problems, it is possible that Sihanouk went overseas to plead with the
leaders of the PRC and the USSR to lean on their Vietnamese allies
to close or at least scale down their bases in Cambodia. He could then
return home as a conquering hero, regain the initiative from his disgruntled courtiers and replace them with more pliable men.
Meanwhile, back in Phnom Penh, Sirik Matak struggled vainly
to try to bring some semblance of order to the disintegrating system.
He tried to negotiate with the North Vietnamese and NLF for a with-drawal of troops, but learned that Sihanouk in fact had secretly agreed
to their presence. (It should be said, however, that Sihanouk was scarcely
in any position to do otherwise, short of entering into a military alliance
with the United States and South Vietnam, which would have meant
the end of his country’s cherished neutrality and would not have guar-
anteed military success.) Mobs in Phnom Penh sacked the DRV and
NLF embassies with Lon Nol’s covert support, demanding the with-drawal of troops from Cambodian territory. It is also likely that Sihanouk approved the demonstrations and planned to use them as a bargaining chip in his discussions with Russian and Chinese leaders so that they would bring pressure on Hanoi to close the bases. In the event, they
turned into full-scale riots, with a heavy rent-a-crowd of hardline
Khmer Krom soldiers flown in from South Vietnam by Lon Nol for
the occasion. Sihanouk had wanted something milder, and was forced
to denounce the rioters. If he had planned to storm back into Phnom
Penh and retake the initiative, with a signed agreement with the world
communist leaders regarding the bases under his belt, he was sorely
mistaken. Sirik Matak and Lon Nol had taken over writing the script
and the following day they ordered the evacuation of the Vietnamese
bases and cancelled agreements that allowed them to funnel supplies
via the so-called Sihanouk Trail from Kompong Som. When the DRV
and NLF ignored the demand to withdraw, Lon Nol’s soldiers attacked
the communist positions, with support from South Vietnamese artillery
fire from over the border.
There is something precipitate, even hysterical about the Cam-
bodian government’s actions at this stage, for it was unrealistic to think
that the Vietnamese communists could suddenly close down their bases
and withdraw their troops in the middle of an all-out war. Moreover,
although the bases did infringe on Cambodian sovereignty and provoke
the United States into military incursions, Hanoi and the NLF could
point to their deal with Sihanouk as a legitimising factor. On 16 March
1970, last-ditch talks between the Vietnamese communists and the Lon
Nol government failed to resolve the problem. Sihanouk’s delicate
balancing act to maintain neutrality was over and from this point on
the spread of full-scale war to Cambodia appeared inevitable. By March
1970, Matak had had enough. Sihanouk was still overseas while the
country was sliding towards disaster.
There are times when the decisiveness or otherwise of a single
individual decides the course of history. Although the Sihanouk loyal-
ist Oum Mannorine attempted unsuccessfully to arrest Lon Nol on the
night of 16 March, the General dithered. Fifty-six years of age, cautious
and conservative, he had been Sihanouk’s creature since he was a young
man. Sirik Matak, however, was resolute and more than an intellectual
and moral match for the equivocating Prime Minister. He had lost all
respect for Sihanouk sometime earlier, and he was determined that the
time had come to remove Sihanouk from power. During the night of
17 March, Sirik Matak and several supporters burst into Lon Nol’s house,
pulled him from his bed and demanded his support for a parliamentary
coup against Sihanouk—at gunpoint, according to some reports. Reluctantly, Lon Nol agreed, signing a paper that called upon the National
Assembly to depose Sihanouk as head of state. He is said to have wept
when he signed the document, and later, when the country descended
into chaos, to have expressed remorse at turning against his master.
The session of the National Assembly that followed was electric,
as speakers stood to denounce Sihanouk for corruption and abuse of
power, giving vent to howls of pent-up rage against the man who had
often personally humiliated them. It was a revolt of men exasperated
to the limit with a master who had forfeited their loyalty and respect.
The assemblymen were not revolutionaries by conviction or nature.
They were, by and large, the same conservatives who had supported
Sihanouk since his overthrow of the Huy Kanthoul government in 1951,
or men very much like them. They agreed with the plotters, voting by
a margin of 86 to 3 to remove Sihanouk as head of state (later altered
to be unanimous). It was the symbolic parricide of the father of the
nation. Sihanoukism was dead, and some months later the mutineers
voted to transform Cambodia into a republic. Cambodia, however, was
rushing headlong towards catastrophe.
To look back at the Lon Nol coup is to be in the presence of dramatic
irony. Painful indeed is the stark contrast between the actors’ euphoria
and the inescapable doom that we know was their fate. If some theatre
were to stage a play based on the coup, surely the audience would call
out warnings to the actors! But the shades on their dusty stage are
deaf to the voices of the living and shuffle inexorably towards their
destiny. A carnival mood prevailed in Phnom Penh and the American
journalist T.D. Allman compared the atmosphere at the time to a
‘psychedelic trip’. Free of the prince who had long unmanned them,
the National Assembly celebrated Sihanouk’s political demise. Students paraded joyfully in the streets, the chief bonze of the Buddhist
Mohanikay order praised the actions of the National Assembly, and the
government granted an amnesty to a few hundred political prisoners
and paid their bus fares home. The government denounced Sihanouk
as a madman and vowed to put him on trial for corruption and abuse
of power.
Given the dangers facing the country, it should have been a time
for sobriety, but reason was washed away in the flood of jubilation.
Bolstered by the empty promises of the Saigon regime, by faith in the
United States, and steeped in an ineffable belief in the racial superiority of the Khmers, the Republican government prepared for all-out war.
(The Khmer Republic was not declared until 9 October 1970, but for
the sake of convenience the term is applied here to the entire post-coup
regime from March 1970.)
Yet even Lon Nol and his ministers realised that the 35 000-strong
Cambodian army was, as its former commander Nhiek Tioulong had
put it, ‘less effective than the Paris police’. The government called up
its 3600 reservists and announced that it would immediately recruit a
further 10 000 men. Thousands of young men rallied to the colours,
many of them giggling self-consciously as they drilled in the city streets,
yet eager to engage the enemy for all their shy smiles. They were the
first instalment of human flesh for a military machine that would grow
insatiable in its demands, a generation of doomed youth who, like that
of Wilfred Owen, would know ‘only the monstrous anger of the guns’
and ‘the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’. In the end, their sacrifices only
paved the way for an even more immense tragedy.
Although the new head of state, Cheng Heng, announced that
his country would remain neutral, the new regime developed a de facto
alliance with the United States and South Vietnam and embarked on
a bloody anti-communist war that would end five years later with the
fall of Phnom Penh to the black-clad Khmers Rouges guerrillas. Full
of surreal optimism, Cheng Heng rejected any suggestion of a negotiated solution with the Vietnamese communists and promised to
throw them out of the country. Officials scoffed at the threat posed
by up to 40 000 battle-hardened Vietnamese communist regulars and
NLF guerrillas and their tiny 400-strong Khmers Rouges allies. ‘They
amuse us,’ one bureaucrat yawned. ‘We are strong. In the end we will
be victorious.’
The extent of US involvement in the coup
Sihanouk, China and the DRV were quick to blame the United States
for the coup and to cast Lon Nol as a CIA puppet, although the coup
was essentially home grown. The United States has engineered many
coups and counter-revolutions around the world, and they had long
schemed to undermine Cambodia’s neutrality, but their involvement
seems to have been indirect. As was the case with the Dap Chhuon and
Sam Sary affairs over a decade earlier, the United States seemed happy
to leave the actual dirty work to its Saigon proxy. Despite this, there is
clear evidence that the CIA knew in advance of the impending coup
and that, as British writer William Shawcross observed, if the US government did not know what was about to happen, then they were not
reading their own intelligence reports. Justin Corfield, an historian
of the Khmer republic, has revealed that Nguyen Cao Ky, the South
Vietnamese Vice-President, ‘paid . . . at least two secret visits to Phnom
Penh’ during the week before the coup and there were persistent reports
of large numbers of anti-communist Khmer Krom ‘Mike Force’ soldiers
flying into Pochentong airport. These crack troops were US trained and
it stretches credulity to imagine that they could have been deployed
without the knowledge of the American commanders.
On balance of probabilities, it appears that the United States gave
tacit support to the coup, believing that Sirik Matak and his fellow plotters could oust Sihanouk with assistance from the Saigon regime, but
without large-scale American intervention. Given that President Nixon
had already decided on the staged withdrawal of US troops from
Vietnam, it is likely that he wished to avoid a new ground war in Cambodia but welcomed an anti-communist Cambodian regime that could
partially secure his rear. Lon Nol’s position was made more tenuous by
America’s secret diplomacy, which culminated in Nixon’s February 1972
visit to Beijing and rapprochement with Mao’s China. Lon Nol’s enemies
would become Nixon’s new friends. The tragedy for Cambodia is that
Lon Nol and many other supporters of the Khmer Republic believed
that Nixon would not abandon them, when in fact Cambodia was a
pawn on the international political chessboard. Having said that, it
must be stressed that the coup resulted from pressures that had been
building within Cambodia for some time. Sirik Matak probably would
have moved against Sihanouk regardless of the views of Saigon and
Sihanouk determines to fight
Most Cambodians knew nothing of the secret plotting that had led to
the coup, whether they were parading students, stoic peasants or ecstatic
government officials. Nor did they understand the ramifications. Even
Lon Nol believed that President Nixon was his personal friend and
would not desert him. However, not all Khmers supported the coup and
the lines were soon drawn for a savage civil war. While the coup was
popular with urban Khmers, the New York Times correspondent Henry
Kamm warned that the peasants, who made up the overwhelming bulk
of the population, ‘would follow the other side with equal facility’. There
was a large-scale pro-Sihanouk riot in the regional centre of Kompong
Cham ten days after the coup, during which a mob butchered the Prime
Minister’s brother, Lon Nil, and another parliamentary deputy and ate
their livers. It would be wrong to reduce the conflict to a city–country
divide (many people fled the war in the countryside for the comparative safety of the cities), but Sihanouk and his newfound Khmers Rouges
allies did find their greatest support in the peasantry. Eventually, they
would defeat the city-based republican armies.
Sihanouk first heard of the coup from Soviet Premier Alexei
Kosygin, en route from Moscow airport to the Kremlin after a flight
from Paris. The Prince initially contemplated retirement to his villa in
the south of France, but the thought of exile among the ageing
pretenders of Europe would scarcely have appealed to a man of his
passion and energy. Outrage and the desire for vengeance soon replaced
despair and rekindled his fighting spirit. Days after the coup, he issued
a ringing appeal to the Cambodian people, calling for a united political and military struggle to remove Lon Nol from power. He met with
his old friend Zhou Enlai in Beijing and the Premier pledged that ‘China
is determined to support Your Highness until Your Highness returns to
his own country in victory’. The Soviet Union also endorsed Sihanouk
and the DRV leaders announced their support for his ‘just struggle’.
On 23 March 1970, Sihanouk announced the formation of the National
United Front of Kampuchea (FUNK after its French acronym), in which
his royalist supporters would join hands with his old Khmers Rouges
enemies in a war to remove the ‘usurpers’ at Phnom Penh. It was a declaration of war by a man who had staked his career on avoiding war.
Years later, Sihanouk claimed to have suffered misgivings over the
Chinese leaders’ motives. He was suspicious, he asserts, that they saw
the alliance as a way of using him to install the Khmers Rouges in power.
Even if this occurred to him at the time, he was boiling with rage and
his lust for revenge soon overrode any doubts. Pol Pot claimed later that
the alliance was his idea, but it is likely that he was encouraged by the
Chinese to accept a pact of convenience with his old enemy. As it turned
out, Sihanouk was supping with the devil with a very short spoon,
although he could not foresee the tragic consequences of the alliance
at that time.
After Sihanouk’s declaration, events moved quickly. By the end
of March, Hanoi and the NLF had severed diplomatic ties with Phnom
Penh and savage battles raged along the eastern frontiers, with Lon
Nol’s troops fighting joint operations with ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers against the communists. Although the CIA
speculated at this time that relations between the Prince and his former
courtiers might be patched up, there was to be no going back.
The anti-Vietnamese pogroms
The initial reaction to the coup in Phnom Penh had been festive and
naïve, almost innocent, but the mood darkened after Lon Nol claimed
that ‘Vietcong agitators’ and Vietnamese plantation workers had been
responsible for the pro-Sihanouk riots at Kompong Cham and else-where. While some members of the 400 000-strong Vietnamese minority
might well have been involved in the disturbances, there was no excuse
for the officially sponsored pogroms that broke out afterwards. Less than
a fortnight after the coup, the New York Times reported that thousands
of Vietnamese refugees were streaming across the border into the lower
Mekong delta. Cambodian government leaflets whipped up race hatred
and the police rounded up tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians as
suspected communists. Lon Nol labelled the entire Vietnamese community as communist as a pretext for the mass detention, ‘ethnic
cleansing’ and slaughter of civilians. Newsweek reporter François Sully
described the horror at the Neak Luong ferry crossing on the Mekong
below Phnom Penh:
As far as the eye could see, odd-shaped bundles were slowly
drifting towards us. At first I thought they were clumps
of water-lilies. But the Cambodian passengers . . . identified the bundles immediately as the bloated bodies of
Vietnamese men and women still clad in their black
pantaloons . . .
The final death toll was probably in the tens of thousands and although
the government blamed the massacres on angry civilians, most were
the handiwork of the Cambodian military and police. Lon Nol never
apologised for the slaughter and, given his mystical racism, probably
justified it as a crusade against the ancient enemy. However, even he
realised that the pogroms had outraged world opinion and might well
lead to a loss of overseas military aid. The murders threatened to undermine his new-found alliance with the Saigon regime, and the New
York Times editorialised that they ‘should provoke second thoughts in
Washington about the stability as well as the morality of the [Lon Nol]
regime . . .’. The pogroms were called off and arms and ammunition
began to flow in from the United States and Indonesia. In the end, the
Republic was kept alive only by transfusions of US economic and military aid.
The weakness of the Lon Nol regime
However, all that this military and economic aid achieved was to delay
the inevitable collapse of the regime. Cambodia was drawn into the
Indochina War at the time when the United States was beginning to
withdraw and not even the Paris Peace Accords, which were signed in
February 1973, could save the Khmer Republic. The accords resulted
in the withdrawal of Vietnamese communist forces from Cambodia, but
the horrors of war, coupled with the alliance with Sihanouk, were to
give the Khmers Rouges a strength and legitimacy that they had lacked
prior to the 1970 coup. In addition, a major problem for the Khmer
Republic was that many of its political elite were men of distressingly
low calibre, who preferred intrigue and financial dishonesty at the
expense of the Republic.
The parliament, elected in 1966, had shown a greater degree
of independence than its predecessors and had voted Sihanouk out of
office, but the culture was still one of timeserving, corruption and
subservience to authority. The President, Cheng Heng, was a colour-
less personality and Prime Minister Lon Nol was crooked and
second-rate, with a mediocre intelligence, a brutal streak and a penchant
for superstitious obscurantism that impeded the Republic’s military
operations. He consulted soothsayers before embarking on military operations and came under the malign influence of a monk named Mam
Pram, who has been described as a kind of Cambodian Rasputin. The
US embassy official William Harben reported that the monk convinced
Lon Nol to order his soldiers to wear magical scarves to protect them
from the enemy, and to enlist wizards to cast spells on the communists
‘to make them believe they were confronted by vast government armies
. . .’. Worse still, Lon Nol believed it was possible to cast spells to transform grass into troops. Harben’s reports earned him a rebuke from the
Nixon administration, which grumbled that it ‘wanted no more nega-
tive reports of this sort’. Lon Nol also set up a bizarre institution called
the Khmer Mon Institute, which popularised a mystical brand of racism
extolling the Khmers as a kind of Asian master race. Ironically, the
Khmers Rouges leader Pol Pot shared many of these beliefs.
Lon Nol was clearly unfit to govern or command armies, yet he
was to linger on as the Republic’s pre-eminent political figure—serving
at various times as prime minister and president—until its dying days.
He suffered a serious stroke as he stepped out of his shower one day in
February 1971, but there was no obvious replacement for the sick
man. Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak was more capable than Lon Nol
and it was he who had impelled the Marshal into deposing Sihanouk,
but he was deeply unpopular in ruling circles and thus unacceptable as
a replacement.
Those ruling circles were riddled with intrigue. The leading plotter
was Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non, ‘whose efforts’, as David Chandler
puts it, ‘were concentrated on keeping Sisowath Sirik Matak—or anyone
else—from gaining power from Lon Nol’. Whether motivated by greed
and the lust for power, or by loyalty to his ailing brother, the result of
Lon Non’s machinations was that mediocrity and corruption prevailed.
The upshot was that when Lon Nol recovered, he was put back into
power despite his obvious limitations. US doctors estimated that he had
suffered a 20 per cent diminution of his intellectual capacity as a result
of the stroke. William Harben confided this diagnosis to his diary: ‘Mild
schizophrenia, paranoid type; symptoms—neologisms, word salad, delusions of grandeur and persecution; IQ about 105’. No matter, Lon Nol
was to remain as the ineffectual leader of the Republic until he fled
before the advancing communist guerrillas in April 1975.
