Episode 92: The Second Indochina War, Part 19



Today the podcast looks at the first half of the Cambodian Civil War, the phase of the Second Indochina War in Cambodia, from 1970 to 1972.  Also, if you like educational podcasts besides this one, you won’t want to miss a conference coming up on June 27, 2020!  Details about that are given at the end of this episode.




This episode is dedicated to Torsten J., and Russell I., for making donations to the podcast.  I never know when donations will come in, but they are always appreciated.  Where I live, summer is about to begin, so thank you for starting the season on a positive note.  Also, I am getting ready to take part in the 2020 Intelligent Speech Conference, eleven days from the time I record this.  Listen to the end of the episode to hear more about that.  May your summer be a happy, healthy and prosperous one, wherever you happen to be.  And now let’s begin the show.

Episode 92: The Second Indochina War, Part 19

or, The Cambodian Civil War

Greetings, dear listeners, and as I have been saying lately, I hope you’re all safe, happy and healthy!   If you’re listening to this sometime after 2020, you should be all right, unless the year you are in has found a way to act even crazier than 2020.  At the point when I am recording this, I think I will remember 2020 as the strangest year of my life.  And I’m not young; I have already seen quite a bit of wild stuff pass under the bridge.  So far in this year, we have had a war scare with Iran, Australia on fire, the Trump impeachment, the death of basketball star Kobe Bryant, rumors that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was dead, the Corona virus pandemic, the quarantine and economic crash caused by the pandemic, murder hornets, riots in American cities, and where I live, an out-of-season freeze.  What next, will a monster like Godzilla come out of the sea?  Or will aliens come out of the sky and show themselves, proving once and for all that UFOs are real?  If only we could bring back the guy who used to do the ShamWow commercials; then every two weeks he would say, “But wait!  There’s more!”  If you are in the future and have access to a time machine, take my advice: DO NOT go to 2020!

But I’m not recording this to tell you about my troubles.  I’m here to give you your latest installment of Southeast Asian history, which for the previous eighteen episodes meant I was talking about the Second Indochina War.  If you’re American, you remember that conflict as the Vietnam War, or if you’re Vietnamese, you remember it as the American War.  In the latest episode, I set the stage for the phase of the war in Cambodia, by covering Cambodian history from 1953 to 1970.  You can call that both a catchup episode and a table-setting episode.  We saw the King and head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, play a balancing act to keep the country neutral, and to keep the right-wing and left-wing factions from becoming too strong.  If you want to compare Sihanouk with a juggler, in the 1950s and early 60s he managed to keep all the balls in the air, but afterwards his balancing act failed.  In a left-leaning moment, he allowed the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong into the country; then, when the communists became a threat to him, he invited the Americans in, and looked the other way when they began bombing raids.  Because of these flip-flops, he managed to alienate both the political Right and the Left.  That led to the so-called 1970 Coup, where the National Assembly voted on March 18 to remove Sihanouk as head of state.  In place of the monarchy came a right-wing government, which renamed Cambodia the Khmer Republic.  Lon Nol, the former commander of the armed forces and Sihanouk’s most recent prime minister, became the new Number One person in charge.  I broke off the episode there, just before the Cambodian war began.

Podcast footnote:  I was wrong when I said last time that the National Assembly voted unanimously to get rid of Sihanouk.  One of my sources, the Time-Life book “Fighting For Time,” by Samuel Lipsman and Edward Doyle, said that the vote was 86-3.  With a lopsided result like that, though, the vote might as well have been unanimous.  End footnote.

Finally, I introduced the Cambodian communist movement, which was only a small group of revolutionaries until 1970.  Like the Pathet Lao in Laos, they initially tended to follow the lead of North Vietnam, but in the 1960s the Soviet Union and Red China were not getting along anymore, so when a second generation of Cambodian communists appeared, led by the mysterious Pol Pot, they distrusted both the Soviets and the Vietnamese, and aligned themselves with the Chinese instead.  By the end of the 1960s they had been given a name by Sihanouk which everyone would use from here on – the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmers.”  Sihanouk opposed them at first, but after he was ousted from power he fled to China, where he was persuaded to join the Khmer Rouge as its symbolic leader.

All right, the stage is set for the war.  If you want more details, go back to Episode 91 and listen to it again.  Or if you haven’t listened to Episode 91 yet, listen to it anyway, and then come back here.  I prefer to start stories from the beginning.

All right, you’re back.  Good.  Now we can resume the narrative.  Roll-em, boys!



Initially, opinions on Sihanouk and his ouster depended on whether a Cambodian lived in the country or in the city.  We noted in the previous episode that Cambodia’s peasants still saw him as a god-king, like Jayavarman VII and the other ancient kings of Angkor, while those people in the cities, who had enjoyed a modern education, knew that other countries had different governments, and thus didn’t think Sihanouk was so great.  As a result, the urban population approved of the 1970 coup.  So did the military, because they wanted a share of the money and equipment the Americans were dumping on Thailand and South Vietnam.  The peasants, however, demanded that Sihanouk be reinstated.

From China, Sihanouk made a public appeal on March 23 for Cambodians to revolt against the government.  This sparked some demonstrations and riots.  The worst unrest happened in the city of Kampong Cham, where the governor’s palace was stormed and several officials, including two National Assembly deputies, were killed by the crowd.  Lon Nol sent his youngest brother, Lon Nil, to Kampong Cham to monitor the situation, because Lon Nil owned some rubber plantations around there.  But shortly after he left the local airport, Lon Nil was attacked by a mob of workers from a rubber plantation, and beaten to death in the town marketplace.  But that wasn’t all they did to Lon Nil; the mob also tore out his liver, took it to a Chinese restaurant, and had it cooked, sliced and served to them, and they ate it.

<Ewww!  That’s disgusting!>

Next, around 40,000 peasants began to march on the capital; they were dispersed, with many casualties, by units of the armed forces.  At this point, the Cambodian army had 30,000 poorly-equipped men, so Lon Nol called for 10,000 volunteers to enlist.  The response was enthusiastic; soon the military was swamped with more than 70,000 recruits.

Now we have some new acronyms to learn, that were coined at the beginning of the war.  These are confusing, so I won’t expect you to get them all right, the first time you hear them.  The Cambodian government troops were renamed the Khmer National Armed Forces.  In French this is Forces Armées Nationales Khmères, and the initials are F-A-N-K, or FANK.

On the other side, Sihanouk first called his government-in-exile the National United Front of Kampuchea.  In French this is Front uni national du Kampuchéa, and the initials are F-U-N-K, or  FUNK.  Sihanouk felt Lon Nol had betrayed him, and said, quote, "I had chosen not to be with either the Americans or the communists, because I considered that there were two dangers, American imperialism and Asian communism.  It was Lon Nol who obliged me to choose between them."  Unquote.

The North Vietnamese premier, Pham Van Dong, flew to Beijing when he heard that Sihanouk was there, and he did most of the persuading to make Sihanouk join the communists.  Pol Pot was also visiting Beijing at the time, but he and Sihanouk did not meet each other.  On May 5, the coalition Sihanouk led was given a new name: GRUNK, G-R-U-N-K.  This stands for the Gouvernement royal d’union nationale du Kampuchéa, Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea in English.  So there are the acronyms for you.  FANK for Lon Nol’s army, and either FUNK or GRUNK for Sihanouk’s government.  Got that?

Sihanouk appointed one of his most loyal supporters, Penn Nouth, to be his new prime minister.  All the other posts in the coalition government went to the Khmer Rouge.  I mentioned a few key members of the Khmer Rouge in the previous episode, and here are the positions they got.  Khieu Samphan became deputy prime minister, minister of defense, and commander in chief of the GRUNK armed forces, though the actual military operations were directed by Pol Pot.  Hu Nim became minister of information, and Hou Yuon got several responsibilities as minister of the interior, communal reforms, and cooperatives.  Ieng Sary handled diplomacy, so you can call him the foreign minister if you like.  Pol Pot took no official position; he would remain invisible to everyone outside the Khmer Rouge.  After this, the communists who weren’t in Cambodia returned.  As for Sihanouk, during the Cambodian Civil War the prince was only in Cambodia once; in early 1973 he visited the quote-unquote "liberated areas" of the country, including Angkor Wat.  The rest of the time, he stayed in either Beijing, China, or Pyongyang, North Korea.

For the Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk was most useful as a recruiter.  His call for a revolt against the Lon Nol government motivated many peasants to join the Khmer Rouge.  So did widespread bombardment by American planes, and Sihanouk’s field trip to Cambodia.  Between 1970 and 1973, the size of the Khmer Rouge force grew from 6,000 to 50,000 regular troops.  There were also twice as many irregular fighters, waging a guerrilla war against the government.

As you can see from the numbers I quoted, the government started out with an advantage, and for the whole war, the government had more soldiers than the Khmer Rouge did.  But bigger is not always better, and the government army, FANK, was always outclassed in training and leadership.
  All the way to the end, they had too many recruits to train.  Indeed, the United States trained 86 of the battalions for them, approximately 43,000 men, in South Vietnam; that program ended in 1973, when the Vietnam cease-fire agreement ended active American involvement in the war.  And the FANK troops faced not only the Khmer Rouge but also PAVN, the army of North Vietnam, and the NLF, better known as the Viet Cong; all three of those opponents were tough and rigidly indoctrinated.  To compound the problems of FANK, families followed their soldier-Dads into battle zones, and pre-teen children were enlisted.  Finally, the officers leading FANK were corrupt, incompetent, and had little military experience.  Many of the soldiers, and even some entire units, existed only on paper.  Commanding officers got in the habit of exaggerating the number of the troops they had, so they could pocket the pay of the non-existent troops.  Also, the sale of arms and ammunition on the black market (or to the enemy) was commonplace, and as with South Vietnam, much of the aid sent from the United States was stolen.  Thus, while individual soldiers and some government units fought bravely, they were always at a disadvantage.  Near the end of the war, in 1974 and 1975, FANK claimed to have 250,000 men, but the real number was probably 180,000, due to desertions and payroll padding by the officers.

At the war’s onset, the Khmer Rouge were based in Ratanakiri and Stung Treng, the two provinces in the northeast corner of the country.  Their remote location meant that government control over those provinces was always weak, and because they were on the border of both Vietnam and Laos, the North Vietnamese had access.  Seventeen to twenty-one minority tribes live here; some are related to the Khmers, and others are descended from the Chams, the people from the ancient kingdom of Champa, in present-day central Vietnam.  City-dwelling Cambodians collectively call the tribes Khmer Loeu, meaning upland Khmers.  Even today, the tribes keep to themselves; they have no political unit larger than the village, and are underrepresented in the Cambodian government.  Pol Pot had lived in this area since 1963, and he was inspired by the primitive lifestyle of the Khmer Loeu; no modern state or organized religion bothered them.  Because of that, his ultimate goal would be to make sure all Cambodians lived the same way as the Khmer Loeu did; we will see in a future episode how that turned out!


It was the North Vietnamese who made the first military move.  The Number Two man in the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, went to the North Vietnamese and asked for help in fighting Cambodia’s new government.  The North Vietnamese did not want a pro-US Cambodia threatening them, and they trusted Nuon Chea more than the other senior Khmer Rouge leaders, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, so they negotiated the terms of North Vietnamese intervention with him.  The North Vietnamese invasion was launched on March 29, 1970.  Their main goal was to protect the military camps they already had in Cambodia, along the South Vietnamese border.  For that reason, they also moved the camps from border areas to locations deep in Cambodian territory.  The Viet Cong headquarters was moved as well.  In previous episodes I mentioned that one of the American objectives in Vietnam was to capture the Viet Cong headquarters, which was called the Central Office for South Vietnam, or COSVN.  The Americans failed to even locate the COSVN, because the Viet Cong had moved their headquarters to Cambodia for safekeeping.  Now when the communist offensive captured Kratié, a provincial capital in eastern Cambodia, the Viet Cong established a new command center there.

One consequence of the North Vietnamese invasion was that the Cambodian people turned against the 400,000 ethnic Vietnamese living in the country.  Lon Nol thought he could use the Vietnamese as hostages against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong activities, and the military began to round them up for the detention camps.  But now that the locations of the detainees were known, Khmer civilians, with the aid of soldiers, came and killed the Vietnamese.  On April 15, 800 Vietnamese men were executed at the village of Churi Changwar, and their bodies were dumped into the Mekong, where they floated into South Vietnam.  One of the most disturbing parts of the affair was that no Cambodians – not even the Buddhist clergy – denounced the killings.  Lon Nol issued an apology to the South Vietnamese government, while explaining that the massacre was likely to happen under any circumstances.  Quote:  "It was difficult to distinguish between Vietnamese citizens who were Viet Cong and those who were not.  So it is quite normal that the reaction of Cambodian troops, who feel themselves betrayed, is difficult to control."  End quote.