Republican military ineptitude
The political ineptitude of the regime was matched by its military incompetence. After his return from hospital treatment in Hawaii in April
1971, Lon Nol was promoted to Field Marshal, despite the fact that he
had spent his career as a policeman, not a soldier. Although individual
Cambodian government soldiers fought bravely enough, they suffered
as a result of indifferent and often criminally corrupt commanders.
The Cambodian government forces (FANK after their French acronym)
were out-fought almost from the beginning of the war, and the Republic quickly lost control of vast swathes of the countryside. The situation
had been greatly worsened by the US–ARVN invasion of eastern
Cambodia in April 1970, which had the predictable effect of driving
the communists deep into Cambodian territory. Although the CIA’s
Douglas Pike claimed that the Vietnamese communists controlled up
to ten per cent of Cambodia before the coup, a map prepared by the
Lon Nol government’s General Sak Sutsakhan suggests that they
occupied only scattered salients of territory in the extreme north-east
of Rattanakiri province, the Parrot’s Beak, and elsewhere along the
965-kilometre frontier. This was to change dramatically within months
of the coup, as Cambodia became the scene of what the US President
himself called ‘the Nixon Doctrine in its purest form’.
When Nixon was sworn in as the 36th president of the United
States in 1969, it was apparent that America could not win the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, despite the deployment of over half a
million troops. The President formulated what became known as the
Guam or Nixon Doctrine: the United States would disengage its ground
forces, while providing its Southeast Asian allies with air cover and
large amounts of military and economic aid to hold the line against
communism. Implementation of the policy began on 20 April 1970,
when Nixon announced he would remove 150 000 US ground troops
from Vietnam, the first in a series of staged withdrawals. Nixon’s field
commanders felt vulnerable. There was a danger that the Vietnamese
communists would take advantage of the withdrawals to step up attacks
down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, so Nixon decided to attack the enemy
bases inside Cambodia. Operation Menu—full-scale carpet-bombing—
had begun the previous year but this had not eliminated the threat;
the communists never had a static ‘Pentagon East’ and their command
posts were always on the move. Nixon decided to launch a full-scale
ground assault to root out COSVN, the communists’ supreme command
headquarters, which he believed was situated in the ‘Fishhook’ area of
Operation Shoemaker
The invasion, code-named Operation Shoemaker, began on 30 April
1970. Tens of thousands of infantrymen, supported by tanks, aircraft
and artillery, stormed over the border. It was not an occupation, Nixon
said on US television. US troops would not stay longer than six to eight
weeks and their aim was to destroy the enemy’s bases and supplies in
order ‘[T]o protect our men who are in Vietnam, and to guarantee the
success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization program . . .’. The Saigon
regime let it be known that they did not consider themselves bound by
the timeline (and in fact stayed for some months longer than the US
troops). Nixon did not bother to inform Lon Nol of the attack until
after he had announced it on American television. The invasion had
nothing to do with the security of Cambodia, although Lon Nol
presented it as a response to his appeal for military assistance and wrote
Nixon a pathetic letter of thanks. US diplomatic staff in Phnom Penh
were under no illusions about the likely effects of the invasion. Chargé
d’affaires Mike Rives warned Washington in telegraphese:
US and ARVN presence in Eastern Cambodia seems bound
to worsen situation in Cambodia by forcing . . . [Vietnamese
communists] westward. No one here credits Cambodian
army with capability defending against these . . . forces.
Appears to us that in absence of any immediate chance
of negotiation, Cambodia faced with prospect of de facto
partition and of becoming battlefield fought over and
occupied by foreign troops.
Publicly, the US military commanders presented Shoemaker as a
resounding success. Nixon boasted that over 11 000 enemy soldiers had
been killed and vast amounts of war matériel captured, although his
field commanders gave more sober estimates in their internal reports.
What Nixon didn’t talk about publicly was the invasion’s effect on
Cambodia, including Mike Rives’ analysis quoted above. Nor did he
discuss the effects on Cambodian civilians and property, although these
were reported in internal State Department correspondence. Samuel
Berger, the US deputy ambassador in Saigon, informed his superiors in
Washington that there had been many civilian deaths as a result of US
tactical air operations, which included the use of napalm. Berger also
reported that there was a ‘problem of distinguishing [communist soldiers
killed in action] . . . from civilians killed’ and that this was ‘obviously
difficult where [helicopter] gunships [were] involved’. There were also
reports of widespread looting and atrocities against civilians, particularly, although not exclusively, by ARVN troops.
The other immediate effect of the invasion was that many thousands of peasants had flocked to the FUNK guerrilla forces. Berger
reported that US commanders were ‘surprised’ by this, but that it was
true. Significantly, many who joined or sympathised with the guerrillas
wanted Sihanouk to return, and Berger expected the trend to continue
as the death and destruction continued. A slogan daubed on the walls
of a gutted hospital in Saang asked, ‘If the Lon Nol government says
it wants to protect the Khmer people, why did it destroy the town?’
The invasion was a cynical piece of Realpolitik, and bore out Lord
Palmerston’s famous aphorism, repeated by John Foster Dulles, that
the United States has interests, not friends (a fact sadly lost on Lon
Nol, who continued to bombard his ‘friend’ in the White House with
adoring letters). Cambodia had been dragged into the war just as the
US was leaving it.
By August 1970, Lon Nol’s writ had been restricted to bands of
territory around Phnom Penh, the Great Lake, Battambang, Pursat and
Siem Reap, along with corridors linking Kompong Som, Takeo, Kampot
and Svay Rieng with the capital. In January 1971, communist gunners
almost completely destroyed the government’s air force in a barrage on
Pochentong airport. Some of the Cambodian army’s operations were
little short of farcical. An early example was the ‘siege’ of Saang,
32 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, which was found to be empty of
communists (dead or alive) following a sustained artillery bombardment
by Lon Nol soldiers. In the early years of the war, the government
launched a number of grandiosely named campaigns, including Chenla
I and Chenla II, but these rapidly bogged down and never captured
more than a few narrow ribbons of territory before being abandoned.
Observers such as Mike Rives believed that if they wished, the
Vietnamese communists could have occupied the entire country. This
was also the opinion of the DRV’s Pham Van Dong, who told Sihanouk’s
wife, Princess Monique, that they could have captured control of the
country within 24 hours. Their main aim, however, was to drive out
the United States and its Saigon ‘puppet regime’ from Vietnam. Occu-
pying and administering Cambodia was not a realistic or desirable option.
Mike Rives believed it ‘[M]ore likely that the communists intend to
protect their interests in the border area while applying a range of
pressures—short of all-out military attack—against the current [Phnom
Penh] regime in the hope of bringing it down’. In the early stages of the
war, the FUNK forces (Khmers Rouges and Sihanoukists) were not strong
enough to achieve this by themselves and had to rely on the Vietnamese
communist ‘umbrella’. They were, however, to grow rapidly in strength
and numbers in the coming years. Indeed, as early as March 1972 there
were reports of Khmers Rouges troops fighting their way to within
16 kilometres of the capital, and by the next month the New York Times
claimed that all of Cambodia east of the Mekong, with the exception
of some regional capitals, was in the hands of the communists.
The crisis of the Republic
The war quickly sapped the foundations of the Cambodian economy,
which were shaky even before the coup due to decades of corruption
and mismanagement. The five years of the Khmer Republic were marked
by chronic economic crisis: galloping inflation, the collapse of exports,
a mounting budget deficit and growing dependence on US subventions.
Cambodia’s major exports had been rice and rubber, but the commu-
nists rapidly overran many of the rubber plantations on the left bank
of the Mekong, and others were damaged or destroyed. Secondary indus-
tries were hamstrung by a shortage of spare parts and skilled labour:
many of the most skilled workers had been Vietnamese and had fled
during the pogroms. Tourism was dead, with heavy fighting near the
Angkor ruins from early in the war. For much of the life of the Repub-
lic, the lower Mekong was impassable or dangerous for shipping due to
floating mines and other guerrilla activity, and the road and rail link
to the blue water port of Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) was intermittently cut and, in the end, permanently closed to government traffic.
A continuing feature of the Republic was the drip feed of US food
aid, with flights beginning in November 1970. There were shortages of
petrol, food and many other commodities, and prices were pushed up
by the burgeoning black market, which sent inflation levels soaring.
During September 1972 food riots broke out in Phnom Penh, a symptom
of the grim lives of the city poor. Unemployment leapt as hundreds of
thousands of refugees flocked to the cities to escape the war: within six
months the population of Phnom Penh swelled from around 700 000
to over one and a half million.
Earlier, in late October 1971, the government had declared a State
of Emergency, with Lon Nol insisting that he would no longer ‘play
the game of democracy and freedom’. All political meetings and opposition demonstrations were banned, and civil rights indefinitely
abolished. The crisis was exacerbated by the incessant budgetary
demands of the armed forces, which bloated out from around 35 000
men at the time of the coup to over 210 000 within twelve months, and
with Lon Nol eventually demanding the Republic place 600 000 men
under arms. The drain on a country of seven and a half million people
(less if those in the communist zones are excluded) was colossal. The
situation was not helped by the Cooper–Church amendment to US
Senate appropriations in December 1970, which restricted military and
economic aid to a small country that the Nixon administration
ominously insisted was a neutral country, not an ally.
City of Bonjour, Republic of Corruption
Corruption has been a depressingly regular facet of developing societies
such as Cambodia. It thrives where civil society is weak, the media is
muzzled and the separation of powers is blurred. Sihanouk’s Cambodia
was corrupt. People’s primary loyalty was often to patrons rather than
the state or community, and responsible office was seen as a ticket to
self-enrichment, as when civil servants helped themselves to the profits
of state-owned enterprises and government ministers pilfered from the
public till. Princess Monique’s peculations shocked all but the most
hardened cynics and Sihanouk himself fudged the distinction between
public and private assets. Many of his courtiers, including Yem Sambaur,
Sirik Matak and Lon Nol, had murky records, so it should not be surpris-
ing that the 1970 coup did not usher in a new era of financial probity.
Yet the extent of corruption before the coup pales by comparison with
the astonishing levels of sleaze and dishonesty under the Khmer Republic. The veteran politician Sim Var’s concern that the declaration of
martial law in mid-1970 would serve to cover up corruption proved all
too true. Indeed, corruption was the only growth industry in Cambodia at the time. One Khmer writer later described Phnom Penh as
‘The City of Bonjour’. (‘Bonjour’ here means corruption, from bribes
passed with a handshake and the French greeting.)
The most profitable pickings were to be found in the US economic
and military aid program and those best placed to benefit from it were
high-ranking army officers. Sim Var’s newspaper, Sethkech Khmer,
exposed many examples of corruption in the armed forces, but all too
often those sent to root out corruption were themselves dishonest and
Lon Nol was indifferent to it. Officers stole their men’s rations and
sold them in the city markets, soldiers ‘shook down’ travellers at army
checkpoints and Cambodian soldiers copied the widespread ARVN
practice of selling weapons and ammunition to enemy agents. Some
officers even sold artillery pieces to the Khmers Rouges. However, the
most egregious racket in the armed forces was the ‘phantom soldiers’
scam, in which army commanders padded the numbers on the payroll
and pocketed the difference. Other officers failed to report soldiers killed
or missing in action, with the result that many detachments were seriously under strength yet intact on paper. R.P.W. Norton, writing in the
Far Eastern Economic Review, estimated that a year after the coup there
were 30 000 such phantom soldiers. These treacherous rorts were costing
the treasury almost US$11 million per annum, and cost the lives of
countless Khmer soldiers and civilians. While ordinary Khmers fought
and died, cavorting fops lived the high life at glittering balls and parties,
even as rockets and shells landed in the capital’s outer suburbs. William
Harben recorded the disgust of the Korean wife of a retired US general,
who asked, ‘When they have war, why they have party rike [like] this?’
Nixon, Kissinger and the aerial bombardment
In spite of its bungling and corrupt leaders, the Khmer Republic hung
on for five years, for the last two in deadly combat with the Khmers
Rouges alone. The war was fought with a ferocity that defies description, but in the welter of bloody superlatives the US carpet-bombing
stands out. Although few literate people can be unaware of the horrors
that befell Cambodia under Pol Pot, the US bombing is largely forgotten and nobody will ever face court for it. In the words of the American
ecologist Arthur Westing, the air war over Indochina aimed at the
‘massive, intentional disruption of both the natural and the human
ecologies of the region’. The technology of death from the skies involved
colossal amounts of high explosive, incendiaries such as phosphorus and
napalm, and the chemical destruction of forests and farmlands by
defoliants such as the dioxin-rich Agent Orange. A single B-52 squadron
was capable of dropping as many bombs in one year as the US air force
dropped in the entire Pacific theatre during World War II. From 1970,
when the bombing was stepped up following the Lon Nol coup, the
US dropped almost 540 000 tons of bombs on Cambodia.
After the Paris Peace Accords came into force in February 1973,
and ended the bombing of Vietnam, the US commanders turned their
entire aerial firepower on Cambodia, with B-52s flying thousands of
sorties from carriers in the Gulf and bases in Thailand and Guam. The
bombing reached a crescendo in the first half of 1973, when 260 000
tons of bombs fell on Cambodia. By way of comparison, the Allies
dropped a total of 160 000 tons of bombs on Japan in all of World
War II. Admittedly, Japan was a more urbanised society, but the extent
of the destruction inflicted on Cambodia should not be downplayed.
Estimates of the total death toll from bombing vary from 150 000 to the
US historian Chalmers Johnson’s perhaps inflated estimate of 750 000.
A Finnish Commission of Inquiry estimated 600 000 directly war-related
deaths between 1970 and April 1975, although in truth the exact
numbers will probably never be known. To this day, hundreds of Khmer
peasants are killed and mutilated every year by the cluster bombs and
other unexploded ordnance littering the countryside, although some
of this is caused by landmines sown by Cambodian troops of one ideo-
logical complexion or another.
US Congressmen had on a number of occasions tried to stop or
limit the bombing, but Nixon and his chief advisor, Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger, ignored their directions. The bombing only ceased
after Donald Dawson, a B-52 co-pilot on leave in the United States,
saw television footage of the carnage inflicted on a Cambodian wedding
party at Neak Luong by a US raid. B-52s fly at a tremendous altitude,
so high that their engines cannot be heard on the ground and the first
inkling of their presence is when the bombs begin to punch huge craters
in the ground. The air crews are shielded from the horror below and
think only in terms of dropping their bombs according to pre-arranged
map coordinates in long, narrow areas known as ‘boxes’. When he
realised the horror of what he had done, Dawson refused to fly any more
sorties. He was threatened with a court martial, the public outrage halted
legal proceedings and the US Congress ordered the complete cessation
of bombing.
The British writer William Shawcross, who documented the
bombing in his book Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of
Cambodia, believes that there is a prima facie case that the United States
breached international law. Professor Mark Selden, historian and trench-
ant critic of US policy, insists that area bombing is a war crime and in
clear breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention. When one ponders how
a great and civilised nation could inflict such atrocities, the contempt
in the words of General William Westmoreland, the supreme
commander in Vietnam, should not be forgotten: ‘The Oriental doesn’t
put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful,
life is cheap in the Orient.’
The death agony of the Republic
After the Paris Peace Accords came into force in January 1973, the
Vietnamese communists effectively disengaged themselves from
the fighting in Cambodia. Indeed, a rift opened up with their erstwhile
allies, with US intelligence reports of fighting between Vietnamese
communist soldiers and the Khmers Rouges. The conflict in Cambodia
was now a straight civil war, with neither side strong enough to win an
immediate breakthrough. Even when the US bombing was finally ended
in mid-August 1973, the Khmers Rouges could not overpower the
Republican forces. A grim war was played out in the countryside, with
neither side giving quarter, and horrible atrocities occurred on both
sides. Phnom Penh came frequently under attack from communist
rockets and howitzer fire and when the United States terminated the
supply of war matériel to the FANK air force after June 1974, they edged
ever closer to the capital.
The Khmer Rouge’s half-starved soldiers rolled unopposed into Phnom Penh on
17 April 1975. (Courtesy Newspix)
After 1 January 1975, when the Khmers Rouges launched their
final offensive, Phnom Penh was effectively cut off from the rest of the
world except for US supply flights which ferried food, ammunition and
medical supplies into the city. Inside the city, now swollen to a popu-
lation of perhaps three million, there was great suffering as people died
from malnutrition and sickness, or huddled beneath makeshift shelters,
or fell victim to Khmers Rouges artillery fire. The Mekong was sealed
off to the Republic’s shipping and the US airlift was called off in late
March, after a ferocious rocket barrage on the airport.
Despite some diplomatic overtures by the Republic, the Khmers
Rouges were confident of victory and spurned all talk of a negotiated
solution. With the capital squeezed by communist troops, the United
States bowed before inevitable defeat and on 4 April began the evac-
uation of its embassy staff. Lon Nol and some hundreds of top
Republican cadres also flew to safety, many of them weighed down by
the proceeds of their scams. As Haing Ngor, a doctor and officer in
Lon Nol’s army put it, ‘Our society had lost its moral direction. And
that’s why we lost the war.’ Some Republican leaders, most notably Sirik
Matak, had the decency and courage to share the fate of the common
people, but such cases could not make up for the regime’s moral bank-
ruptcy. On 17 April 1975 the final collapse came, with government
soldiers throwing down their weapons and burning their uniforms as
the guerrillas filed into the city. Peace had come, but it was the beginning of Cambodia’s greatest agony. For many, it was to be the peace of
the grave.
It is a sad irony of history that it took Pol Pot’s savage ‘utopia’—or rather
dystopia—to put Cambodia on the current world map. Prior to the
establishment of Democratic Kampuchea (DK), Cambodia was for most
westerners (if they knew of it at all) an exotic backwater that was home
to the fabulous ruins of Angkor. It was ‘the gentle land’ of smiling peasants and lissom dancers ruled by an eccentric prince, a stereotype that
was shattered by Lon Nol’s hopeless war and the brutal fanaticism of
Democratic Kampuchea.
A byword for horror
Today, Cambodia is a byword for horror, and the ubiquitous motorbike
taxi drivers in Phnom Penh often assume that tourists come to visit
the killing fields outside the city. Behind the conflicting stereotypes,
Cambodia is a country inhabited by ordinary human beings who do
the things people everywhere do, albeit in particularly Khmer ways.

One is entitled to ask why western visitors to Bali or Java rarely wonder
at the massive slaughter that befell those islands in 1965–66, yet define
Cambodia by the killing fields. Yet, unfair as the stereotypical image is,
we cannot avoid the horror of the Pol Pot years. According to the CIA,
the population of Cambodia stood at around 7.3 million in 1975, with
other estimates of up to 8 million. Around 1.7 million of these people
were to die during the brief period of DK, up to quarter of a million of
them murdered as real or imagined enemies of the paranoid regime. The
rest perished due to malnutrition and overwork, lack of medical care
and sometimes despair and heartbreak.
When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmers Rouges, Cambodian
society and economy had been traumatised by five years of war. Any
regime, no matter what its ideological complexion, would have faced
enormous challenges of reconstruction but the victorious Khmers Rouges
only worsened the suffering of the people through a murderous combination of dogmatic quackery, ignorance, ineptitude and deliberate
cruelty. In the end, their revolution failed miserably and almost destroyed
the country in the process. There were no democratic mechanisms to
allow for the correction of the policies of the rulers, despite their arrogation of the word ‘Democratic’ in the country’s new name. That the
suffering of the Cambodian people only ended in 1979 with their liber-
ation by their traditional enemies from Vietnam is another irony of
history, albeit a happier one.
Prince Sihanouk was the first head of state of the new regime,
but the Khmers Rouges made clear to him that he was to be a mere
figurehead. His alliance with them had been very much a marriage of
convenience between old adversaries. Perhaps he believed that his
old friend Zhou Enlai would ensure he would at least share power with
the Khmers Rouges, but if so he was mistaken. After his return to
Phnom Penh in September 1975 following a goodwill mission to twenty
countries, Sihanouk was effectively a prisoner in the royal palace, and
in April 1976 the Khmers Rouges forced him to retire and appointed
Khieu Samphan as the new head of state. Many of Sihanouk’s family
died during the DK years and what perhaps saved him from the same
fate was his high international profile and his friendship with the
Chinese leaders, plus the possibility that he might be useful for the
regime in future. He spent much of his time under house arrest, reading
and growing vegetables in his palace, terrified of the irrational violence
of his Khmers Rouges ‘friends’. He had supped with the devil and now
he had the time and the solitude to ponder the wisdom of what he had
done. Whether he did so at the time is a matter for debate, for his contin-
uing alliance with Pol Pot after the downfall of DK points to a character
ruled by egotism and visceral emotion.
The forced evacuation of the cities
Eyewitness accounts agree that the people of Phnom Penh were awash
with conflicting emotions when their city fell to the Khmers Rouges
on 17 April. As the Cambodian memoirist Haing Ngor points out, most
city-dwellers had a friend or relative on the other side. Many believed
that Prince Sihanouk was the supreme commander of the guerrillas and
that he would save them from harm, but stories of infernal atrocities
had also made them apprehensive. Some residents welcomed the guerrillas with food and drink, but most stood in doorways and by windows
to see what would happen. No one seems to have been prepared for
the sudden mass evacuation of the city’s population.
The heavily armed guerrillas, filing through the streets in black
peasant garb or rudimentary khakis, were serious and disciplined in
contrast to the lackadaisical and demoralised Lon Nol soldiers. Some
accepted the food offered them but most padded past in grim silence
on their rubber sandals. Most of them were dark-skinned back-country
Khmers and many were young adolescents and children, some as young
as ten years old toting AK47s almost as big as themselves. Some spon-
taneously broke into shy country smiles when pressed with kind words
to accept food or drink, but most smouldered with rage against the
city and its denizens. The French author François Bizot (himself a former
prisoner of the robotic Khmers Rouges executioner Ta Duch) wrote that
beyond the French Embassy gate there raged ‘a violence so terrible and
explosive that I felt totally disheartened’. Haing Ngor felt there was
‘something excessive in their anger’ and mused darkly that ‘something
had happened to these people in their years in the forests’. Indeed it
had. Although it is not easy to see these young guerrillas as victims,
given the horrors of the regime they served, they had been moulded by
what the French writer Serge Thion has called ‘the most savage
onslaught ever launched against a peasantry’. Part of the price of the
civil war and the American bombing was the brutalisation of the young
and the destruction of family ties. These young people were part of an
immense tragedy that began when the 1970 coup dragged their country
over the edge of an abyss.
For many guerrillas, this was their first sight of a big city and they
must have been as apprehensive of the city-dwellers as the latter were
of them. For these farm boys (and girls), Phnom Penh was a strange
foreign place, where they might witness marvels beyond their wildest
imaginings: white-skinned westerners, running water, electricity, women
with high heels and make-up, whitegoods and televisions, brick buildings, iced drinks and sweet pastries, people wearing glasses, children
wearing shoes, the royal palace. Haing Ngor recalls a young guerrilla
marvelling at the ‘fresh’ water in a toilet. Phnom Penh was also a kind
of Sodom on the Mekong, a place of ill repute that the Khmers Rouges
cadres had long warned them against. These child and adolescent
soldiers, uprooted from their families, impressionable and unschooled,
were the praetorian guard of the new regime, harsh and fanatical, yet
pliable in the hands of the leadership they knew only as angkar, ‘the
organisation’. A book written from their point of view would make fascinating reading, but is unlikely to appear for most of them were illiterate.
Haing Ngor was about to operate on a badly wounded Lon Nol
soldier when a guerrilla burst through the hospital door. ‘He was, at
most, twelve years old,’ the doctor recalls, and like most of the other
guerrillas he encountered the boy’s face bore a fierce and angry expression. In a voice that had not yet broken, he screamed at the hospital
staff to leave at once, emphasising the words with jabs of his rifle. The
staff complied, leaving the soldier to die on the operating table. Outside
in the streets all was chaos, with Khmers Rouges soldiers yelling at the
people to get out of the city, occasionally punctuating their words with
bursts of AK47 fire into the sky. Some said that the evacuation would
be only for a few hours, because the Americans were going to bomb
the city, yet it took hours to move even a few city blocks in the crush.
Finally, the orders came that everyone must make their way to their
home village, that there would be no exceptions. Some guerrillas
chanted slogans against the ‘US imperialists’ and the Lon Nol government, or hailed their own victory, their words full of exaggerated hatred
or praise. A mit neary—woman comrade—endlessly harangued the
crowd: ‘The wheel of history is turning . . . If you use your hands to try
to stop the wheel, they will be caught in the spokes.’ She had evidently
learned the speech by rote, and the expelled population would hear it
from many other mouths in the coming days and weeks.
The entire city population, up to three million strong, was on the
move: children, pregnant women, the well fed and half-starved, the old
and infirm, rich and poor, long-time city-dwellers and refugees alike.
Most walked, some shoved motor scooters or even cars through the
throng, while others pushed handcarts piled high with ill-assorted possessions: television sets, boxes bulging with personal effects, pots and pans,
and the proverbial trash and treasure. Some carried bags crammed with
Lon Nol currency, only to discard it when they learned there would be
no money in the new society. Dr Haing Ngor’s ‘exodus of the sick and
crippled’ flowed from the hospitals: wounded soldiers on crutches,
wobbly old women and even a man with both legs amputated, whose
relatives pushed his hospital bed with the intravenous drip bag still
attached. The French priest François Ponchaud estimates the hospital
population of the city at ‘liberation’ at up to 20 000. Many patients,
along with the very young and very old, would perish in the exodus.
Some civilians tried to turn back when they reached the suburbs but
the Khmers Rouges shot recalcitrants on the spot as a warning. The
engineer Pin Yathay recorded the fate of one young man who went back
to get something from his house: a guerrilla stood 14 metres from the
boy’s corpse, ‘smoke still wafting lazily from his AK47’. The evacu-
ation was relentless, and when Haing Ngor returned a few days later
with a guerrilla escort to pick up some medicines, Phnom Penh was
already a ghost city. Official DK sources admit that between 2000 and
3000 people died during the evacuation, but the total was certainly
much higher.
The mass expulsion was an atrocious act, but the deportation of
populations has a long history across many civilisations. The Romans
scattered the Jews from Palestine in the Diaspora of 70 AD. Ferdinand
and Isabella deported the Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492 and the
last of the Muslim Moriscos followed them in 1614. Stalin expelled the
Crimean Tartars, the Volga Germans and the Chechens to Siberia during
World War II, and after 1945 some 14 million Germans were driven
westwards from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe. The mass
transfer of Muslim and Hindu populations marked the end of the British
Raj in India in 1947 and more recently Bosnia was ‘ethnically cleansed’
by murder and expulsion. All of these cases depended on the mo-
bilisation of hatred which targeted a clearly identifiable ethnic or at
least religious ‘other’. What is singular about the Cambodian experi-
ence is that Khmers expelled Khmers. In the mental universe of the
guerrillas, medieval prejudices jostled with half-baked corruptions of
Marxism and the city-dwellers had become, as a group, the ‘class enemy’.
The urban-dwellers, so the Khmers Rouges leaders told them, were in
league with the US imperialists and thus collectively responsible for the
sufferings of the peasantry. For the guerrillas, Phnom Penh was more
malignant than the ‘Great Wen’ (boil or carbuncle) of 19th century
London was to any English peasant or bucolic reactionary, and was to
be drained of its ‘tainted’ people. The north-west town of Battambang,
its population swollen to over quarter of a million by refugees, suffered
the same fate as the capital.
Although apologists for DK defend the expulsion as a necessary
precaution against possible US bombing and mass starvation, it is clear
that the decision was made on ideological grounds some months before-hand and in secret. Even bearing hindsight in mind, it was extremely
unlikely at the time that the United States would bomb the city. The
US Congress had put an end to the American bombing almost two years
earlier and the war-weary American people had no stomach for a fresh
war in Asia. Feeding the bloated urban populations did present a real
problem, but the Vietnamese communists managed to feed the people
of Saigon without recourse to draconian measures when that city fell a
fortnight later. Undoubtedly, there was a compelling case for the orderly,
humane and voluntary repatriation of the refugees to their home villages,
but none of these caveats apply to what happened after 17 August 1975.
Building ‘utopia’ from day one of the revolution
There were two interrelated immediate reasons for the expulsions. The
first was the relative weakness of the Khmers Rouges forces, which had
been only just strong enough to defeat Lon Nol’s army. The second
was the fear that the cities would act as reservoirs of counterrevolution.
It did not matter that over half the urban population were civilian
refugees from the countryside, or that most city-dwellers welcomed
the end of hostilities and favoured national reconciliation. For the high
command of the secretive angkar, it was a case of ‘if you’re not with us,
you’re against us’—logic that they shared with both Sihanouk and Lon
Nol, for whom dissent meant treason. Underlying the immediate
practical necessity of evacuation (as the Khmers Rouges saw it) was an
ideological imperative. The Khmers Rouges leadership was determined
to begin the total transformation of Cambodian society on the day
that Phnom Penh and Battambang fell and this was predicated on the
dispersal of the old urban populations. Even before the end of the war,
the Khmers Rouges had begun its radical experiments in the so-called
liberated zones under its control. The ideological basis for the expul-
sions is clear from Pol Pot’s orders, summed up by a Khmers Rouges
regimental political commissar quoted by the historian Ben Kiernan:
Immediately upon liberation on 17 April 1975, there was
a Special Centre Assembly for Cabinet Ministers and all
Zone and Region Secretaries. Eight points were made at
the Assembly, by Pol Pot:
1. Evacuate people from all towns.
2. Abolish all markets.
3. Abolish Lon Nol regime currency, and withhold the
revolutionary currency that had been printed.
4. Defrock all Buddhist monks, and put them to work
growing rice.
5. Execute all leaders of the Lon Nol regime beginning
with the top leaders.
6. Establish high-level cooperatives throughout the
country with communal eating.
7. Expel the entire Vietnamese minority population.
8. Dispatch troops to the borders, particularly the Vietnamese border.
Here, we have the nub of Pol Pot’s plan for the sweeping transform-
ation of Cambodian society. The construction of ‘utopia’ would begin
from the first day of the revolution on the ruins of the old society.
The towns were seen as parasitic growths and hotbeds of spies, foreign
ideologies and capitalism. The urban populations, henceforth known
as ‘new people’, would join the ‘old people’ in productive labour on
collective farms in the countryside and their labour would provide
the wealth to build the future paradise. There would be no freedom of
movement and no freedom to choose one’s occupation. Families would
be split up. There would be no singing or dancing save to glorify the
regime, and even the music of the new regime sounded discordant to
Khmer ears.
The people would be denied spiritual sustenance. The Khmers
are an intensely religious people and their religion has often served as
a consolation for the hardships of life, but Pol Pot would have none of
it. Monks were defrocked and put to work and their orders closed. The
regime would not tolerate any other source of authority that might
undermine its own. The January 1976 Constitution of DK granted
freedom of worship, but cancelled it with the qualification ‘except for
reactionary religion’. The entire country would be sealed off from the
‘contaminating’ influences of the outside world. There was to be no
respite after the rigours of war, no chance for the people to heal their
wounds and mourn their dead. There would be no time for love, no
reconciliation after a fratricidal war that had pitted brother against
brother and sister against sister. The new people would submit or perish.
There would only be a life of unremitting toil in the paddy fields and,
in what was really the socialisation of poverty, the entire population
would be levelled to the position of the poorest and least educated
member of society. The country, as David Chandler has put it, would
become one huge ‘prison farm’.
Partly this was an act of revenge, but the regime saw it as neces-
sary for the rebuilding of Cambodian society according to a utopian
blueprint dreamed up in the remote jungles, based on a romantici-
sation of the primitive communism of the hill peoples among whom
Pol Pot and his comrades had lived. The dream formed the basis for
the regime’s Four-Year Plan of 1976, which foresaw the rapid development of light industry, followed by heavy industry, regardless of the
lack of skilled labour, raw materials, infrastructure and professional
expertise. Cambodia would catch up and overtake the capitalist West
by an act of will, and Cambodians would regain their true stature as
the people who had built Angkor, dreamed Pol Pot. The foreign
exchange needed for this plan would be earned by increasing Cambodia’s agrarian exports. Cambodia would, in a gigantic act of Maoist-style
‘voluntarism’, acquire the wealth with which to industrialise the
country and build a glorious future. That future justified whatever hardships the people might suffer.
Although Pol Pot claimed that his revolution had no foreign
models, and he kept the existence of the Communist Party a secret until
a marathon radio speech in September 1977, one of his models was
Stalin’s Russia, where ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ was based on
the violent expropriation of the peasantry and slave labour. The extreme
voluntarism—the belief that human beings can overcome all obstacles
by sheer willpower alone—mirrored the ideology of Maoist China, which
had produced the absurd Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s that
ended in the catastrophic famine of the early 1960s. To this, we might
add Stalin’s idea of socialism in one country, Mao’s doctrine of self-reliance, and Kim Il Sung’s Juche dogma, all of which preached autarchy,
or the virtue of countries going it alone economically and socially.
Yet, on another level, DK was unique. As Philip Short has pointed
out in his magisterial study of Pol Pot, some semblance of ‘normal life’
was possible in Stalin’s USSR or in Nazi Germany, whereas in DK it
was impossible. There was no private life nor any respite from the inces-
sant demands of the state and its black clad minions.
Pol Pot believed Cambodia’s transformation would be so swift
that there would be no need for ‘transitional’ mechanisms such as money
and markets. Private property was abolished overnight. Eating was
socialised, both on moral grounds and to ensure collection of the
maximum surpluses of agricultural commodities for sale overseas. As a
result, towards the end of the regime there was often almost nothing
on the communal tables to eat, but it was a crime for individuals to
supplement their meagre rations with ‘wild food’ from the forests as
Khmers had always done in times of privation. A Khmer woman told
the Australian communist journalist Darryl Bullen soon after the liber-
ation from Pol Pot that members of her commune were forbidden to
eat from the wild sugar palms, coconut trees and wild bananas, even
though they were starving. Although food was comparatively plentiful
during the first year of the new regime, supplies rapidly dwindled after-
wards. Chronic malnutrition coupled with overwork and medical neglect
carried off hundreds of thousands to the grave. In some places, the people
resembled the walking skeletons, the so-called Musselmen of Hitler’s
concentration camps, or the Zeks of Stalin’s Gulag.
How many people perished during DK?
The Khmers Rouges soldiers and cadres would sing, apparently without
irony, their national anthem, which began: ‘Bright red blood which
covers the fields and plains/Of Kampuchea, our motherland!’ Given
that many of their victims were dispatched in the fields with a blow to
the back of the head or neck with an ox cart axle, the words take on a
grim meaning unintended by their writer.