Of course, with communists openly on the offensive in Cambodia, it wouldn’t be long before the Americans got involved as well.  To make sure US intervention would happen, Lon Nol requested military aid from the United States on April 14.  On April 29, 1970, nearly 59,000 South Vietnamese soldiers crossed the border into Cambodia.  They were joined two days later, on May 1, by 50,000 American soldiers.  Their goals were to defeat the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in Cambodia, which then numbered 40,000, and capture or destroy their bases near the border, including COSVN, the Viet Cong headquarters.  The Allies were also thinking of the “Vietnamization” program, in which the Americans were turning the responsibilities of fighting the war over to ARVN, the South Vietnamese army; success here would make the case that Vietnamization was working.  During the next three months, the US Army and ARVN conducted thirteen major operations.  Together they captured and destroyed large amounts of enemy supplies, but the communists had already moved most of their materiel to their new campsites in Cambodia’s interior.  And again, they did not find the Viet Cong headquarters.  What’s more, they did not prevent the overrunning of Cambodian army positions by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units.  Nor were there any big battles, because the North Vietnamese evaded their opponents.

Speaking of which, by the end of June 1970, three months after the North Vietnamese invasion began, the communists had swept FANK from the entire northeastern third of the country.  In other areas, important cities like Kampong Cham had been isolated, and North Vietnamese forces got within fifteen miles of Phnom Penh, the national capital, before they were turned back.  After they took an area, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would turn it over to the Khmer Rouge.  Meanwhile in the south and southwest, the Khmer Rouge were able to capture some parts of the countryside by themselves.  Later on, when the Khmer Rouge no longer got along with any Vietnamese faction, they would be reluctant to admit they had help at this stage, but it is clear that without North Vietnamese and Viet Cong assistance, the war would have dragged on much longer than it did.

We saw in Episodes 89 and 91 that American bombing missions had been carried out over Cambodia since the spring of 1969.  However, they had been limited to targets within 30 miles of the South Vietnamese border.  Since the enemy wasn’t camped in that zone anymore, the original operation, Operation Menu, was ended, and on May 19, Operation Freedom Deal took its place.  Now targets anywhere in the eastern half of Cambodia were fair game, and the operation would continue until August 1973.

Eventually the Americans and South Vietnamese declared their joint campaign a success, and the Americans withdrew from Cambodia by July 22.  However, the South Vietnamese stayed behind, to help Cambodian government forces.  South Vietnamese casualties were 809 dead, 3,486 wounded, while American casualties were 338 dead, 1,525 wounded.  Communist casualties were reported at 12,354 dead, 1,177 captured, but these figures were disputed by the CIA, who claimed that the total included dead civilians as well as combatants.  As with the firefights in Vietnam, the Americans proclaimed  victory because there were more casualties on the other side, and because of all the supplies they captured.  US President Richard Nixon called the campaign, quote, "the most successful military operation of the entire war."  Unquote.  General Creighton Abrams, the commander of American forces in Vietnam, agreed, saying that the incursion had bought time for the pacification of the South Vietnamese countryside.  As he put it, now US and ARVN forces would not have to worry about any attack from Cambodia during 1971 and 1972, and a “decent interval" had been obtained for the final American withdrawal from Vietnam.  However, one South Vietnamese brigadier general, Tran Dinh Tho, was more skeptical.  After the war he wrote, quote, "Despite its spectacular results…it must be recognized that the Cambodian incursion proved, in the long run, to pose little more than a temporary disruption of North Vietnam’s march toward domination of all of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam."  End quote.

The end result of the Cambodian incursion was a tactical victory for the United States and South Vietnam, but a strategic victory for North Vietnam and its allies.  While the communists had lost some firefights, their losses in men and supplies could be replaced, and in the long run their plans had not been disrupted – only the timeline had been set back.  With the Americans on the way out, there would be another day for their opponents.  Over in the United States, the Cambodian incursion led to a new round of social unrest, with events like the Kent State massacre.  Opponents of the war said the United States was going the wrong way, spreading the war to another country instead of getting out of Vietnam.  Expect to hear more about the protests in the next episode.


The North Vietnamese advance slowed down in July 1970, and halted in August; this was the rainy season on the Southeast Asian mainland, after all.  At this point, the government army command had a plan of their own.  If they could take back large areas of rice-growing land, it would be a big morale-booster for the army.  The operation was named Operation Chenla; later it would be called Operation Chenla I because a second operation like it was launched later.  Long-time listeners will remember that Chenla was the name of the first Khmer state, that existed from 550 to 795 A.D.; we covered it in Episode 7 of this podcast.  For this operation, FANK committed a dozen infantry battalions, supported by armor and artillery; there would also be limited ground and air support from ARVN and the South Vietnamese Air Force.

Operation Chenla I began in late August.  Government forces first converged on Route 6, catching the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong by surprise; by early September, they had driven the enemy away from both the road and the rice paddies around Kampong Cham.  Then, while resettling refugees and raising a local militia to defend the retaken area, they set out to clear Route 7, between the towns of Skoun and Kampong Thom.  However, they could not keep the liberated stretch of Route 6 open for long, and counter-attacks by the North Vietnamese 9th Division along Route 7, in the last months of 1970, meant that the only community recovered there was the village of Tang Kauk.

Operation Chenla I had to be called off because on the night of January 21 and 22, 1971, about a hundred North Vietnamese commandos sneaked through the defense perimeter surrounding Phnom Penh’s airport, Pochentong Airbase.  They succeeded in destroying almost all of the Khmer Republic’s air force on the ground, including all the MIG fighters.  Other raids at the same time were made on the naval base at Phnom Penh, and on several villages near the capital.  Lon Nol responded by extending the current “State of Emergency” for another six months, and recalled some Cambodian Army units from Tang Kauk to protect Phnom Penh.  On February 8, Lon Nol, who wasn’t in very good health to begin with, suffered a serious stroke and was flown to a hospital in Hawaii.  He spent the next two months recuperating abroad, while Prince Sirik Matak ran the show as acting prime minister.  Even after he returned, Lon Nol was often seen in a wheelchair.

Podcast footnote: Lon Nol is the only head of state I can think of whose name is a palindrome.  Whether you spell Lon Nol forward or backward, the name looks the same.  End footnote.

When Lon Nol returned to Phnom Penh on April 12, 1971, he had another plan to take the offensive against the enemy.  Called Operation Chenla II, it would reopen Route 6 and secure the road between Kampong Cham and the isolated garrison at Kampong Thom.  By summer, the Cambodian army numbered more than 100,000 men, and generous US aid had replaced the destroyed planes of the air force with up-to-date aircraft.  This time ten infantry battalions were organized into three brigade groups, again supported by armor and artillery and the US Air Force; they were going against two North Vietnamese divisions believed to be in central Cambodia.

Operation Chenla II was launched on August 20, 1971, and again the communists were taken by surprise.  Over the next fifteen days, all of Route 6 was reopened.  But during the rest of September and early October, as the FANK units tried to consolidate their new gains, they came under attack from enemy guerrilla units.  The men grew tired, and casualties were heavy; that caused morale to slip.  Moreover, they could not find any large North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces, to engage in a set-piece battle.  Lon Nol decided they had been destroyed by US air raids, so on October 25 he declared that the first phase of Operation Chenla II was completed, and it had been a big  success.  Next he proclaimed two days of celebration, which included beer and opium for the troops.  Afterwards the plan was to carry out the second phase of Chenla II: pacification of the civilian population.  However, the troops were now too drunk or too stoned to worry about the civilians, who like the enemy forces, were nowhere to be found.

When the North Vietnamese evacuated the area around Route 6, they took the local civilians with them.  They struck back on the night of October 26-27, while the government-proclaimed holiday was going on.  Sappers blew up the main bridge connecting Route 6 with Phnom Penh, making it impossible for FANK forces to retreat in that direction, or to be reinforced from there.  And the rest of the 9th PAVN Division launched an all-out assault on Route 6 from a rubber plantation, catching the FANK troops quite unprepared.  The FANK units were cut to pieces, and their command post at Rumlong fell on November 13.  After that, the other government army outposts were taken one by one.  With the capture of the last one on December 3, Operation Chenla II came to an end.  No doubt about it, Chenla II was a decisive communist victory.  A general on the government side, Sak Sutsakhan, said this about the casualties.  Quote: “There was never an exact count, but the estimate was on the order of ten battalions of personnel and equipment lost plus the equipment of an additional ten battalions.”  Unquote.  On the other side, Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan boasted, quote, “Of about 20,000 Lon Nol troops thrown into this operation, we killed, wounded or captured over 12,000.  Not a single battalion escaped without severe losses.”  Unquote.  For the rest of the war, the Cambodian government concentrated its efforts on defending the cities and the lower Mekong River

Over the course of 1972, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong pulled out of Cambodia.  Their troops were more needed back in Vietnam, because of campaigns like the 1972 spring offensive.  The South Vietnamese withdrew for the same reason; they needed to defend themselves from North Vietnamese attacks.  Thus, from 1973 onward, the Khmer Rouge fought on their own.


So what ideas did the Lon Nol regime have for 1972, besides defense?  They decided to take back Cambodia’s most important national symbol, Angkor Wat, which the Communists had captured in June 1970.  This complex, covering 72 acres, had been undergoing restoration work, led by a French archaeologist, at the time of the capture.  During the next year and a half, there had been a few stray shell hits, and the communists chiseled off some of the temple carvings and sold them on foreign art markets, to finance their other activities, but otherwise both sides had left the ruins alone.  But then in January 1972 the French archaeologist was expelled, and his Cambodian workers were arrested; 20 were executed, quote, “for providing information to the Central Intelligence Agency.”  Unquote.

Operation Angkor Chey, meaning “Operation Angkor Victory,” got started on January 29, 1972, with skirmishes on the road between the ruins and Siem Reap, the nearest town.  Advancing slowly, government units reached the dikes and moat marking the boundary of the Angkor Wat temple, but then on February 21, their advance stalled.  Another attempt was made in May, after FANK received intelligence that the Khmer Rouge units in the Angkor ruins were leaving.  During the night of May 17-18, Angkor Chey troops slipped in and after a brief firefight, captured the Phnom Bakheng temple, but when they approached Angkor Wat the following night, communist cross-fire decimated them, and heavy fire from trenches and concrete bunkers forced them back.  Cambodian and American planes dropped napalm and high explosives as close as 600 feet from the grand temple, taking out two former tourist hotels about half a mile to the south, but the end result of the fighting was another stalemate.

By now attention had shifted to the other side of the country, to the stretch of the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and the South Vietnamese border, and to Route 5, the main road in the same area.  Prey Veng, the capital of the province in the area, and Neak Luong, a ferry-crossing town, were both shelled on March 20.  This was followed by a bombardment of Phnom Penh itself, and more attacks on Prey Veng and Neak Luong that took place all through April.  Five FANK battalions were hastily pulled out of a US training camp in South Vietnam to hold onto the Mekong corridor, which now provided the only access to Phnom Penh by land or water that did not go through communist-controlled areas.  On the coast, where the Cambodian-South Vietnamese border meets the sea, FANK and ARVN forces defended the town of Kampong Trach, but the 1st North Vietnamese Division managed to take it on April 30; that gave the communists a Cambodian seaport.

Podcast footnote:  During the war, refugees crowded into Phnom Penh, until the capital’s population tripled, going from half a million in 1965 to one and a half million near the war’s end in 1975.  Incredibly, for most of the war, life in Phnom Penh went on as usual.  Even luxury goods remained available for those who could afford them.  End footnote.

Meanwhile in the capital, political reforms were the order of the day.  In March 1972 the National Assembly was renamed the Constituent Assembly, and on April 30 it approved a revised constitution.  On June 4 came a round of ballot box stuffing that was called an election, and Lon Nol, who previously held the positions of prime minister and defense minister, was elected president with 55 percent of the vote.  Lon Nol’s political party, the Socio-Republican Party, won all the seats in the Constituent Assembly as well.  Seeing these results and the political factionalism that followed, General Sutsakhan stated, quote:  "The seeds of democratization, which had been thrown into the wind with such goodwill by the Khmer leaders, returned for the Khmer Republic nothing but a poor harvest."  Unquote.  One example of the factionalism involved Prince Sirik Matak; other senior members of the government didn’t want to work alongside a member of the royal family.  During the rest of the year, the prince’s power was gradually undermined by Lon Nol’s brother, Lon Non; he resigned after Lon Non organized a series of demonstrations against him, and he was kept under effective house arrest for several months after that.

Podcast footnote: I mentioned earlier that the Khmer Republic had a problem with corruption for all of its existence.  Lon Non was the most corrupt of its leaders, and the way he gathered both money and power reminds me of Ngo Dinh Nhu, the brother of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.  If you don’t remember Nhu, go listen to Episode 73 of this podcast again.  End footnote.

June saw two more rocket attacks launched on Phnom Penh, and two elite FANK battalions near Neak Luong were ambushed on June 25; of the 600 troops attacked in the ambush, only thirteen made it back to friendly lines.  In response, Operation Sorya I, a joint FANK-ARVN action, was launched on July 4.  Here the objectives were to clear Route 1, the highway running between Phnom Penh and Saigon, and to seize Kampong Trabek, a town on Route 1.  They succeeded in taking Kampong Trabek on July 24, but on August 6, elements of two North Vietnamese divisions struck in that area.  Leading this drive were tanks, the first time North Vietnamese tanks had been used in Cambodia; they severed Route 1 and isolated five battalions on it.