The degree of hardship and terror differed from region to region
and from time to time in the same regions. The Khmers Rouges had
replaced the old provinces with seven large zones and these were further
broken down into 32 smaller administrative regions. Some of these,
such as the North Eastern and Eastern zones, were comparatively well
run (sometimes local administrations were almost ‘benign’ comments
the Australian author Margaret Slocomb, a long-time resident of Phnom
Penh and author of a book on the post Pol Pot People’s Republic of
Kampuchea). Local administrators differed: some were cruel thugs, such
as Ta Mok (known as The Butcher) and the other commanders of the
North Western and Western zones, who were notorious for their brutal
incompetence. Others were merely ignorant and incompetent, whereas
survivors remember others for their kindness. Members of the Muslim
Cham minority suffered terribly, with their numbers dropping by 36 per
cent during DK, ‘a proportion sharply higher than the losses sustained
by the rest of the population’ Milton Osborne tells us. On the other
hand, the 2.5 to 3 million ‘old people’ who had lived in Khmer Rouges-
controlled zones before 1975 were generally treated better than the
4 to 5 million ‘new people’ who fell into Pol Pot’s hands after the fall
of Phnom Penh. Overall, however, life was hard and became worse as
the years wore on.
The exact death toll during DK will probably never be known,
although 1.7 million is a reasonable estimate. One problem is that after
1979, the incoming People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government sought to legitimate itself by exaggerating the number of dead,
which they routinely put at 3 million. The Vietnamese also blurred
the political nature of the Pol Pot regime and spoke of an ‘Asian
Auschwitz’ when in fact the closest parallel with DK is not Nazi
Germany but Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Another problem is that
there was no way of keeping accurate population statistics during the
five years of war that preceded Pol Pot, so calculating the exact number
of people in Cambodia as of 17 April 1975 is difficult. Millions of people
were displaced from the countryside between 1970 and 1975 and
although there is no precise record of the number of war-related deaths
these were colossal, probably in the high hundreds of thousands, many
of them a result of the maniacal US bombing. (A Finnish Commission
of Inquiry estimated that the war cost 600 000 lives, while the writer
Eva Myslwiec considers one million to be likely.)
The population at the time of the Khmers Rouges takeover in
1975 was 7.3 million according to the CIA, 7.1 million according to
the UN, although the last complete census was taken in 1962. In fact,
it may have been as high as 8 million as all the statistics are a bit rubbery.
Perhaps as many as 200 000 people fled or were expelled immediately
after the DK victory. (The overwhelming bulk of the Vietnamese minority was deported across the eastern border, and perhaps 50 000 people
fled to Thailand.) Six years later, after the fall of DK, the total population had decreased by around one million: PRK census figures put the
population at 6.7 million in 1981, although the CIA believes that
it was around 6.3 million to 6.4 million. This is a decrease of around
20 to 25 per cent, despite the steep increase in the birth rate after the
liberation from Pol Pot and the return of around 400 000 refugees
after 1980.
It is clear that we are looking at a demographic catastrophe. Given
that the birth rate between 1965 and 1970 was 2.8 per cent, Cam-
bodia’s population should have risen to around 9 million by 1980 had
there been no war and no DK. The Finnish Commission concluded
that Cambodia’s population fell by 30 per cent in the decade after 1970
and estimates of a net loss of around 1.7 million people during the DK
years ring true. How many were executed is a moot point: the Finnish
Commission calculated up to 150 000 murdered, Chandler suggests
200 000 and PRK figures were much higher. If Chandler is correct, the
Khmers Rouges executed just under three per cent of the country’s population. By way of comparison, the equivalent figures for hypothetical
holocausts in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom at
the beginning of the 21st century would be 600 000, 8 850 000 and
1 800 000 executed respectively. Similar death rates from all causes as
in DK would be astronomical.
Enemies of the people
The new regime showed its brutal colours from the first days of the
revolution. Pol Pot had stipulated in his 17 April speech to the Khmers
Rouges assembly that there would be no mercy for the cadres of the
defeated regime. Foreign embassies were not respected as places of
sanctuary: even the gates of the Soviet legation were blown in with a
bazooka. Prince Sirik Matak was taken from the French Embassy and
executed. Displaying exemplary courage, ‘nothing in his life became
him like the leaving of it’. One of the most harrowing passages of
François Bizot’s autobiographical book, The Gate, concerns the fate
of Madame Long Boret (wife of the Republic’s penultimate prime min-
ister) and her infant son, whom Bizot and a gendarme were forced to
turn away from the embassy gates. Thirty years on, Bizot’s anguish still
burns as he recalls her desperate pleas to them to save her child.
The arm of revenge reached right down the hierarchy of the
defeated regime. On the day of the evacuation, Haing Ngor narrowly
escaped induction into a ‘recruitment centre’ set up by the Khmers
Rouges on the outskirts of the city to lure unwary Lon Nol soldiers. The
centre was full of former soldiers and officers, some of whom waved to
their fellows if they saw them on the road, inviting them in to share
what they saw as their good luck. They were loaded onto trucks, driven
into the country, and shot. Afterwards, it would be the turn of the intellectuals and professional employees, even of skilled manual workers
supposedly ‘tainted’ by the city. Later, the Khmers Rouges leader
Thiounn Mumm lured overseas Khmers back home by promising them
a role in the reconstruction of their country, only to have them executed
when they stepped back on Cambodian soil.
Intellectuals and ‘book learning’ were treated with particular
contempt in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, although one also senses the fear
that the new regime had of them. The wearing of spectacles was sufficient to brand one as an intellectual and therefore an enemy of the
people, and the consequences were often lethal. The relentless animosity towards intellectuals and experts was fundamentally self-defeating,
but a hallmark of a regime in which ignorance was a virtue. Haing Ngor
records one of many interminable harangues delivered by Khmers
Rouges cadres to the ‘new people’ when they reached the countryside:
‘We don’t need the technology of the capitalists,’ he [the
cadre] went on. ‘Under our new system, we don’t need to
send our young people to school. Our school is the farm.
The land is our paper. The plow [sic] is our pen. We will
“write” by plowing [sic]. We don’t need to give exams or
award certificates. Knowing how to farm and knowing how
to dig canals—those are our certificates . . . We don’t need
doctors anymore. They are not necessary. If someone needs
to have their intestines removed, I will do it’. He made a
cutting motion with an imaginary knife across his stomach.
‘It is easy. There is no need to learn how to do it by going
to school.’
Shortly afterwards, the anguished doctor was forced to watch as two
young Khmers Rouges ‘doctors’ incompetently administered a lethal
injection of thiamine to a sick baby. ‘The country was ruled by the
ignorant,’ Haing Ngor laments. Three examples could serve as symbols
of the officially sponsored ignorance of the DK years: the conversion
of the National Library at Phnom Penh into a pigsty, the transformation of the state archives building into a dwelling place for the top
cadres’ servants, and the closure of the state agricultural college and
its conversion into a Khmers Rouges ammunition dump. In the end,
this contempt for academic learning and technical expertise was
to cause the regime to commit monumental blunders and contribute
to its downfall. The engineer and memoirist Pin Yathay records trucks
being cut up and turned into ploughs, canals dug in which the water
would have to flow uphill, dams built without spillways and farming
practices that would make an agronomist wince. Contempt for medical
knowledge was to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people
struck down by overwork and illness in an infernal calculus that saw
them as expendable.
Again, there are parallels here with the Stalin and Mao regimes.
Stalin’s GPU massacred 14 000 Polish officers, professionals and intellectuals at Katyn Wood in 1941 and earlier tried and executed countless
Soviet experts as ‘saboteurs’. Mao launched the Hundred Flowers
campaign that ‘lured the snakes from their holes’, as he puts it, in 1950s
China and followed this up with the massive persecution of intellectuals during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Contempt for experts
was also a cornerstone of the Maoist ideology of self-reliance.
The Khmers Rouges leadership
Paradoxically, those who presided over DK were a close-knit band of
well-educated men and women, related by ties of blood and marriage.
Hu Nim, Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphan, the ‘Three Ghosts’ who had
fled Sihanouk’s White Terror back in 1967, had Paris PhDs and Brother
Number One, as Pol Pot was known, had studied in Paris and worked
as a teacher in the Cambodian capital before he slipped away to the
jungles. Brother Number Three, Ieng Sary, a scholar with an aptitude
for mathematics, had also studied in Paris, as had another Khmers
Rouges leader, Son Sen, who became director of studies of the National
Teaching Institute at Phnom Penh after his return from France in the
1950s. Pol Pot’s first wife, Khieu Ponnary (whose sister was married to
Ieng Sary), was the first Cambodian woman to earn her baccalaureate
and she had attended literary soirées with Sihanouk and the top French
officials in Phnom Penh. Many of the Khmers Rouges leaders were from
comfortable backgrounds and had never done manual labour, although
Pol Pot claimed to have been a rubber worker when ‘elected’ to the
DK National Assembly in March 1976 and other leaders claimed to
have been peasants. Thiounn Mumm and his brother Prasith were grandchildren of Thiounn, an immensely rich and powerful civil servant under
the French. Pol Pot, whose real name was Saloth Sar, came from a well-off farming family with palace connections—indeed his sister, Sarouen,
was King Monivong’s favourite concubine, and the king had died in her
arms at his Bokor estate back in 1941. Pol Pot had studied radio mechanics in Paris in the 1950s, and while there he had mixed in anti-colonialist
circles and joined the Communist Party of France (CPF).
When Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were in Paris, the CPF was the largest
single party in France and although it was one of the largest communist
parties outside of the Soviet bloc, it had a reputation for slavishly following the Moscow line. As a result, the young men absorbed a solid dose of
the Stalinist ideology that was to form the bedrock of their ideas. The
features of this were always apparent: dogmatism; narrow-mindedness;
contempt for democracy; a belief in the infallibility of the party line
and the party leader; and a deterministic view of history that saw the
final triumph of communism as inevitable, and that justified the most
brutal means as necessary in achieving the utopian end. To this were
later added specifically Maoist elements, the idea of self-reliance in
particular, which held that Third World revolutionaries should scorn
western technology and expertise, rely on their own strength and learn
from the people. While there is much to be said for respecting the
people, the downside is the worship of ignorance. Pol Pot also turned
to the idea of the peasants as the revolutionary class as a result of Maoist
dogma. The working class, such as it was in Cambodia, was to get short
shrift at his hands and whereas Marx had sneered at ‘the idiocy of rural
life’ Pol Pot took the Maoist idea of surrounding the cities from the
countryside a stage further and emptied them of their people. In his
mental universe, the poor peasantry were to be the locomotive of
Cambodian history and all the urban classes were considered reactionary.
The evacuation was an integral part of a great levelling that he saw as
necessary before Cambodia could become great.
While in Paris, the young revolutionary must also have become
aware of the Stalinist purges and show trials of Old Bolsheviks during
the 1930s. He must also have learned shortly after his return to Cambodia of Khrushchev’s 1956 ‘secret speech’ that retrospectively denounced
these crimes. However, given his own later methods, Pol Pot must
have agreed with Mao’s rejection of the speech as revisionist. For hardline Stalinists like Pol Pot, the victims of the trials were forever
condemned as spies and wreckers, and the lesson was that one must
remain forever vigilant against such elements in one’s own party. On
the evidence, Pol Pot did not murder party secretary Tou Samouth, as
Ben Kiernan claimed, but he most certainly did turn on ‘Khmer-Viet
Minh’ who had returned from Hanoi from at least 1973. Moreover, in
August 1975, in the worst traditions of Stalinism, the veteran leftist
Hou Yuon was murdered, most likely on Pol Pot’s orders. Hou Yuon
had opposed the evacuation of the cities even at the 17 April assembly where Pol Pot roughed out his immediate program, and four months
later he made a public speech denouncing the expulsions, calling on
the party to show mercy to the people. It was a brave, humane and
alas futile gesture for which he was executed and his body thrown into
the Mekong. If this was the fate of a high-ranking party leader who
dared voice dissent, there could be no freedom of speech for any other
subject of DK.
Hou Yuon’s fate presaged a later, much larger hunt for spies within
the party that resembled the witch-burning frenzies and the hunt for
heretics by the Inquisition in Europe. In 1977, following torture, Hu
Nim ‘confessed’ to having been an agent of the CIA, although like the
Old Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin before him during the Moscow trials,
he left clues to posterity attesting to his innocence. He confessed to
serving the CIA by ‘presenting my activities as those of a “progressive”, whereas my true essence was reactionary’. The admission was
worthless, obtained as it was by repeated whippings and ‘stuffings’ with
water, but we should not see everything he wrote in Tuol Sleng prison
as the invention of DK’s inquisitors. Reading between the lines, we
can see Hu Nim as a revolutionary who had grown disillusioned with
the trajectory of the movement to which he had dedicated his life. Most
likely there were many other loyal party members who despaired at a
dream gone sour, their doubts regarded as treachery by a party leadership ever more deeply steeped in blood.
Hu Nim hinted that he had grown tired of the ongoing terror, that
he wanted the people to live normal lives in a stable and prosperous
country at peace with its socialist neighbour Vietnam. He recorded the
opinions of the other dissident party leaders that the state ought not
rely on sheer muscle power, but should mechanise and accept foreign
aid. Furthermore, he reported that other socialist countries, even North
Korea, had currency, so why not Cambodia? Pol Pot, he hinted, did
not want a ‘system of plenty’, but one in which the people were worked
long hours for the benefit of the state.
Taken together, these beliefs were heresy in the Cambodian dystopia.
The confession reveals that Hu Nim and others like him supported an
alternative platform: a gentler and more gradual road to socialism. He
was tortured and murdered for his pains. However, as the Australian
scholar Ben Kiernan has pointed out, Hu Nim was a talkative person
who was used to winning arguments. Although on the surface he appears
to have submitted to the arguments of Brother Number 1, in the court
of history he had the final word.
In the final years of the DK regime, fear and paranoia burned out
of control within the party, with tens of thousands of members arrested
and executed, many after torture in the notorious S21 establishment
set up at Tuol Sleng in the Phnom Penh suburbs under a former teacher
called Duch (François Bizot’s former captor). Duch’s meticulous records
show that around 20 000 unfortunates were tortured and executed at
Tuol Sleng and that the interrogations did not stop until the Vietnamese
soldiers were almost in the city’s suburbs. There were only eight survivors,
three adults and five children.
Hatred of Vietnam, glorification of Cambodia
As the purges unfolded, they revealed Pol Pot’s extraordinary hatred of
his communist neighbour, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which
he had come to see as his country’s greatest enemy. Although the charge
of being in league with the CIA was still routine, suspected enemies
were increasingly described as having ‘Vietnamese minds inside Cambodian bodies’. Among the first of these were the old Pracheachon
leaders, Non Suon and Keo Meas, who were arrested, tortured and
executed in late 1976. The pair’s downfall came as a result of their
dating the foundation of the Communist Party to 1951, the year of
the formation of the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party, rather than
1960, when Pol Pot rose through the ranks at the Communist Party
conference held at the Phnom Penh railway workshops.
The obsession with the Vietnamese ‘threat’ is linked to another
central element of Pol Pot’s ideology: an extreme Khmer nationalism
that he shared with Lon Nol and which was close to the racist mystical mumbo-jumbo of Keng Vannsak’s ‘Khmer–Mon Institute’ during the
Khmer Republic. He once boasted that the people who had built Angkor
could do anything, and bragged of his superb leadership, which allegedly
resulted from Khmer nationality. This racist chauvinism was to lead Pol
Pot down an increasingly irrational and blood-soaked path and to DK’s
destruction at the hands of the Vietnamese.
Marxism is an internationalist doctrine, even in its deformed
Marxist-Leninist variant, but Pol Pot’s ideology was as nationalist as it
was Marxist-Leninist. One can see traces of this even in his formative
political years in Paris when he signed an article in a revolutionary
magazine under the pseudonym of ‘The Original Khmer’. Although Pol
Pot sheltered under the wing of the Vietnamese communists in the
jungles of Cambodia’s north-east for many years he resented his
subservient position and what he saw as the patronising attitudes of
his communist ‘elder brothers’, who insisted that Cambodia had to wait
its turn for ‘liberation’ until the United States and its Saigon client had
been defeated.
In 1964–65, Pol Pot had travelled to China and Vietnam, and
the Vietnamese communist leader Le Duan had ticked him off for his
impatient nationalism, telling him to subordinate his own struggle to
that of Vietnam. From Pol Pot’s point of view, this advice made little
sense: given that Sihanouk’s police were hunting down Cambodian
communists in the towns and cities, they had little choice but to flee
to the jungles and wage armed struggle. Cambodian nationalism had
always had a reactive quality to it, and from the 1930s on it was often
at least as much anti-Vietnamese as anti-French, sometimes more so.
Lon Nol had ordered hideous pogroms against the Vietnamese in
1970 and Pol Pot shared the same irrational and mystical Khmer nationalism that led to such racist atrocities. According to the CIA, open
fighting broke out between Vietnamese and Cambodian communist
units as early as 1973, following the Paris Peace Accords, and there are
reports of clashes as early as 1971. Significantly, the last two planks of
Pol Pot’s ‘action program’ announced at the 17 April Assembly were
to ‘expel the entire Vietnamese population’ (something of which Lon
Nol would have heartily approved), and to ‘dispatch troops to the
borders, particularly the Vietnamese border’, where fighting broke out
shortly afterwards over disputed islands in the Gulf of Siam. Cam-
bodians had had reason for dissatisfaction with the border since the
French had drawn up the arbitrary Brevié Line to demarcate it in 1939,
but Pol Pot’s actions dramatically weakened the possibility of compromise. More than that, the gesture hints at the paranoia and delusions
of grandeur that were to be his undoing. In later years, as famine broke
out, this overarching ‘ideological’ antipathy for Vietnam meshed with
Pol Pot’s need to divert attention from the results of his regime’s failed
ultra-left policies. This bore out Dr Johnson’s celebrated observation
that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’.