FANK and ARVN followed up Operation Sorya I with Operation Sorya II, to rescue the trapped battalions and to finish clearing Route 1.  This got underway on August 11, and ARVN units reached the battalions ten days later.  But the highway remained cut off to the east, and the communists retook Kampong Trabek on September 8, even though reinforcements arrived from Phnom Penh, led by the president’s brother, Lon Non.  October 7 saw 100 or so North Vietnamese commandos take advantage of a Buddhist festival to sneak into the capital and wreak havok, destroying a bridge and wrecking seven armored personnel carriers with plastic explosive, among other things.  There was a six-hour firefight when government forces caught up with them, which damaged the nearby French Embassy.  After it was over, FANK admitted 23 of its own dead to the enemy’s 83.


We are up to the end of 1972, and have run out of time for today.  I think I will cover the Cambodian events of 1973 and 1974 in the same episode that covers events in Vietnam in those years.  When cease-fire agreements were signed for Vietnam and Laos, the Khmer Rouge controlled between 50 and 60 percent of Cambodian territory.  What happens now?  Will the cease-fires inspire the Cambodian factions to make peace, too?  We will get to that eventually, but first we should go back to Vietnam and see what was happening there, while the Cambodian Civil War was raging.  Join me for that!

And while you’re at it, consider making a donation to the podcast, if you can afford to do so.  You can make a one-time donation through Paypal, or a small monthly donation through Patreon.  Go to the page on Blubrry.com hosting this episode, and there you will find links to both Paypal and Patreon.  If you make a Paypal donation, your first name will be added to the Podcast Hall of Fame page, next to Torsten and Russell.  I am thinking of putting all three links, to Paypal, Patreon and the Hall of Fame page, on the podcast’s Facebook page, for those who haven’t seen them yet.  And if you cannot afford to send a donation, you can still help the podcast, by writing a review, liking the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, and by telling your family and friends about the show.  Again, thank you in advance for your support.

Finally, I want to reach out once more and tell you about the Intelligent Speech Conference, which is scheduled for Saturday, June 27, 2020, a little more than a week and a half after I uploaded this episode.  It will be a virtual conference, so you don’t have to travel in real life; just have a broadband Internet connection available.  Here from 10 AM to 6 PM Eastern Time in the US, you will meet 40 podcasters who are doing educational podcasts.  Currently I am scheduled to give a presentation between 3:15 and 3:55 PM Eastern Time; that’s 7:15 to 7:55 PM Universal Time if you are outside the United States.  To hear us all, the admission will only cost ten US dollars if you get your ticket before June 19, after which the cost increases to fifteen US dollars.  Tune in to hear all of us, and here is the trailer one more time:

<Play Roifield’s trailer>

Like I say at the end of each episode, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 91: The Second Indochina War, Part 18



After thirteen episodes about the Second Indochina War in Vietnam, and four episodes about the same war in Laos, it is time for the podcast to shift our attention to Cambodia.  This episode covers Cambodian history from 1953, when independence from France was achieved, to 1970, when the Indochina War spilled across its borders.  The first reign of Norodom Sihanouk is covered, and we meet the Khmer Rouge.


This episode is dedicated to Seamus P. and Louis E., who each made a donation to the podcast.  As with the others who have given in this difficult time, I want to thank you for keeping the lights on here, figuratively speaking.  What’s more, both of you have donated before.  I added Louis’ name to the Podcast Hall of Fame Page with a mention of that.  And since Seamus’ first donation came in last year, he has now received the Coveted Water Buffalo icon next to his name on the page!  To both of you, may the plans you have made for this year work out successfully, no matter what strange event happens next.  And now, if you are ready to begin today’s narrative, so am I.

Episode 91: The Second Indochina War, Part 18

or, Spillover Into Cambodia

Greetings, dear listeners!  You can tell from the title that we are in a long-running series on the Second Indochina War, a conflict better known as the Vietnam War by Americans, and the American War by Vietnamese.  It took twenty episodes to cover World War II in and around Southeast Asia, and now it looks like we will need more episodes than that to finish the Indochina conflicts.  Of the previous episodes, five covered the initial war between local communists and France, the colonial power that claimed all of Indochina, thirteen covered Vietnam between 1955 and 1969, and the other four covered Laos up to 1974.  That leaves one part of Indochina we haven’t talked about lately.  Which country is that?


Did I hear one of you say “Cambodia?”  You go to the head of the class!  In fact, since civilization has existed in Cambodia for at least two thousand years, it is surprising we haven’t said more about the place.  The only episode we had that was just about Cambodia was Episode 7, where we covered the rise and fall of the Angkor Empire, Southeast Asia’s most impressive nation during the Middle Ages.  At the empire’s peak, the Khmers dominated not only Cambodia, but also Laos, and much of present-day Vietnam and Thailand.  Those glory days ended in 1431, when a raid from the Thais sacked Angkor, the glorious Khmer capital.  After that, the two big neighbors of of the Khmers, Siam and Vietnam, put the squeeze on Cambodia.  Both of those powers wanted Cambodia because it contained the lower Mekong River basin, the best place in all of Southeast Asia for growing rice.  Vietnam ended up taking away the Mekong River delta in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so that rich land, which once was part of Cambodia, is now the southernmost part of present-day Vietnam.

Podcast footnote:  In Episode 3, I mentioned that Cambodia’s seaport in ancient times was called Oc Eo.  Then in Episode 19, I gave you the name of Cambodia’s medieval seaport, Prey Nokor.  Both of those ports were taken by the Vietnamese, and Prey Nokor was called Saigon until 1975, when it became Ho Chi Minh City.  That left one deep-water port for Cambodia.  The traditional name of it is Kompong Som, but since the 1950s it has usually been called Sihanoukville.  Whereas the other ports had access to the South China Sea, via the Mekong River delta, Sihanoukville is on the shore of the Gulf of Thailand.  End footnote.

By the nineteenth century, the Khmer kings had to buy off Siam and Vietnam, paying both of them tribute to keep their armies away.  Then the French arrived on the scene in 1863 and declared Cambodia a protectorate of theirs, adding Cambodia to the colony they were building in Vietnam.  Although this sounds bad for the Khmers, it also saved them from being absorbed into either the Vietnamese or the Thai state.  If it wasn’t for the French colonial period, from 1863 to 1953, there might be no Cambodian nation today.  Instead, the Khmers would be one more of Southeast Asia’s many ethnic minorities, living in an expanded Thailand or Vietnam.  You can compare the fate of the Khmers with that of the Chams, who had a kingdom of their own in ancient and medieval times, but now are a minority group of a few hundred thousand people, divided between Vietnam and Cambodia.

The French did not rule Cambodia as harshly as they ruled Vietnam.  Because Cambodia was officially a protectorate, rather than an outright colony, the French allowed the Khmers to have their own king.  However, the French also decided which member of the Cambodian royal family could be king, to keep the territory pacified.  Thus, when the throne became vacant in 1941, the heir to it was a prince named Norodom Suramarit, but the French passed over him and instead crowned Suramarit’s eighteen-year-old son, Norodom Sihanouk, who they figured would be more pliable.  Before World War II there was no nationalist movement like the one that developed in Vietnam, so the French did not launch cruel reprisals against the Khmer people in order to keep themselves in charge.

There were no battles in Cambodia during World War II.  The Khmers found themselves ruled distantly, first by the Vichy French, then by the Japanese.  After the war France regained control, and that was when the first Cambodian nationalists appeared.  The early nationalists can be classified in three groups, according to political ideology: right-wing, left-wing, and monarchist.  The right-wing nationalists called themselves the Khmer Serei, meaning Free Khmer, and they were anti-monarchy, anti-French, and anti-communist, meaning they probably would have set up a Western-style republic if they had gotten the chance.  Many of their members were ethnic Khmers who came not from Cambodia, but from southern Vietnam; they called themselves the Khmer Krom, and besides supporting the platform of the Khmer Serei, they also wanted to return the Mekong delta to Cambodian rule.  The Khmer Serei leader was Son Ngoc Thanh, who had briefly been prime minister in 1945.

In the long run, though, the left-wing nationalists were more important.  They formed a coalition of six groups, which were collectively called first the Khmer Issarak, meaning pro-independence Khmers, and later the United Issarak Front, or UIF.  Four of the six groups were communist, and at least half of the UIF members were monks, showing that the Buddhist clergy favored independence.  Because of the current war in Vietnam between the French and the communist Viet Minh movement, the Viet Minh crossed the border into Cambodia a few times to clash with the French.

Communism in Indochina got started in Vietnam first, so when communist groups appeared in Cambodia, they were founded with Vietnamese help, and like the Pathet Lao, the communist movement in Laos, the early Cambodian communists did whatever the Viet Minh told them to do.  The most important of these groups called itself the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, KPRP for short.  By 1952 they claimed to occupy one sixth of Cambodian territory, and by 1954, they claimed half of it.  I don’t believe these claims myself, because there were no battles in Cambodia as big as the battles in Vietnam or even in Laos, and the number of Cambodian leftists was small – they probably had no more than three thousand members.  For the Geneva peace conference that ended the First Indochina War, the Viet Minh promised the communists in Laos and Cambodia that they would be allowed to participate, but that did not happen, and when the cease-fire agreement was signed, the Cambodian communists got nothing.  Zero, nada, zilch.  As a result, after this the Cambodian communists trusted their Vietnamese backers a lot less, and would eventually break with them completely.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Cambodian people wanted to be ruled by the traditional royal family, so they rooted not for the Khmer Serei or the leftists, but for those nationalists who wanted to keep the monarchy.  Eventually King Sihanouk joined them, and by 1953 he had single-handedly persuaded the French to end the protectorate, thereby restoring Cambodia’s independence.


Okay, that’s a summary of what we have said about Cambodia in past episodes.  If you want more details, I suggest you go back and re-listen to Episodes 34, 64, and 67.  For this episode we are going to cover the years when Sihanouk was first in charge, from 1953 to 1970, and that will bring us to the beginning of the all-out war that broke out in 1970.  Let’s play a bit of Cambodian music, and then begin today’s narrative!


One of my sources summarized Cambodian history as “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

<theme music>

All right, we got the idea!  The good time was the age of the Angkor Empire, which I said was back in Episode 7.  Then the bad time set in, beginning when the empire started its decline in the 13th century, and going on until the mid-twentieth century.  You can call the first decade after French rule ended, 1953 to 1963, another good time, because as we shall soon see, Cambodia was independent and neutral.  After that came another bad time, as Cambodia was sucked into the Second Indochina War.  The years from 1970 to 1993 were definitely ugly; first there was a brutal civil war, then the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, and finally the Third Indochina War between Cambodia and Vietnam.  Cambodia has been making a slow recovery since the ugly time ended.  Both the ugly time and the time of recovery are material for future podcast episodes.

Cambodia’s neutral period was not only a time of peace, but also a time of prosperity.  King Sihanouk made the expansion of education a priority; before independence, there was only one high school in the whole country.  Phnom Penh grew to become a modern capital city, the ancient temples of Angkor became the most popular tourist attraction in Southeast Asia, and Sihanouk played host to the world leaders who came to visit.  For a peek at Cambodia during this time, I recommend you check out the October 1964 issue of National Geographic Magazine; the featured article’s title is Cambodia, Indochina’s Neutral Corner, because it emphasized how Cambodia was peaceful while war raged in neighboring Vietnam and Laos.

Before long, Sihanouk grew concerned that the pomp of royal ceremony was taking up too much of his time, and that the constitution restricted what he could do as king.  Because of this, in March 1955 he abdicated, giving the throne to his passed-over father, Norodom Suramarit.  This was an excellent move, because it showed Sihanouk honored his father, which is always important in Far Eastern countries.  Then he proclaimed himself prime minister, which allowed him to keep most of the political power, while Suramarit now took care of the ceremonial duties that he used to do.  In the tradition of the French Revolution, Sihanouk stopped calling himself the “Royal Crusader,” switching his title to “Citizen Sihanouk,” and vowing he would never return to the throne.

Next, parliamentary elections were held.  Originally scheduled for June 1955, they were postponed until September.  A year earlier, Sihanouk had founded his own political party, which he called the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, meaning the People’s Socialist Community, though there was nothing socialist about it.  When the voting took place, the Sangkum won all 91 seats in the National Assembly.  The leading left-wing party, the Pracheachon Party, got 4 percent of the votes, but no seats were assigned to it.  Naturally it and the other parties claimed there had been voter fraud and intimidation, and Sihanouk admitted to this in 1958.  In that year new elections were held.  Sihanouk published three articles about communism in Cambodia, which emphasized the dependence of Cambodian communists on North Vietnam, a declaration that was sure to make communists look bad in the eyes of the Vietnamese-hating Khmers.  After that it was easy to link the country’s leftist opposition with the communists, and again the Sangkum Party won all the available seats.  It was the same story for the next election, held in 1962; the Sangkum Party won all the seats for a third time.

In 1959 Sieu Heng, the leader of the Cambodian communist party’s rural faction, defected to the government and provided the security forces with the information they needed to destroy as much as 90 percent of that faction.  The leader of the communist networks in the cities, Tou Samouth, now became leader of the whole party, but only a few hundred communists remained active in the country as the 1950s came to an end.

King Norodom Suramarit died in 1960, at the age of 64.  This meant Norodom Sihanouk was technically king again, but instead of taking the throne back, he left it vacant, so the outside world continued to call him Prince Sihanouk.  In 1963, Sihanouk forced the National Assembly to approve a constitutional amendment that made him head of state with no fixed term of office.  This allowed him to continue holding power in a constitutional monarchy, without requiring him to perform the ceremonial duties that would have been expected if he was king.  Thirty more years would pass before he claimed the throne for a second time.