International dimensions of the
Kampuchea–Vietnam conflict
Pol Pot’s antipathy towards Vietnam also impelled him into an alliance
with China, which for its part was delighted to gain an ally against
Hanoi, which it saw as an upstart agent of ‘Soviet social imperialism’
on its southern border. The communist world, it should be recalled, had
been riven in two by the Sino-Soviet split of 1960, when Mao
denounced the leaders of the USSR as revisionists seeking to impose
their domination over the rest of the bloc. Pol Pot suspected that the
Vietnamese wanted to revive the old federation of Indochina under
their hegemony and his suspicions deepened when they signed a treaty
of friendship and cooperation with the Lao communist regime in 1977,
a move he interpreted as encirclement. After delivering the September 1977 speech in which he announced the existence of the Communist
Party of Kampuchea, Pol Pot flew to Beijing for discussions with Hua
Guofeng, the successor to Mao and the ‘Gang of Four’. The hostile
alignment of the Indochinese states within the communist world was
completed in 1978, when Vietnam, suspicious of China’s ambitions in
Southeast Asia, signed a 25-year treaty with the USSR.
The move accelerated the deterioration of relations between DK
and Vietnam. DK broke off diplomatic relations with Hanoi in early
1978. There had been sporadic fighting along the border and in December 1977, the Vietnamese decided to teach Pol Pot a lesson by
dispatching an invasion force that penetrated deep into eastern Cambodia and routed Khmers Rouges forces. They soon withdrew but took
a number of Cambodian villagers with them and, more importantly,
there was an increasing stream of Khmers Rouges over the border as
Pol Pot’s purges began to spiral out of control and local Khmers Rouges
commanders attempted to defend themselves or escape. Pol Pot was
suspicious of Eastern Zone cadres such as Sao Phim (a former militant
of the old Indochinese Communist Party) and some hundreds of them
were tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng prison during this period. Sao
Phim himself committed suicide after receiving a sinister summons to
travel to the capital for ‘discussions’. Among those who fled to Vietnam
in 1977 and 1978 were two men called Heng Samrin and Hun Sen.
The latter, a young Khmers Rouges regimental commander, had lost
an eye during the war against Lon Nol, and is Cambodia’s premier and
‘strongman’ today. Heng Samrin headed the Vietnamese sponsored
National Salvation Front, in effect a government-in-exile formed largely
of disaffected former Khmers Rouges. Heng Samrin’s forces participated
in the invasion of Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978 and he was president of the PRK between 1979 and Sihanouk’s return in 1991. Today
he is honorary president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
The downfall of Democratic Kampuchea
Vietnam and Cambodia were on a collision course, with Pol Pot acting
as a proxy in a broader global conflict, much as Lon Nol had acted as
a surrogate in a wider war until 1975. Increasingly belligerent and buoyed
by an unrealistic sense of power, Pol Pot rejected a Vietnamese offer to
submit the border dispute to international arbitration and both sides
massed troops at the frontier. Khmers Rouges guerrillas increasingly
slipped over the border and raided villages on the Vietnamese side,
committing horrible atrocities that were recorded by the journalist
Nayan Chanda for Far Eastern Economic Review at the time. It was necessary, claimed the Khmers Rouges, to ‘annihilate’ the Vietnamese on
their own territory. What this meant was that ‘In house after house
bloated, rotting bodies of men, women and children lay strewn about.
Some were beheaded, some had their bellies ripped open, some were
missing limbs, others eyes.’ General Tran Van Tra, the commander of
the Vietnamese army in the Mekong delta, seethed with rage and
another officer who witnessed the massacres was ‘overcome with nausea’
when he recalled them 12 months later, Chanda has written. The raids
displaced almost half a million people on the Vietnamese side of the
border, and caused around 100 000 hectares of farmland to be tempor-
arily abandoned. While the local Vietnamese army commanders chafed,
the Hanoi government continued its fruitless efforts at a negotiated
solution. In one memorable speech, Pol Pot boasted that the disparity
in size and population between Cambodia and Vietnam was of no consequence, for if every Khmers Rouges soldier killed 30 Vietnamese, they
would win the war. He was also banking on Chinese support, but the
Chinese were no more inclined to dispatch troops to help him than the
Americans had been to protect Lon Nol.
The end came swiftly for the Pol Pot regime. On Christmas Day
1978, an invasion force over 100 000 strong, backed by tanks, artillery
and aviation, poured over the border from Vietnam, driving the Khmers
Rouges forces before them. Although Pol Pot had always boasted that
his army had defeated the Americans, this was false: he had won a civil
war against the ramshackle and corrupt Khmer Republic, not its powerful backer. Now the Khmers Rouges guerrillas faced one of the most
formidable, battle-hardened armies the world has seen. The Vietnamese
had competent generals and superior firepower, and they were not
blinded to reality by mystical rhetoric. They also had the advantage of
fighting a regime that had long ago forfeited what little support it ever
had among the Cambodian people, most of whom welcomed its demise.
Phnom Penh fell to the advancing Vietnamese soldiers on
7 January 1979 and Pol Pot fled before them in a helicopter, with Ieng
Sary, Nuon Chea and the other top leaders scurrying away by train
towards Battambang. The Khmers Rouges guerrillas were thrown back
in disorder to the remote borders with Thailand. They had been smashed
and the country liberated, albeit by the Khmers’ traditional enemies
from the east. It should have been the end of the Khmers Rouges but,
Pol Pot in 1981. (Courtesy Newspix)
as has been so often the case, Cambodia’s fate was to be decided by
forces outside of the country, and the suffering of the people was not
yet over. Pol Pot, however, was never to regain power, despite fighting
a guerrilla war along the borders for many years.
The old despot died while under house arrest in a Cambodian fron-
tier village in April 1998, a sad, sick old man of 70 years, despised even
by the rump of the Khmers Rouges, who cremated his corpse in a
makeshift pyre of old rubber sandals and other rubbish. He never
expressed remorse for his disastrous policies. The American journalist
Nate Thayer, who interviewed Pol Pot shortly before his death, said,
‘The one regret I had in my several encounters with Pol Pot was that
he didn’t feel sorry. He felt what he did was justified.’ To the end, this
old schoolmaster-turned-guerrilla epitomised what a wiser revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, had meant when he wrote that the ultra-left sectarian
saw life as a great school and himself as the teacher. The Cambodian
people had failed him, not the other way round. Pol Pot liked to think
he was in tune with the ineluctable laws of history, but in the end he
failed and turned his country into a bloody shambles. We cannot forecast how much weight future historians will give to the three and a
half years of his regime but if the aftermaths of other outbreaks of mass
butchery provide any guide, the vivid memories will fade. The Young
Turks killed one and a half million Armenians in 1915–16, but Adolf
Hitler recognised the human potential for forgetting when he sold his
coming Holocaust to wavering generals by asking them ‘who today
remembers the extermination of the Armenians?’ Sadly, he was right.
Perhaps in the future some other budding mass murderer will ask the
same question of Cambodia.
It is now over a quarter of a century since the demise of Pol Pot’s
Democratic Kampuchea, during which time the country has undergone
a number of painful transitions. Cambodia today is still desperately poor
and underdeveloped and although it has clawed its way back from
barbarism, dark shadows still linger and huge problems beset the Khmer
people. Some of these are new. Others seem timeless and have a sense
of déjà vu, not the least of which is official corruption and authoritarian government. Cambodia is also a divided society and one of the
greatest sources of discord concerns attitudes towards the Vietnamese
invasion/liberation that began on Christmas Day 1978. To many
Khmers, the 7 January holiday commemorates the anniversary of their
country’s liberation from Pol Pot’s tyranny and the rebirth of the nation.
To others, it is a day of infamy marking the beginning of over a decade
of foreign occupation.
Cambodia has lived through two regimes since Pol Pot. Immediately after the Vietnamese invasion, the leaders of the Hanoi-backed
National Salvation Front declared the People’s Republic of Kampuchea
(PRK) on a broad platform put forward at Snoul on the eastern border
in December 1978. This regime (renamed the State of Cambodia in
1989) lasted until the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991, when the warring
factions in Cambodian politics, helped by international diplomatic
initiatives and the end of the Cold War, decided on a course of national
reconciliation and democratisation that resulted two years later in the
reconstitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
The PRK failed in its avowed socialist objectives and its noncommunist successor has yet to live up to the democratic hopes of
its domestic and international sponsors. Although the Kingdom
of Cambodia holds regular elections, like the old Sihanouk and Lon
Nol regimes it is an authoritarian state ruled by a strongman—the ex-Khmer Rouge guerrilla Hun Sen, who first rose to prominence under
the PRK, abandoning its socialist principles along the way. Given the
catastrophes of the recent past, and the country’s longer history of
authoritarian rule, it was unlikely that Cambodia could make a pain-less transition to democracy, with respect for human rights, the rule
of law and social justice. It was also unlikely that the PRK could
introduce successful socialist measures in a country traumatised by
Pol Pot’s bloody version of socialism and in the face of the patent
indifference and even hostility of the people.
Whether Cambodia will be able to overcome its entrenched prob-
lems of underdevelopment and authoritarianism remains to be seen.
Today, around 50 per cent of Cambodia’s budget comes from overseas
aid, corruption is rife even at the highest levels of government and the
civil service, poverty and landlessness are increasing, serious social evils
fester, there is an HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the country is facing a
burgeoning ecological crisis. For all their faults, however, the post-DK
regimes have done much to rebuild a shattered society, and the Pol Pot
years are a receding nightmare for older Cambodians and a bogeyman
story for their children.
The PRK’s manifesto
Cambodia’s deliverance from its modern Dark Age began on 2 December 1978, when a 44year-old former Khmers Rouges Eastern Zone
commander stood up to read a manifesto to his Khmer People’s
Revolutionary Party (KPRP) comrades at a captured rubber plantation near Snoul on the Vietnamese border. The speaker, Heng
Samrin, had fled over the border earlier that year and had become the
leader of the Solidarity Front for National Salvation, created under
the auspices of the Vietnamese communists. He promised to liberate
Cambodia from those he described as tyrants who had reduced the
people to neo-slavery. He swore to rebuild Cambodia as ‘a truly peace-
ful, independent, democratic, neutral, and non-aligned country . . .’.
Once the Khmers Rouges had been defeated there would be national
elections and a new constitution. The people would have the Right
to vote and to live, work and travel where they wished within the
The new regime would be avowedly socialist but there would be
a mixed economy, with rural cooperatives established only with the full
consent of the peasants, and there would be an eight-hour working
day. Banks, currency and trade would be re-established. Family life and
religion would be respected and the state would provide its citizens with
proper health care, and education at all levels. There would be support
for war victims, the elderly and the numerous orphans. Finally, Heng
Samrin held out the hope of national reconciliation, promising that the
new state would be lenient with former Pol Pot supporters who had
genuinely reformed.
Given the state of the country at the time, it was as ambitious and
lofty a declaration as any in human history and it was sincerely meant.
It would also prove far more difficult to implement than its authors
imagined. The PRK did try to keep its promises but, as American writer
Evan Gottesman has said, the hints of pluralism in Heng Samrin’s speech
were subsumed within ‘the sort of inclusion espoused throughout the
communist world’. Although the French priest François Ponchaud had
coined the term ‘Year Zero’ to describe Cambodia at the inception of
DK in April 1975, in another sense it is more fitting to apply it to the
country in early 1979, when normal society had collapsed and the
country was on the verge of extinction. The new leaders proclaimed a
new revolution, but as Gottesman eloquently puts it: ‘there was nothing
to overturn, just an emptiness to fill’.
Beyond the imagination of mankind
The Australian communist Darryl Bullen, who flew up to Phnom Penh
from Ho Chi Minh City shortly after the liberation from Pol Pot,
described ‘a pock-marked landscape’ with ‘gaping craters, the size of
buses’ scattered to the horizon, ‘the . . . legacy of saturation bombing
by B-52s’. The journalist John Pilger landed on the ‘beaconless runway’
at Pochentong airport some months later, and described ‘a pyramid of
rusting cars’ on the edge of a forest, ‘like objects in a mirage’. The cities
were still virtually deserted, he wrote, and the hustle and bustle of Asia
stopped at the PRK’s borders. Although Pilger is often (sometimes very
unfairly) criticised for exaggeration, he was right when, struggling to
find words to describe what he saw, he quoted the correspondent of The
Times at the liberation of Belsen, who had written, ‘It is my duty to
describe something beyond the imagination of mankind’ and added,
‘That is how I and others felt in the summer of 1979’ in Cambodia.
The enormity of what Cambodia had suffered is beyond the imagination of most of us. A staggering 30 per cent of the population had
died since Lon Nol’s coup in March 1970 sent the country down the
road to disaster. A country already devastated by war had been reduced
to the extremes of destitution, its citizens pauperised and almost all
the infrastructure of civilised society destroyed. There was no currency
or banks, no markets or public transport, and the country’s roads and
railways were badly damaged. There was no postal system, no telephones
or telegraphs, no clean water supplies or sanitation services, hardly any
electricity and no schools or hospitals. There were virtually no consumer
goods. The people were in rags. There were virtually no professionals
or skilled workers; as one historian of the period records, ‘Only 15 per
cent of the nation’s intellectuals, doctors, engineers, educators, et cetera,
remained in Cambodia by 7 January 1979’. The others were either dead
or had fled. Of the 450 doctors in Cambodia before 1975, only one
tenth remained. There had been around 1600 agricultural experts in
the early 1970s, but this number had dwindled to only 200, including
ten graduates, of whom one was a veterinary surgeon. The latter had
his work cut out, for of an estimated two and a half million draught
animals before the war and revolution, less than 800 000 had survived,
most of them weakened or sick.
All was chaos, a kind of debilitated anarchy. The Vietnamese
general Bui Tin observed ‘hundreds of thousands of gaunt and diseased
people, dazed as if they were returning from hell, [who] wandered shoeless along dusty roads . . . reduced to a state where they did not speak
or smile any more’. Earlier, a Yugoslav television crew who had been
granted access to Democratic Kampuchea observed that only Pol Pot
smiled in that land of sorrow. Several hundred thousand people fled the
country, but 400 000 people returned to chance their luck, joining the
throngs who trekked from their places of exile to their old homes. Fear
was their constant companion after living so long with death at their
heels. Even at the end of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, there had
been a final round of slaughter in some districts, with the Khmers Rouges
forcing families to volunteer their strongest members, ostensibly for
labour but in reality for execution. As historian Margaret Slocomb
explains, ‘Like roads and bridges, and a ripe harvest, human assets had
to be destroyed to spite the conquerors.’ One suspects it was also to
prevent them from joining the invaders, arms in hand, to wreak
vengeance on their tormentors.
Normal social life had also collapsed. Often, the old familial relationships had broken down, leaving people without safety networks
in a society devoid of social welfare of any kind. There were many more
females than males in the general population but significantly, the imbalance was not present in the under-16 age group. The children, however,
had suffered greatly. Helen Ester, who went to Cambodia on behalf of
the Australian Council for Overseas Aid in 1980, reported that 70 per
cent of the children in a new Phnom Penh orphanage she visited were
illiterate because education had ceased under Pol Pot. Of the 20 000
teachers before Pol Pot, less than 7000 remained and they had not practised their profession since the inception of DK. Ester wrote, ‘I feel almost
more shock at the past neglect of Kampuchean children than at the
outright atrocities. The children suffered forced separation from nurturing and the love of their parents and relatives and the criminal neglect
of their learning development.’ Perhaps Cambodia’s tragedy is summed
up in Ester’s report of an orphan who sang of ‘how her mother and father
died, of how her father’s throat was cut and he died in a pool of blood’.
It was, said the orphanage staff, the child’s way of coping with the horror.
Cambodia was on the brink of famine when Vietnam invaded.
The retreating Khmers Rouges soldiers took a quarter of the rice crop
with them and burned down granaries and even destroyed the crops in
the fields. Still more rice rotted on the ground as people deserted the
DK’s prison-villages, some for the nearest frontier, others for their old
homes. In the midst of the chaos, much of the next rice crop was not
planted. There was also a shortage of basic agricultural implements,
seed, draught animals and means of transportation. Fish teemed in the
rivers and in the Great Lake, but there were virtually no nets or boats
to catch them. Although some food aid came from Vietnam and Eastern
bloc countries, augmented by smaller amounts from some Western
charities, it was not enough to stave off disaster. After living to see the
end of DK, between 325 000 and 625 000 people died within the first
year of liberation, many from starvation. By way of comparison, this
alone is a disaster almost on the scale of the Irish famine of the mid-19th century.