When it came to foreign policy, Sihanouk played a dangerous game to keep his country out of war.  He wanted the United States to pay the cost of his army, because the Americans were already sending military aid to South Vietnam and Thailand, and that would help to defend Cambodia against communism.  But as we have seen, South Vietnam and Thailand were also Cambodia’s historical enemies, and the greatest threat to Cambodia’s existence.  Therefore he declared Cambodia neutral and refused to accept any more US aid.   He also nationalized several industries, including the rice trade.

Sihanouk never could get along with the Khmer Serei movement, because, as we saw, they were anti-monarchist.  Son Ngoc Thanh, the Khmer Serei leader, formed an anti-Sihanouk militia.  From 1956 onward this militia received aid from the US Central Intelligence Agency, since in those days the United States would back any group that declared itself anti-Communist.  In 1961, Sihanouk severed diplomatic relations with Bangkok because of “Thai support” provided to the Khmer Serei.  After that, the militia was only active in the jungles near the Vietnamese border, since Thailand did not support them anymore.  Most of all, Sihanouk was annoyed by Khmer Serei propaganda against him and the royal family, which was broadcast into Cambodia from radio stations in South Vietnam.

Over the course of his rule, Sihanouk may have executed as many as 1,000 Khmer Serei suspects.  The most notorious example came when Preap In, a Khmer Serei activist, offered to go to the National Assembly and negotiate directly with Sihanouk.  Preap In was promised safe passage from Vietnam to Cambodia by his uncle in November 1963.  Instead he was arrested, displayed in a cage at the National Assembly, subjected to a military trial, and shot by a firing squad.  This execution was filmed as a fifteen-minute newsreel, and shown in all Cambodian cinemas for a month, an event which remained in the memories of Cambodians for many years.

The Khmer Serei failed to win over many new members; most Cambodians with a conservative point of view joined the Sangkum Party instead.  In early 1969, five hundred Khmer Serei soldiers based in South Vietnam defected, and joined the Cambodian army.  Today there are two theories on why they did this.  One theory suggests that Son Ngoc Thanh ordered them to infiltrate the armed forces, the other proposes that the CIA sent them to take part in the 1970 coup against Sihanouk.  We will hear more about that shortly.

By May 1965 Sihanouk was convinced that the United States was plotting against him and his family, so he broke diplomatic relations with Washington.  Since Cambodia needed to get along with somebody, Sihanouk looked to the Soviet Union and Communist China for economic and military aid.  Then, to improve relations with North Vietnam, he allowed the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to set up campsites on Cambodian territory, for use in their war against South Vietnam and the United States, and he agreed to let ships from communist countries deliver supplies for those camps at the port of Sihanoukville.  Soon the communists built a network of trails connecting Sihanoukville to their camps and to the Ho Chi Minh Trail; this came to be known as the “Sihanouk Trail.”

Sihanouk’s initial response to the camps and the trails was to simply ignore them.  Pretending that nothing was going on seemed like the best way to avoid antagonizing the North Vietnamese, while at the same time he hoped that the Americans would not expand their military operations beyond Thailand, South Vietnam and Laos.  The way he saw it, someday the groups allied with the People’s Republic of China, and not those with the United States, would win the Indochina War, and that, quote, “our interests are best served by dealing with the camp that one day will dominate the whole of Asia – and coming to terms before its victory – in order to obtain the best terms possible.”  Unquote.

The rapid growth of the communist presence in Cambodia prompted Sihanouk to change his position again.  In 1966 he told his pro-American minister of defense, General Lon Nol, that he had the prince’s permission to crack down on leftist activities, discrediting the left-wing political parties by accusing them of subversion and subservience to Hanoi.  Long-time listeners will remember that Lon Nol had been Sihanouk’s right-hand man in the early 1950s, when he was working to gain independence from the French.  Naturally this alienated Cambodian students, many of whom were educated abroad.  In response, Sihanouk began calling his leftist opponents Khmer Rouge, which is French for “Red Khmers”; that name would stick!


Since I just said the name “Khmer Rouge,” this is a good place to introduce the man who would become its most important leader – Saloth Sar, better known by his nom de guerre, Pol Pot.  Saloth Sar was born in Kampong Thom, a province in central Cambodia, as the eighth of nine children.  My sources give a birth date of May 19, meaning he shared the same birthday with Ho Chi Minh, but they disagree on whether the year of birth was 1925 or 1928 – that shows how mysterious he was.  Although his family lived in a small fishing village, they did well by Cambodian standards.  An older sister was a concubine of King Sisowath Monivong, Sihanouk’s grandfather, and a brother was a court official.  So not only did his siblings earn decent salaries, but the family received gifts from the king’s court.  The family house was one of the largest in the village; they owned fifty acres of rice paddies, and they hired their poor neighbors to help with the planting and harvesting work.

When he was six years old, Saloth Sar was sent to a monastery in Phnom Penh; here he served as a novice monk for eighteen months, learned Buddhist teachings and learned to read and write in the Khmer language.  In 1935, presumably when he was ten, he began to attend a Catholic primary school.  Not being a gifted student, he was held back for two years and finally finished in 1941.  Here he learned about Christianity and how to read in French.  In the same year a new middle school was founded at Kampong Cham, and he became a boarding student there in 1942.  While attending that school, he met Khieu Samphan, born in 1931, and Hu Nim, born in 1932; they would become future partners of his in the Khmer Rouge.  Next, in 1945 he began attending the country’s only high school in Phnom Penh, while living with a married brother.  It was here that he met his future wife, Khieu Ponnary; they would get married in 1956.  Unfortunately he could not stay at the high school long enough to finish, because he failed an exam in 1948, and transferred to a vocational school.  There he met another future associate, a Khmer born in Vietnam named Ieng Sary, and then he secured a scholarship at an engineering school in Paris, which he went to in 1949.

My sources disagree on what Saloth Sar studied in Paris; they suggest he majored in radio electronics, printing and typesetting, or civil engineering.  According to a Jesuit priest, Father François Ponchaud, he also developed a taste for the classics of French literature, especially the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the writings of Karl Marx.  He and Ieng Sary joined the French Communist Party, and with other Cambodian students they formed a Marxist study group, called Le Cercle Marxiste, or the Marxist Circle.  However, he flunked out after failing too many exams, and returned to Cambodia in 1953.  As it turned out, though, that was a plus for his career as a revolutionary; because he didn’t have a degree, nobody could call him an intellectual living in a high tower.