Pragmatic policies of the new government
The new government, the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Council,
was established in Phnom Penh on 8 January 1979, under the presi-
dency of Heng Samrin. It was basically a coalition, with Heng Samrin
and Hun Sen representing the former Khmers Rouges who had broken
with Pol Pot, and another group of former ‘Khmer Viet Minh’, such as
Pen Sovann and Keo Chendra. The latter group had spent most of the
time since 1954 in exile in Hanoi, although some had returned to fight
Lon Nol during the early 1970s, only to flee Cambodia again to escape
Pol Pot’s assassins. There were also a number of non-socialist technocrats
who wished to help rebuild their country.
Although avowedly socialist and revolutionary, the new government took a pragmatic approach to the country’s economic affairs.
Priority was given to getting basic services operating and encouraging
food production, and to defence and foreign affairs. (As we shall see,
the Khmers Rouges remained an irritant militarily and the new regime
was isolated internationally.) All taxes on crops were waived for the
first few years of the new regime. Vietnamese engineers and technicians
re-started electricity and water supply plants, and as factory workers
returned to their old workplaces there was a modest revival of indus-
trial production, though this was hampered by a lack of spare parts,
skilled labour and general infrastructure. The retreating Khmers Rouges
had also sabotaged the few plants they had kept in production. In the
first months, trade was carried on by barter, with cans of rice acting as
units of exchange. As markets slowly revived, Vietnamese dong and
Thai baht were used as currency until Cambodian riels could be printed.
In the countryside, the government allowed private farming but
made some tentative steps towards collectivisation by organising peasants into krom samakki, or production solidarity groups, and by setting
up a number of model villages in which work was done on a cooperative
basis. However, as Belgian writer Viviane Frings has recorded, ‘What
emerged in fact after the anarchy of the first few months of 1979, was
a reappearance of private ownership of the means of production, in
accordance with the preferences of the peasants.’ The PRK, despite its
avowedly socialist principles, was never more than half-hearted about
collectivisation. There were a number of practical factors involved here,
including a lack of dedicated cadres and a dearth of state assistance to
collective farms or cooperatives. The underlying reason, however, was
that the government was afraid to push its program because, although
non-coercive in the main, it smacked of the DK years, when the popu-
lation was forced into collective forms of life and work. ‘The Pol Pot
experiment had alienated the people of all social strata from both socialist theory and practice’, writes Margaret Slocomb, so ‘If the revolution
was to survive, the state had to secure the consent and full cooperation
of the masses.’ This would have been difficult even if DK had never
existed, for as the anthropologist May Ebihara wrote in her classic 1968
study of traditional Cambodian rural society, ‘A striking feature of Khmer
village life is the lack of indigenous, traditional, organized associations,
clubs, factions, or other groups that are formed on non-kin principles’.
In the end, as Slocomb argues, the lukewarm socialism of the PRK
failed, and where the regime was successful it was ‘at the expense of its
ideological principles’.
The PRK: an international outcast
The PRK years were marked by gruelling poverty, with the new regime
and its Vietnamese sponsor attempting to rebuild a society almost
from scratch. What was a daunting task was made much harder by
the enforced international isolation of the PRK at the hands of ASEAN,
China and the United States. Once again, Cambodians were suffering
as a result of international political decisions beyond their control.
The very countries that had conspired to drag Cambodia to its ruin
were now set on blocking its recovery. Once again, Khmers were the
victims of the Cold War and of age-old patterns of East Asian Real-
politik that preceded it. It was a case, as Oxfam’s Eva Myslwiec argued,
of ‘punishing the poor’ for offences they had never committed, regard-
less of disputes about the legitimacy of the Heng Samrin government.
However, it must be acknowledged that the PRK regime contributed to
Cambodia’s isolation by its secretive and closed nature.
The rising big power in the East Asian region at this time was the
People’s Republic of China, itself an international pariah until it was
brought in from the cold by the American President Richard Nixon in
1972. Although ostensibly Marxist internationalists, the Chinese leaders
operated within a paradigm of international relations inherited from
China’s imperial past, when the Southeast Asian states were tributaries of the ‘Middle Kingdom’. China had befriended Pol Pot partly out of ideological affinity; China was itself in the last throes of Mao
Zedong’s ultra-left Cultural Revolution when Pol Pot came to power.
However, Chinese support continued after the death of Mao in 1976
and the subsequent downfall of the ‘Gang of Four’ ultra-leftists and their
replacement with Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatists, which suggests that
China’s Cambodia policy was driven primarily by perceived national
self-interest rather than ideology. Central to this was China’s growing
animosity towards Vietnam, which it feared as a pro-Soviet expansionist
usurper of its own ‘rightful’ sphere of influence in Southeast Asia.
Relations between the Chinese and Vietnamese communists, once
proverbially ‘as close as lips and teeth’, had rapidly deteriorated after
1975 and, as Australian specialist in international law Gary Klintworth
puts it, had ‘reverted to the kind of hostile dynamic the two countries
had often shared over the previous two millennia’.
For these reasons, China had encouraged Pol Pot’s belligerence
towards Vietnam. DK would act as a counterweight to Vietnamese power
in Indochina and serve as a buffer against its possible expansion into
the rest of the region. It is unclear whether the Chinese wanted Pol Pot
to goad the Vietnamese into a full-scale invasion, but they took full
advantage of the opportunities the invasion provided to turn Cambodia into a military quagmire, to isolate Vietnam internationally and
weaken it economically. The Chinese never had any intention of
committing ‘volunteers’ as Pol Pot had hoped; they were content to
cause Vietnam the maximum aggravation with the least damage to
themselves. In the process, they helped create what looked like an
intractable problem until Vietnamese troop withdrawals (completed
in 1989) and the end of the Cold War created the opportunity for a
negotiated solution.
The Chinese were perhaps surprised by the ease with which
General Bui Tin’s army overran Cambodia, however. In February 1979,
both in order to teach Vietnam a lesson and to lessen Bui Tin’s pres-
sure on Pol Pot’s guerrillas, China launched a massive invasion of
Vietnam’s northern provinces, capturing control of the border town
of Lang Son before withdrawing a month later. Many of the world’s
governments welcomed the Chinese action. The People’s Republic of
Kampuchea was widely regarded around the world as a Vietnamese
puppet and many international jurists believed that the Vietnamese
invasion of Cambodia was an infringement of international law and
the principle of national sovereignty. Be that as it may, an immediate
consequence of the Chinese military operation was that Pol Pot’s troops
stormed out of their jungle hideouts and massacred undefended Cam-
bodian villagers in revenge. The many governments that shared China’s
obsession with punishing Vietnam overlooked such bloody ‘facts on
the ground’. For Cambodian villagers in this period, the Vietnamese
army was the only bulwark against the return of Pol Pot’s murderous
zealots, but for many of the world’s leaders, the Khmers were pawns on
the international chessboard. While the principle of national sover-
eignty should not be dismissed lightly, there were unusually compelling
reasons for the Vietnamese invasion. In any case, behind the lofty talk
of principles on all sides, there lurked more narrowly pragmatic and self-serving agendas.
China’s Indochina policy won support in the United States and
the non-communist countries of Southeast Asia. These countries had
enjoyed warmer relations with China since Nixon’s 1972 visit and these
thawed further with the cessation of Chinese support for communist
guerrilla insurgency in Thailand. The United States was still smarting
from its crushing defeat in Vietnam and was determined to isolate and
punish the Vietnamese communists: Washington did not recognise
the Vietnamese government until 1995, after 20 years of diplomatic and
economic embargo. The non-communist countries making up the Asso-
ciation of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN)—Thailand, Singapore
and Indonesia in particular—were also frightened of what they saw as
Vietnam’s hegemonic intentions in the region; this was still the era of
the domino theory. As a result, Thailand gave sanctuary to Pol Pot’s
guerrillas, allowing them to operate with impunity from bases in refugee
camps inside its border. This was done with the full support of China
and the United States.
In June 1982, the Khmers Rouges were joined by Sihanouk’s royal-
ist FUNCINPEC party (after its French initials) and Son Sann’s
republican Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF) in an
unlikely Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK),
which was immediately recognised by China, the United States and the
ASEAN countries (with Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore particularly zealous
in its support). Militarily, Pol Pot’s forces, estimated to number 200 000
in 1979 and stabilising thereafter at around 35 000, dominated this
coalition. FUNCINPEC and the KPNLF never managed to muster
effective fighting forces. According to the United Nations, the total
number of people under CGDK control in the refugee camps was slightly
more than 260 000 in 1987. There is evidence that many people under
Khmers Rouges control in particular would have left if they could.
Because the PRK was widely regarded as Vietnam’s puppet, the CGDK
gained widespread diplomatic recognition, with the Khmer Rouge Khieu
Samphan occupying Cambodia’s ambassadorial seat at the United
Nations General Assembly. In contrast, only 11 countries recognised
the Heng Samrin government, and only one of them, India, was outside
of the Soviet bloc.
Early attempts to end or at least scale down the conflict proved
fruitless. In 1980, Thailand flatly rejected a Vietnamese proposal for a
demilitarised zone along the Cambodian border and the following year
the Soviet bloc boycotted a UN-sponsored international conference on
Kampuchea, along with an ASEAN proposal for the UN to disarm all
of the Cambodian factions, in combination with withdrawal of all Vietnamese troops and free elections. In 1983, China blocked a proposal
by the Non-Aligned Summit for a round-table conference of all the
parties to the dispute. Three years later, Austria offered to chair direct
talks between the parties, but the proposal failed due to Chinese opposition. International events, however, allowed in the end for the
relatively speedy resolution of the conflict, but for the best part of a
decade it was intractable.
For the vast majority of Cambodians, who lived under PRK
control, the results of these international intrigues were painful in the
extreme. During the 1979 famine, for instance, the country was denied
the economic and humanitarian aid it so desperately needed and
although conditions improved in subsequent years with better harvests,
Cambodia remained one of the world’s poorest countries. Oxfam’s Eva
Myslwiec was forthright in her criticism: ‘Seven million Kampucheans
are being denied the Right to development and many are suffering
directly because of the decisions taken by China, ASEAN and Western
nations.’ The PRK was ineligible for any of the assistance normally
available for other Third World countries, many of which were ruled
by governments much more corrupt and brutal than the PRK or
Vietnam. The PRK was cut off from assistance from the UN Development Programme, the Asian Development Bank, the IMF and the World
Bank, with only a trickle of humanitarian aid from UNICEF and the
International Red Cross, whose rules did not preclude them from operating in disputed territories. ‘Kampuchea,’ pointed out the Oxfam patron
Sir Robert Jackson, ‘remains in the unique position of being the only
developing country in the world—and it is almost certainly the country
most in need—that is prevented from receiving any of the normal devel-
opment and other assistance provided by the UN system.’
A Stalinist regime
These facts should not blind us to PRK’s Stalinist nature, whatever the
democratic and pluralistic reforms Heng Samrin had pledged at Snoul.
An Amnesty International (AI) report published in 1987 criticised
the regime for unfair trials, the detention without trial of political prisoners, torture during interrogation, and holding prisoners in cramped
and unsanitary conditions. The report stressed that people were liable
to be labelled ‘traitors to the revolution’ for ‘crimes’ such as holding
private meetings, distributing leaflets, refusing to accept government
posts and criticising the administration. The report attacked the regime
for its treatment of political prisoners in the T3 detention centre at
Phnom Penh and at a ‘reform centre’ at Trapeang Phlong in Kompong
Cham province. Prime Minister Hun Sen did not respond to a letter
from Amnesty International raising these concerns. During the first
three years of the regime, security was almost entirely in the hands of
Vietnamese secret police, because former members of Pol Pot’s hated
nokorbal (security service) were not allowed to serve the new govern-
ment. The Vietnamese left a distinctly Stalinist stamp on those they
trained. AI was also critical of the CGDK for abuse of human rights in
the camps under its control.
Perhaps the PRK’s greatest abuse of human rights began in
1982–83, when the regime launched the ambitious K5 Plan in the prep-
aration for the huge 1984–85 dry season offensive against the Khmers
Rouges. Under the K5 blueprint, the regime moved to seal off the border
with Thailand with a great line of forts, ditches and dikes, walls, fences
and minefields. Although Khmer People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces
(KPRAF) personnel and Vietnamese soldiers worked on the fortifications, the regime also conscripted some 50 000 civilian labourers.
Indifferent food and poor sanitation, combined with heavy manual work,
cost the lives of thousands of these civilians. By way of comparison,
the loss of life was much greater than on the construction of the French
pleasure centre at Bokor during the 1920s, which had been deservedly

condemned for its inhumanity. K5 and the following offensive could be
rated a military success, but it was deeply unpopular and cost the PRK
a great deal of support among those it claimed to serve. However, we
should not forget that it was the continuing support for Pol Pot by
China, the West and ASEAN (and in particular Thailand) that necessitated the fortifications in the first place.
Nor was there anything new about the PRK’s methods. As Michael
Vickery has pointed out, ‘For the rural 80–90 per cent of the Cambodian people, arbitrary justice, sudden violent death, [and] political
oppression . . . were common facts of life long before the war and revolution of the 1970s.’ The French had subjected the peasants to onerous
taxation and brutally repressed them when they protested in 1916, and
Sihanouk and Lon Nol had drowned the Samlaut rebellion in blood.
Oppression is still part of the lives of the Khmer peasantry.
The eclipse of the ‘Khmer Viet Minh’ veterans
In general, however, the PRK was nowhere near as repressive as its
DK predecessor, and nor was it guilty of deliberate mass murder. Nor
was the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party swept by the bloody
purges that had bled DK. For all that, however, it was a rigid Marxist-Leninist party modelled on the Vietnamese party and, more distantly,
on the Communist Party of the USSR. Two curious incidents underline the party’s Stalinist organisational methods and the domination
of Hanoi over it during this period: the sacking of Prime Minister Pen
Sovann in late 1981, and the death of his successor, Chan Si, in Moscow
in 1984. Both men were former ‘Khmer Viet Minh’ and while more
committed to socialist policies than the Hun Sen-Heng Samrin wing
of the KPRP, they were also more nationalist-minded and inclined to
be critical of the Vietnamese. This was ironic, given the fact that they
had trained in Vietnam during their long exile after 1954.
Pen Sovann from all accounts was a sincere and competent albeit
prickly man, an idealist who had devoted his life to the communist
cause. One day, he simply disappeared from public view. This Khmer
prime minister was incarcerated in a Vietnamese prison for a number
of years and thereafter placed under house arrest in Hanoi. In total, he
was deprived of his liberty and exiled to a foreign land for ten years
without charge or trial. When Khmer civil servants asked why his
portrait had disappeared from office walls, they were told not to ask,
with dark hints of the consequences of persisting. The Vietnamese
initially told Kong Korm, the PRK ambassador to Hanoi, that the prime
minister was ill. Pen Sovann had become a ‘non-person’ in a nightmare
that might have been dreamed up by Franz Kafka. When he pushed for
explanations for his arrest, none were forthcoming; privately he was
only told that he was well aware of why he was being punished. There
would be interrogation, but no trial. The words of the historian David
Burman about the fate of European heretics under the Inquisition also
fit Pen Sovann’s case perfectly:
The prisoner . . . was kept in ignorance of the reasons
behind his arrest and imprisonment . . . There was no
precise charge, and therefore little possibility of making a
plausible defence . . . He was required to confess to a crime
that he attempted desperately to imagine . . .
The difference is that finally the Catholic Inquisitors would inform their
victims of the charges against them—Pen Sovann was never told. His
‘crime’ would appear to have been that he was too independent-minded,
a communist ‘heretic’ whose views were coming into conflict with the
party line decided by the Politburo in Hanoi. The Vietnamese would
no longer tolerate what Gottesman has called the ‘steely autonomy’ of
Pen Sovann to advocate policies of economic nationalism and resistance to Vietnamese immigration. The fact that Pen was arrested by
the Vietnamese and imprisoned in Vietnam cuts across any theory that
he might have fallen victim to an anti-Vietnamese push within the
KPRP. On the other hand, perhaps the Vietnamese had already
concluded (as they had done in the days of the old Indochinese Communist Party back in the 1930s) that Cambodia was not ripe for socialism,
and that idealistic communists such as Pen Sovann had to be removed
from office. The truth of the matter awaits the opening of the state
archives by some future Vietnamese Gorbachev, although the prospect
is a distant one.
Chan Si, who succeeded Pen Sovann as prime minister, was also
a competent and well-educated man, albeit considerably more ‘mild
mannered and accommodating’ than his predecessor. However, he too
demonstrated a capacity for independence of thought, most notably by
his refusal to cooperate in the K5 Plan described above. Although he
appears to have been in good health, Chan Si was suddenly struck down
by a mysterious illness during a trip to Moscow. He was cremated after
a full state funeral in Phnom Penh and publicly the regime mourned
his loss. Years later, following his release from prison in Vietnam, Pen
Sovann told the Cambodia Daily that Chan Si had been murdered on
Hun Sen’s orders. The opposition politician Sam Rainsy repeated the
charge and Pen Sovann subsequently published a book (in Khmer)
detailing his claims. It is difficult to imagine how Pen Sovann could
have known the details of Chan Si’s death as he was in prison at Hanoi
at the time, and unless fresh evidence emerges the official explanation
of his death will have to stand.
Chan Si’s death was certainly fortuitous for the party pragmatists
and former Khmers Rouges, however. By 1985, power had fallen largely
into the hands of the Hun Sen wing of the KPRP, and their pragmatic
policies prevailed over the Khmer Viet Minh’s socialism. The remain-
ing Khmer Viet Minh cadres were eased from their positions and replaced
with former Khmers Rouges who Pen Sovann in particular had previously excluded. As Margaret Slocomb has observed, Chan Si’s
death ‘dramatically marked a major turning point in the history of
the PRK and in the revolution itself’. The regime introduced a kind
of perestroika from 1988 (mirroring the Vietnamese party’s doi moi free
market reforms) and the collectivisation project in the countryside
was abandoned. In September 1989, just prior to the fall of the Berlin
Wall and coincident with the final withdrawal of Vietnamese troops,
the PRK changed its name to the more neutral-sounding State of
Cambodia (SOC). The KPRP renamed itself as the Cambodian People’s
Party (CPP) and dropped its socialist aims and ideology. It had simply
given up on the socialist project in the face of overwhelming domestic
and international pressures and the seductions of power. However, by
this stage the regime had also demonstrated that it was no longer the
mere Vietnamese puppet that its detractors had claimed.
Momentous changes in international relations
These internal ideological shifts mirrored momentous international
changes, which in turn impacted on Cambodian politics. The 1979
Vietnamese invasion had coincided with an intensification of the Cold
War, which saw US President Ronald Reagan wage an implacable—
and successful—struggle against what he saw as the ‘evil empire’ of the
USSR. The Soviet Union became bogged down in a hopeless war against
US-backed Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan, while at the same time
its economy and society stagnated under an increasingly sclerotic bureaucracy and the debilitating strain of the arms race. By the end of the decade
the pressures were so great that the Soviet Union began to crack, despite
the best efforts of President Mikhail Gorbachev to preserve it by his
reformist policies of perestroika and glasnost. The year 1989 saw the fall
of the Berlin Wall and the ‘velvet revolution’ in Czechoslovakia, with
the Soviet President refusing to intervene to save the Eastern European
communist regimes. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed
and the Cold War was over.
The same period had also seen a gradual thaw in relations between
China and the USSR and an increasing willingness by a more pragmatic, post-Maoist Chinese leadership to embrace the capitalist world.
The fall of communism in Eastern Europe also jolted them into the
realisation that regardless of Stalinist dogma, they could not assume
that their own regime was permanent. Finally, with the Cold War over,
US (and ASEAN) intransigence towards Vietnam and the PRK/SOC
made little sense. This general thaw in international politics provided
the opportunity for a negotiated solution to the hitherto intractable
problem of Cambodia.
The process was also assisted by the staged withdrawal of Viet-
namese troops from Cambodia, begun in 1982 and completed in 1989.
Although the CGDK and its backers initially claimed these were little
more than troop rotations, the assertion wore thin in the face of the
evidence. It was also increasingly apparent to the outside world that
the PRK was no longer a Vietnamese puppet and had established itself
as an effective government. This was underlined when, despite wide-spread fears that the PRK/SOC might not be able to prevent the return
of the Khmers Rouges after the Vietnamese withdrawal, the Cambodian army was able to keep them at bay for the best part of four years
before the arrival of UN peacekeeping forces. The regime had also
boosted food production and re-established the basic infrastructure
destroyed during the years of war and revolution.
Increasingly, too, it was difficult to justify support for the embarrassing Pol Pot. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had once
tried to sidestep awkward questions about DK’s murderous history by
claiming that there were both good Khmers Rouges and bad, and the
United States maintained the fiction that its support for the CGDK
did not mean support for Pol Pot. But such claims were untenable and
increasingly unacceptable to world opinion. In 1986 the Australian
Foreign Minister Bill Hayden said what many others were thinking
when he called publicly for the trial of the Khmers Rouges leaders by
an international tribunal. Any close ideological affinity the Chinese
had once shared with Pol Pot was finished, with Beijing’s new leadership turning their backs on the violent ultra-leftism of Mao’s time in
favour of market reforms and integration into the world economy.
By the late 1980s the ASEAN countries and Thailand in particular had begun to warm towards both Vietnam and the PRK as it
became apparent that they had no plans (or capacity) to export revolution to the rest of the region. In short, after the Vietnamese withdrawal
and the end of the Cold War, China, the West and ASEAN had little
to gain from their continued support of the Pol Pot dominated CGDK,
and much more to gain from embracing Hun Sen. On the other side,
Gorbachev had everything to gain by moderation and the Vietnamese
were preoccupied with rebuilding their own weakened economy and
seeking rapprochement with their neighbours.
Prince Sihanouk, whose political antennae were always finely
tuned, was also aware of the implications of these changes and began
to distance himself from his unsavoury coalition partner, Pol Pot. In
fact, Sihanouk had proposed direct talks with the PRK in Paris as early
as August 1984, but the plan had failed because of vehement Chinese
opposition. The following year the PRK announced its willingness to
talk with the coalition, providing that the Khmers Rouges were
excluded. Some years later, Sihanouk admitted that DK’s aggression had
triggered the Vietnamese invasion and said that Hun Sen was 80 per
cent good and 20 per cent bad: ‘he is my son, a bad boy but not so
bad!’ Perhaps it had finally dawned on Sihanouk that his alliance with
the Khmers Rouges had been a major strategic error, even if he never
seems to have considered the ethical problem of consorting with mass
murderers over a period of two decades. With the lessening of Cold War
tensions and improved relationships between China, the USSR and
Vietnam, Sihanouk saw Pol Pot as expendable. In July 1987, Sihanouk
proposed talks between all the parties, with no pre-conditions, although
the proposal failed because all parties did set conditions.
Two years later, as Gary Klintworth observes, the final withdrawal
of Vietnamese troops presented the UN, ASEAN, China and the United
States with a fait accompli. At a stroke, it also removed any credibility
from Sihanouk’s claims that the PRK/SOC was illegitimate. Now, it
served no one’s interests save the Khmers Rouges to continue the
conflict and on 23 October 1991, following some skilful diplomacy, all
four of the Cambodian factions signed an agreement in Paris that
allowed for free elections to be supervised by the United Nations. Pol
Pot was unhappy with the arrangement, but his Chinese mentors had
effectively abandoned him and he had no option but to go through the
motions. From now on, he would be a dangerous nuisance but not a
contender for power. From March 1992, the United Nations Tran-
sitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) would oversee the country’s
affairs, and the factions would cooperate in the Supreme National
Council under Sihanouk’s presidency to ensure the continuation of
Cambodian sovereignty.
The loathing and contempt felt by most Cambodians for the
Khmers Rouges was underlined by the humiliation of Khieu Samphan
when he flew in from Thailand in November 1992 to organise the
Khmers Rouges’ election campaign. Although there appears to have
been some orchestration of events by Hun Sen, the spontaneous outrage
of the people cannot be denied. Khieu Samphan was almost hanged
from a ceiling fan in front of French journalists before scurrying igno-
miniously to the airport under CPP military guard, his bleeding head
hastily bandaged in a pair of Y-fronts, jeered at by all who saw him.
A balance sheet of the PRK
Margaret Slocomb has argued that although the PRK failed as a revolutionary socialist regime, it did largely keep faith with the promises
made by Heng Samrin at Snoul back in December 1978. The first point
is indisputable, but the latter is true only up to a point, for the democracy Heng Samrin promised never eventuated. However, the PRK had
rebuilt the country under conditions of great difficulty. There were, once
again, schools and hospitals, functioning public transport, banks and
currency, some industry and a revitalised agricultural sector. Moreover,
even after the final withdrawal of Vietnamese troops in September 1989,
the KPRAF soldiers were able to keep the Khmers Rouges at bay for
the best part of four years until the arrival of UNTAC troops. In the
end, the PRK/SOC leaders had cooperated with other factions and the
United Nations to bring peace and security back to the country. While
not highly popular, neither was the PRK unpopular, Slocomb argues.
As long as it allowed people to piece together their shattered lives
without too much interference, they would bow before it. This, after
all, has been the pattern of life in Cambodia throughout the centuries,
whether the rulers were kings or colonial administrators.
Most Khmers had accepted the PRK and the Vietnamese as the
only way to keep Pol Pot out, but this does not mean that they supported
the original Marxist-Leninist aims of the government. This is summed
up in the words of a Khmer civil servant quoted by the University of
Kentucky’s Thomas Clayton, a writer on Cambodian affairs: ‘At that
time [January 1979], we were as if submerged under water. Someone
came to us and held out a stick for us. We did not think at that time
about who was holding the stick. We only knew that we needed to grasp
the stick or we would die.’ It is a fair comment.
Although the most pressing reason for the Vietnamese invasion
was to eliminate the Pol Pot regime as a menace to Vietnam’s own se-
curity, it nevertheless did liberate the Cambodian people from an
atrocious regime. Although it is possible that the regime might have
collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence and the debili-
tating effects of the purges, it is more likely that the country would
have reverted to anarchic barbarism under petty regional despots. One
is entitled to be sceptical of the claim of an anti-Vietnamese student,
cited by Evan Gottesman, that ‘Really, they [the Vietnamese] came here
to kill people and take our property’.
For all their manipulation of Cambodian affairs, the Vietnamese
government did its best to provide economic and humanitarian aid that
it could scarcely afford. The war in Cambodia cost Hanoi dearly and
was deeply unpopular with the Vietnamese people. Up to 50 per cent
of Vietnam’s budget was spent on the military during the occupation
and this colossal drain turned their own war-damaged country into an
economic basket case. Vietnam and the PRK were shunned as international pariahs while Pol Pot’s sinister entourage basked in the sun of
international recognition. The tragedy is that it took 13 weary years
before the ‘international community’ could agree on a solution to a
problem they were largely responsible for creating in the first place.
A final spasm of violence
Despite the diplomatic breakthrough in Paris that ushered in the
UNTAC mission, Cambodia’s problems were far from over. The last
days of the PRK/SOC regime saw an explosion of political violence
against students and other critics of widespread corruption and the lack
of human rights in the country. Between 17 and 21 December 1991,
Phnom Penh students staged a number of demonstrations against official
corruption, during which at least ten people were killed and dozens
wounded when security forces opened fire with live ammunition. Armed
police also stormed into the Phnom Penh university medical faculty to
disperse students who had not been involved in the street demon-
strations. One student told the Australian observer Helen Jarvis that,
‘This was a police manifestation [demonstration] not a student manifestation.’ An undisclosed number of students were held without charge
or trial or contact with friends or relatives.
Foreign Minister Nor Namhong announced on television that the
demonstrations amounted to ‘an armed insurrection with a political
aim’ and hinted at Khmers Rouges involvement. There was a plot by
‘armed elements’ to ‘create instability for the government’ and to
‘prevent the implementation of the Paris peace accord’, he fumed.
Human rights agencies denied his claims and a special United Nations
rapporteur agreed, noting that ‘Reportedly, none of the demonstrators
. . . had been equipped with firearms, nor had any of those killed used
Molotov cocktails.’ Amnesty International reported that ‘eyewitnesses
reported no firing on the police’ and asked the government to release
prisoners who were held ‘solely for the peaceful expression of their
opinions’. Although Hun Sen vowed to prevent Cambodia from becoming an ‘anarchic’ and ‘lawless country’, his government failed to
fully investigate the incidents and took no legal action against members
of the security forces for their murderous rampage.
Shortly afterwards, Tea Bun Long, a leading civil servant and
scathing critic of corruption, was kidnapped in broad daylight outside
his house and murdered on the outskirts of the city. Tea had been especially critical of the role of National Assembly president, the
ex-Khmer Rouge Chea Sim. One week later another government critic,
a former government minister called Ung Phan, was shot outside his
home, but recovered from his wounds after seeking refuge at Hun Sen’s
house. Both Tea Bun Long and Ung Phan had been involved in discussions to set up a new political party and indeed Ung Phan had only
recently been released from prison for the ‘crime’ of trying to set up such
a party. The journalist Nate Thayer, a long-time observer of Cambodian affairs, wrote in Far Eastern Economic Review that ‘Long’s killing
was ordered by a powerful faction inside the government which is afraid
of losing power in the liberalised political situation brought about by
UN intervention . . .’. In March 1992, according to Human Rights
Watch, another former political prisoner named Yang Horn was savagely
assaulted ‘shortly after being summoned with Ung Phang to an
encounter with his former jailers who warned both not to engage in
political activity’.
The PRK/SOC, which had done much to rebuild the country after
the death and destruction of the Pol Pot years, thus departed from the
historical stage with a final shameful blot on its record. Ruthless and
astute, Hun Sen was determined to hang on to power despite the
changed political circumstances that the UNTAC operation would
bring. This final spasm of officially condoned violence presaged episodes
of much greater violence that were to come and was in depressing counterpoint to the solemn declarations of the Cambodian political factions
to respect democracy and human rights.
In many former Soviet bloc countries, the old ruling communist
parties were either eclipsed or reinvented themselves politically and
made a genuine commitment to play by the rules of democracy
and pluralism. This did not happen in Cambodia. The Khmer People’s
Revolutionary Party, rebadged as the Cambodian People’s Party, was
determined to maintain its monopoly of power. Evan Gottesman has
expressed this succinctly:
No Berlin Wall fell in Cambodia. No Vaclav Havel or Lech
Walesa came to power. The regime did not collapse; it
negotiated the terms of its survival. Impoverished and
isolated, the SOC understood that it needed legitimacy
and assistance from the United Nations and the West. This
meant complying with the expectations of the international
community, when necessary, and protecting power in undemocratic and frequently violent ways, when possible.
Part of the price was the abandonment of the party’s socialist ideology,
and therefore its apparent raison d’être. Nor did the party reinvent itself
as a social democratic party, with a residual commitment to social justice.
From now on its imperatives would be those of power and wealth, devoid
of egalitarian concerns, and backed up by its control of the country’s
‘prisons and bodies of armed men’ inherited from the PRK.
The arrival of UNTAC in 1992 marked another painful transition
for Cambodia. Unlike previous UN missions in other countries, which
had concentrated on policing ceasefires and disarming the combatants, UNTAC’s task was multi-dimensional. The UN Security Council
charged UNTAC with peacekeeping, but added new duties which
included the arrangement and supervision of national elections and the
‘civic, economic, humanitarian and political reconstruction of the
country’. It was a difficult order and although UNTAC did manage to
run what was perhaps the freest election in Cambodian history, in other
respects the intervention was less successful. As Amalia Branczik of the
University of Colorado has observed:
Of two billion dollars spent on the UNTAC mission in
Cambodia, most was spent on UN staff salaries (an estimated 118.5 million dollars) and travel costs (62 million
dollars). Almost 9000 new vehicles were purchased at a
cost of approximately 81 million dollars, and all senior
UN bureaucrats were given a daily hardship allowance of
145 dollars to supplement their salaries. At the time, the
average annual income in Cambodia was 130 dollars.
The 1993 elections
The UNTAC-sponsored elections were held in May 1993 and boycotted
by Pol Pot’s faction, which also launched military attacks on SOC
forces and threatened to kill people who voted. They also refused to
allow UNTAC personnel into their zones. These difficulties were
compounded by widespread political violence and intimidation by the
parties that participated, especially Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s
Party (CPP), which made full use of its ‘coercive state power’ against
its opponents. Twenty parties contested the polls, the four most
important being Son Sann’s KPNLF; a CGDK partner reinvented
as the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party (BLDP) under the direction
of an old Lon Nol general, Sak Sutsakhan; Hun Sen’s CPP; and the
royalist FUNCINPEC, headed by Sihanouk’s son Prince Ranariddh.
Just over four million valid votes were cast, in spite of the Khmers
Rouges’ threats. The UN and most independent observers agreed that
the election had been free and fair in spite of attempts at intimidation,
although the CPP immediately disputed this. No party gained an
absolute majority, but FUNCINPEC secured the largest vote, of
45.47 per cent. The CPP gathered 38.23 per cent and the other parties
managed 12.59 per cent between them. This translated into 58 seats
for FUNCINPEC, 51 for the CPP, 10 for the BLDP and 1 for the small
Moulinaka party. As the largest party, it was possible for FUNCINPEC
to form a minority government, but this would hardly have made for
stable government in the face of the mutual hostility of the other parties.
Clearly, it was necessary to form a coalition but this was difficult,
given that the BLDP were the political descendents of Sihanouk’s old
enemies Son Ngoc Thanh and Lon Nol. They were also the enemies
of the CPP. They had coexisted out of necessity with FUNCINPEC and
the Khmers Rouges inside the border coalition, but now had no reason
to act with forbearance. With the Khmers Rouges rampaging in the
countryside and the CPP disputing the election count, there was a clear
danger that the country might revert to civil war.
For his part, Norodom Sihanouk saw the opportunity to regain
the position he had held prior to the Lon Nol coup as unelected head
of government as well as chief of state. He had behaved very errati-
cally during the UNTAC period. He was often out of the country and
he blew hot and cold in his attitude to UNTAC itself. After the elections he announced that he would head up a coalition government,
acting as president of council of ministers and commander-in-chief of
the armed forces despite the fact that he hadn’t been elected to anything.
Surprisingly, Prince Ranariddh, the FUNCINPEC leader, rejected the
plan, leaving Sihanouk sputtering about ‘disobedience’, which was some-
what rich as he had behaved with all his old deviousness in playing Hun
Sen and his son off against one another. As it turned out, it was the
last chance that Sihanouk would have to regain his old supremacy and
impose a Sangkum-type solution on the country. Henceforth, back on
the throne as King Sihanouk, he would play a largely ceremonial role
in a regime dominated by Hun Sen until his retirement in favour of
another son, Sihamoni, in October 2004. ‘Sihanoukism’ was dead,
although the king remained popular.
A bizarre compromise
The crisis was resolved when the CPP and FUNCINPEC agreed to share
power in a new provisional government that became the Royal National
Government of Cambodia on 29 October 1993, leaving the BLDP out
in the cold. There was a curious twist to this coalition. In what was
perhaps a world-first achievement, Ranariddh became First Prime Minister and Hun Sen Second Prime Minister. Despite the ranking, it was
clear who really held the power in this arrangement. As Mao Zedong
had once observed, ‘power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ and in
Cambodia in 1993, the CPP dominated the country’s police and armed
forces. The veteran New York Times journalist Henry Kamm noted crisply
in his book Cambodia: Report from a Stricken Land that ‘UNTAC, pleased
with its successful elections, offered no objections to the perversion of
their result.’ Other observers mused that the peacekeepers had lost more
soldiers to AIDS than to hostile fire. To be fair, one wonders what they
could have done about Hun Sen’s manoeuvres, short of waging war and
plunging the country into a new abyss of chaos and destruction.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
The Khmer political scientist Sorpong Peou believes that the post-UNTAC period marked the beginning of the ‘slow death’ of the
democratisation process that UNTAC was supposed to have begun.
Henry Kamm was more forthright, declaring that a ‘clique of thugs’
ran the country, caring nothing for the Cambodian people, most of
whom lived in misery as they had always done. Immediately after the
elections, the new finance minister Sam Rainsy went on an international
tour, seeking to boost donations of foreign aid to his country. Yet, as
Daniel Ten Kate noted in the Cambodia Daily at the time, ‘While appealing for money abroad, the new government voted to increase their
salaries tenfold. Policemen earned an average of [US] $9 to $12 a month.
Soldiers netted a maximum of $13. Now legislators would take home
$650 every month.’ The country was also sliding into the same kinds
of official corruption that had marked the Sihanouk and Lon Nol
regimes, a case of what the French call plus ça change, plus c’est la même
chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Sam
Rainsy, who has a reputation as Cambodia’s ‘Mr Clean’, denounced
the rampant corruption and was expelled from FUNCINPEC and from
the National Assembly for his temerity, with the full support of Hun
Sen’s CPP, without even a vote.
The coalition government also slid easily into the same old patterns
of authoritarianism that had characterised previous regimes. Although
the new period had seen a blossoming of independent media (from
around 14 newspapers before 1993 to 51 after 1994), the government
often clamped down heavily on its critics. It should be noted that Prince
Ranariddh, well schooled by his dictatorial father, was no more enamoured of press freedom and freedom of speech in general than his CPP
‘Second Prime Minister’ Hun Sen. For Ranariddh, like many authoritarian Asian leaders with their rhetoric of ‘Asian values’, democracy
equated with economic development, and he had no understanding of
the essential links between successful development and full political
and civil rights in a flourishing civil society (a theme developed by the
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in his book Development and Freedom).
In November 1994, the anti-government Khmer Ideal was
suspended from publication for caricaturing Hun Sen and Ranariddh
as ‘dogs’; intemperate language to be sure, but something that would
be accepted as part of the political cut and thrust in a free society. The
following year, the paper was closed down on the orders of the Phnom
Penh municipal court and the publisher fined US$4000 for describing
Hun Sen and Ranariddh as ‘greedy dictators’. Human rights organis-
ations slammed the presence of heavily armed riot police in the
courtroom. In April of the same year Michael Hayes, the American
editor of the English-language Phnom Penh Post, was charged with ‘mis-information’ following publication of a number of articles critical of the
government. Although King Sihanouk assured Hayes of a pardon,
Khmer journalists were not so lucky. Many were imprisoned or fined for
speaking out against government policies, and four journalists paid with
their lives for their outspoken criticism during the first few years of
the new regime. The most notorious case was that of Thun Bun Ly, the
39-year-old editor of the Khmer Ideal, who was gunned down by unidentified assassins as he travelled to work one morning in 1996. Armed
police blocked the route of his funeral cortège at Phnom Penh’s
Independence Monument, yet in previous years they had done nothing
to prevent mobs from sacking the offices of opposition newspapers.
Although Hun Sen had previously warned against allowing the
country to fall back into anarchy, the security forces were often the
worst abusers of the rule of law. There were persistent reports of police
routinely abusing their power, especially in Battambang province where
the Special Intelligence Battalion carried out rape and torture. The
country’s problems were compounded at that time by the Khmers Rouges
insurgency, which made large sections of the countryside unsafe
for travel, although there was little likelihood of them ever returning
to power.
Hun Sen emerges as the undisputed ‘strongman’
Meanwhile, relations between FUNCINPEC and its CPP coalition
partner deteriorated, with both parties correctly suspecting the other of
trying to stitch up deals with factions of the Khmers Rouges. From 1996
onwards, there were massive defections from the guerrillas. Ieng Sary,
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan made their peace with the government, and the Khmers Rouges were reduced to a small rump under
Son Sen and Pol Pot in the Dangrek Mountains near Anlong Venh on
the Thai border. David Roberts, in his book about 1990s Cambodia,
quotes Hun Sen’s candid comments on Ranariddh: we do not ‘hug and
kiss each other, we do not love each other. In fact, we barely speak.
We do not have regular scheduled meetings because we have little to
discuss.’ The writer William Shawcross described Hun Sen in an article
which appeared in the 14 November 1996 New York Review as ‘an
increasingly dangerous psychotic’ who had shown that he would not
stop at violence to get his way.
A showdown was looming, and it was clear which side would
prevail. Hun Sen had the military muscle, in contrast to Ranariddh’s
ineffectual forces. In July 1997, the calm of a Phnom Penh morning was
rent by the clanking of tanks and heavy gunfire. Hun Sen had launched
a bloody coup against his coalition partner. Fighting raged for the next
two days, although the conclusion was never in doubt as the FUNCINPEC forces were outnumbered and outgunned. Dozens of people
were killed and many hundreds more wounded in the gun battles in the
capital’s streets. Ranariddh fled and a number of his leading associates
Hun Sen in 2002. (Courtesy Newspix)
were executed, some after torture, and others were ‘shot while trying
to escape’. The CPP troops engaged in an orgy of looting, stripping the
airport buildings at Pochentong, raiding factories and even hospitals,
and making off with their booty tied atop tanks.
Disputes still continue as to whether Hun Sen’s actions constituted a coup d’état. From the CPP point of view, they had staged a
pre-emptive strike to prevent a looming merger between FUNCINPEC
and the main body of Khmers Rouges who had been their CGDK partners for over a decade on the Thai borders. There is some evidence to
support this claim. Whatever interpretation one favours, Hun Sen had
emerged triumphant as the country’s most powerful figure. King
Sihanouk was a figurehead, the royalist party was weakened, and the
following year Pol Pot died peacefully in a remote village after being
tried by the remnant of the Khmers Rouges for ordering the execution
of his lieutenant, Son Sen. Cambodia was now ruled effectively by a
dictator, a ‘strongman’ whom the US scholar Stephen Heder had once
described as ‘both a competent political administrator and a ruthless
political criminal’.
The astute Hun Sen was aware that force alone does not legitimise a regime. Despite its corruption and abuse of human rights (the
latter documented in Amnesty International’s annual reports and
the publications of Human Rights Watch and Citizens for Public Justice
etc.), the regime maintained a populist façade, claiming to care for the
poor who made up the overwhelming bulk of the population. In fact,
a study by the UN Development Programme published in March 2003
indicates that poverty has become much worse under Hun Sen, and the
rate of infant mortality rose from 79 deaths per 1000 in 1987 (under
the PRK) to 95 per 1000 in 2000. Trade unionists—including women
textile workers who attempt to organise to improve their standards of
living and conditions of work—have been brutally repressed and/or
subjected to officially condoned private violence.
In 1998, however, Hun Sen surprised his critics by announcing
that the country would hold fresh elections for the National Assembly.
The elections, which were held on 26 July, were supervised by a team
of international observers from the European Union, ASEAN and
NGOs, all of whom, to FUNCINPEC’s chagrin, proclaimed them to
have been free and fair in the main. The result was a clear victory for
the CPP, although it fell short of the two-thirds majority necessary under
the constitution for it to govern in its own right. As a result, the CPP
formed a new coalition with FUNCINPEC, which accepted some junior
The following year saw Hun Sen win another important political
victory when his country was accepted as a member of ASEAN. The
CPP’s pre-eminence was reconfirmed in July 2003, when the party again
won a majority of votes, and is unlikely to be challenged in the near
future. As summed up in The Economist at that time, the CPP has
more powerful electoral assets than brute force: more money
than the opposition, a more effective party machine,
the administration’s power of patronage and control of
the media. The opposition parties’ many flaws are also
an asset to Mr Hun Sen. Prince Ranariddh . . . offers little
effective leadership [and] his party’s popularity has slipped.
The magazine also pointed out that while Sam Rainsy is a courageous
voice against corruption in what he calls a mafia state, ‘his autocratic
style as leader of the party that bears his name alienates allies almost
as fast as he recruits them’.
Nor has the government displayed much interest in coming to
terms with the horrors of the DK years, either through trials or via a
‘truth and reconciliation’ process as in post-apartheid South Africa. The
PRK, it is true, made the S21 torture centre at Tuol Sleng into a ‘museum
of the genocide’, but there has been little progress in bringing the top
Khmers Rouges leaders to trial. Indeed, at the time of writing, only
two of the worst leaders have been indicted: Ta Mok, the one-legged
former commander of the DK’s South-west Zone, and Duch, the school-master-turned-torturer who ran Tuol Sleng. Pol Pot and Son Sen are
dead and although the Cambodian government came to an agreement
with the United Nations in May 2005 to set up a tribunal to try the
other former leaders, it remains to be seen whether this will happen.
Hun Sen does have a valid point when he complains of Western
hypocrisy. It is true that many of the countries that now call for indict-
ment were happy to recognise the legitimacy of the Khmers Rouges
when it suited their own purposes. However, this does not justify Hun
Sen’s refusal to proceed against the remaining DK leadership, of whom
Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea live in comfortable retire-
ment in Cambodia, protected by the government. Nor can there be any
justification for Hun Sen’s refusal to accept a United Nations proposal
for an international trial, rather than a trial overseen by the notoriously
corrupt pro-CPP Cambodian judiciary.
Today, Cambodia remains one of the poorest nations on earth. Between
one third and one half of its 13 million people live in abject poverty
on less than US$1 per day, and the numbers rise every year. Fifty per
cent of the country’s children under five are underweight. Corruption
scares off foreign investment and the country’s rate of economic growth
has slumped, with the World Bank predicting that it could fall to less
than 2.5 per cent in 2005. The estimated per capita GNP was US$280
in 2002. The country relies heavily on foreign aid donations, which
make up some 50 per cent of its budget, yet the US Agency for International Development estimates that corrupt officials siphon off up
to US$500 million per year. Michael Hayes of the Phnom Penh Post
says that ‘Corruption is there up and down the chain of command, from
the top to the bottom’, adding that ‘Hun Sen has to start with his own
party members for a start.’ Indeed, he has to start tackling corruption
even closer to home, as many observers believe that his own family
members and cronies are involved in illegal logging scams that cost
the country dearly both financially and ecologically. Certainly, as the
environmental NGO Global Witness has shown, the government has
permitted widespread illegal logging and has threatened whistleblowers
with imprisonment. Chea Vanath, of the Centre for Social Develop-
ment in Phnom Penh, says, ‘Corruption is across the board and
the more poor you are, the more you are affected by corruption. The
poor who depend on the health sector, the education sector and rural
administration are among those [worst] hit.’ Cambodia, as much as post-
communist Russia, fully deserves to be known as a kleptocracy, a country
ruled by thieves.
In the past, landlessness was never a problem of the same magni-
tude as it was in neighbouring countries. The old crown land system
allowed those who farmed the land to live on it indefinitely and the
French cadastral laws granted land titles to those who could prove continued use of it. The upheavals of the 1970s and collectivist experiments
meant that many peasants and even city-dwellers cannot now produce
proof of ownership and they are liable to be expelled from their land and
homes by ruthless officials and developers. Any tourist who walks the
Phnom Penh streets at dawn cannot but notice the country people who
have drifted to the city in the hope of finding work, waiting for contractors to hire them. For most, this consists of dangerous and underpaid
casual work on construction sites, or as cyclo (bicycle taxi or rickshaw)
drivers. Women often have little choice but to turn to prostitution, or
are shanghaied into sex slavery by criminal gangs.
Prostitution—including child prostitution—is a major social
problem in Cambodia. There are an estimated 60 000 to 80 000 prostitutes in the country, one third of them below the age of 17. In one
survey, 70 per cent of children interviewed in the vicinity of Angkor
said that Westerners had approached them for sex. Given the poverty
of the country, it is not surprising that many accept. In the capital,
parents can sell their 12-year-old girls to a brothel for between US$300
and $1000, a vast sum in a country where much of the population lives
on less than a dollar a day. Although Western sex tourism is a problem
in Cambodia (much of it involving children), most brothel customers
are Khmer men. Some young men in Phnom Penh have made a sport
of gang rape (bauk, or ‘plus’ in Khmer) and they clearly regard their
victims as less than human. Such attitudes are perhaps inevitable in a
society traumatised by decades of war and suffering. As the writer Raoul
Jenner has lamented, Cambodia has become ‘a society governed entirely
by the strongest’, in which ‘the price placed on a human life is less
than that placed on a motorbike’.
The psychological damage and emotional trauma of the past casts
a long shadow and manifests itself in anomie or social breakdown, a loss
of values, greed, selfishness, violence and crime. Prostitution in turn is
the main cause of the country’s HIV/AIDS pandemic, with the main
route of transmission from male clients to their regular partners. AIDS
accounted for over 17 000 deaths in Cambodia in 2002 and the prevalence rate is around 2.6 per cent for adults, though perhaps considerably
higher. Between 170 000 and 280 000 people in the 0 to 49 age range
are infected. However, cooperation between Cambodian health authorities and NGOs in condom awareness programs has at least led to a
decline in HIV infection rates from 42.6 per cent in 1998 to 28.8 per
cent in 2002 among female brothel-based prostitutes. This modest
success is one bright spot in a country fraught with enormous problems.
Widespread ecological damage
In Chapter 3, the idea was discussed that ecological devastation might
have contributed to the decline of Angkor, a theory closely associated
with Bernard-Philippe Groslier and Roland Fletcher. Those we might
term ‘social archaeologists’ believe that logging on the watersheds north
of Angkor led to erosion, silting and other environmental problems
that disturbed the delicate ecology of the complicated anthropogenic
wetland that was Angkor. Today, Cambodia is once again facing a major
ecological crisis as illegal logging and pollution threaten the country’s
primary natural system, the Mekong River and the Great Lake. The
annual floods of the Mekong, which back up into the lake, allow the
world’s fourth largest catch of freshwater fish and provide work for over
a million people. The fish form the largest single source of protein for
the Cambodian population. It is also estimated that up to 80 per cent
of the rice production in the lower Mekong basin depends on the river’s
annual floods.
Much of the wildlife has abandoned the Great Lake or died. Birds
are relatively scarce, reminding us of the legend of the kingfishers, and
the once ubiquitous crocodiles have almost vanished. Not all of this is
Cambodia’s fault, but stems in part from a series of dams and irrigation
schemes built far upstream in China’s Yunnan province and on some
of the Mekong’s tributaries in Vietnam. These projects have led to at
least a 12 per cent decrease in river levels since the works began and
erratic flows that disrupt fishing and agriculture along the banks.
What of the future?
Unfortunately, the world has largely forgotten about Cambodia since the
UNTAC period. There have been other crises and other conflicts to
absorb the world’s attentions: wars in the Middle East, the Asian tsunami,
genocides in Africa and the Balkans, terrorist attacks in the heartlands
of the Western world, and the threat of global warming to name just a
few since UNTAC pulled out and left the Cambodians to their own
devices. Cambodia, too, is a small country without appreciable supplies
of vital raw materials such as oil that might bring it to the centre of world
attention. One trusts that the Cambodian proverb srok khmer moun de
soun (the country of the Khmers will never die) will prove true.
Looking back over the past quarter of a century (let alone the
earlier Dark Age that beset Cambodia in the first half of the 19th
century) it is difficult to imagine that anything worse could befall the
Khmers. Cambodia has staggered from crisis to crisis since 1970 and in
the absence of a developed civil society there is little check on the arrogance of government and the corruption of the administration. With
entrenched rulers primarily interested in their own power and wealth,
there seems little prospect of change in the near future.
On the other hand, as Gottesman points out, ‘There are many
indications of a budding civil society’, including a number of human
rights organisations, ecological organisations and other NGOs that
maintain offices in Phnom Penh and regional centres. In a way, for
Cambodia to have survived is itself a triumph, but there is no guaran-
tee that it will not become a failed state, as was a real possibility before
the establishment of the French protectorate in the 19th century.
However, those readers who hope for remedies to social problems and
forecasts of what might be will be disappointed. We might do worse
than remember the social historian Roy Porter’s wise words at the
conclusion of his book on London, where he warns against Cassandras
and oracles:
The temptation at the conclusion of a volume like this is to offer either a blueprint for . . . regeneration or a funeral oration . . . Historians, however, make rotten physicians, worse nplanners and appalling prophets. I shall therefore resist the temptation to offer diagnoses and prescriptions.

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