So far Saloth Sar and his classmates had little, if any contact with the handful of communists that were already in Cambodia.  They joined these communists after coming home, but Saloth Sar felt that they were too dependent on the Viet Minh.  From 1956 to 1963, Saloth Sar led a double life.  By day he was a professor at Chamraon Vichea, a private college in Phnom Penh, where he taught French literature and was much liked by his students; by night he plotted to replace the monarchy with a communist government.

Meanwhile, Prince Sihanouk began cracking down on leftist political movements.  Liberals were upset at him because the government was full of corruption, some of it uncomfortably close to the royal family.  In addition, the economic growth since independence had led to extreme wealth inequality; while city dwellers were getting rich, life for the rural population had hardly changed at all.  When the Pracheachon Party’s newspapers attacked Sihanouk in 1959, he immediately shut them down, asserting they were run from Hanoi.  Then in 1962 Sihanouk got rid of the Pracheachon by arresting fifteen of its leaders, and he complained that the communists in northeastern Cambodia had set up a “spy network” directed by North Vietnam.  Also in 1962, the Cambodian communist leader, Tou Samouth, simply disappeared.  He may have been the victim of Sihanouk’s police, but an alternate theory suggests that Saloth Sar, who was now the number three man in the party, had him eliminated.  By 1963 all of the older party members were dead or arrested, allowing Saloth Sar to become the new Khmer Rouge leader.

To avoid being the next communist arrested, Saloth Sar disappeared without a trace.  He changed his name to Pol Pot, which doesn’t mean anything in Cambodian; he just liked the way it sounded.  Next, Pol Pot fled into the jungle, and cut all ties to everyone outside the Khmer Rouge who knew him, so his friends, relatives and students had no idea what happened, and assumed he was dead.  About fifteen years later, they would find out he was the monstrous dictator who had taken over their country, but that’s a subject for a future episode!

Podcast footnote: I was a teacher from 2001 to 2006; I taught a computer course at the largest community college in Orlando, Florida.  During those five years, I only missed three days of classes.  The first time I missed class, I had car trouble; the second time, I had jury duty; the third time, I needed to go on a trip out of town and could not change the date.  Here is what you need to learn from the story of Pol Pot:  if you are a student and your teacher is absent from school quite often, you have a good reason to be concerned!  End footnote.


Despite the suppression of radical dissent, Sihanouk lost the support of Cambodia’s conservatives as well, because of the previously mentioned communist presence in the country, and because of his failure to fix the now-deteriorating economy, caused by the loss of rice exports; much of the country’s rice had been smuggled to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.  Now only the peasants, who saw Sihanouk as a god-king, continued to support him.

One more parliamentary election took place in 1966.  As in the previous elections, the Sangkum Party won all the seats in the National Assembly, but this time, more than one candidate in the party could run for each seat.  A lot of the candidates were not hand-picked by Sihanouk, and many of those didn’t like him.  In fact, Sihanouk publicly spoke out against four candidates, and because Sihanouk’s attacks made them famous, all four won their elections easily.  Through manipulation and harassment (and to Sihanouk’s surprise), 59 of the 82 seats ended up going to conservative members of the party.  Now that they were entrenched, the rightists chose Lon Nol as the next prime minister, and for deputy prime minister, they named Prince Sirik Matak, an ultraconservative cousin of Sihanouk and a long-time enemy of his.  On the other side of the political aisle, three communists, Khieu Samphan, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim, managed to get elected to the National Assembly because they were members of the Sangkum Party, too.

Sihanouk’s political balancing act was coming undone.  One of the first things Lon Nol did as prime minister was to fix the ailing economy, by halting the illegal sale of rice to the communists.  Soldiers were dispatched to the rice-growing areas to collect the harvests at gunpoint, and they paid only the government price, which was far lower than the black market price.  There was unrest, especially in Battambang province.  Battambang is in the northwest, against the border of Thailand; it grows more rice than any other province, and in the 1960s it was home to many large landowners, with a great discrepancy in wealth between these landowners and the local peasants.  On March 11, 1967, while Sihanouk was in France, a rebellion broke out in Samlaut, a district in Battambang, when enraged villagers attacked a rice collection brigade.  By the evening of that day, the villagers defeated guards from two other posts and executed a mayor.  With the probable encouragement of local communists, the insurrection quickly spread to eleven of the country’s eighteen provinces.  Lon Nol, acting in the prince’s absence (but with his approval), responded by declaring martial law.  Hundreds of peasants were killed and whole villages were laid waste in the repression that followed.  One of my sources reported trucks carrying severed heads drove from Battambang to Phnom Penh, so that Lon Nol would know his orders were being followed.

After returning to Cambodia, Sihanouk changed his political position again, deciding that the leftists were now the greatest threat.  He personally ordered the arrest of five leftist deputies, whom he accused of being leaders of the rebellion.  Three were Khmer Rouge members, and two of them, Khieu Samphan and Hou Yuon, immediately escaped, joining Pol Pot in the jungles of the northeast.  The third Khmer Rouge member, Hu Nim, tried to keep his government job, but after repeated warnings from Sihanouk, he also departed by the end of the year.  Sihanouk also ordered the arrest of Chinese middlemen involved in the illegal rice trade; that move raised government revenues and pleased the conservatives.  However, at the end of April Lon Nol resigned.  We don’t know the reason for his resignation, but rumor has it he suffered from some form of injury during the rebellion.  The prince responded to the resignation by appointing new leftists to government positions, to balance the conservatives.

In May and June, the military acted even more brutal, with Royal Cambodian Air Force aircraft bombing villages and jungle hide-outs, while the army burned down villages and massacred their inhabitants.  With that done, Sihanouk declared that the Samlaut Rebellion, also called the Battambang Revolt, was over.

When I was doing the research for this episode, two of my sources claimed that the Cambodian Civil War of the early 1970s began with the 1967 Samlaut Rebellion.  I don’t agree with that assertion, but you can imagine the uprising as a dress rehearsal for the war to come, because Lon Nol led the fighting on one side, and the communists were at least partially involved on the other side.  One tragic consequence of the rebellion is that thousands of peasants escaped the fighting by fleeing into the jungle, where Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were waiting to welcome them as new recruits for the Khmer Rouge.  Another consequence was the peasants were reluctant to support the government afterwards; for them the name of Lon Nol became associated with ruthless repression.


The Khmer Rouge launched several small-scale uprisings in January 1968.  The objective of these was not to gain territory but to capture weapons and spread propaganda, since they did not yet have enough troops to take on government forces – at this time, they numbered between 4,000 and 5,000.  The propaganda campaign won them more recruits, allowing them to launch bigger uprisings in February.  The armed forces managed to crush these uprisings by April.

Of course defeating the rebels would have been easier if the prince had the support of a strong, anti-communist power, so he took a new look at his foreign policy.  His attempts to build good relations with China had been for nothing.  The Chinese were too busy with the Cultural Revolution to take an active role in the outside world at this time; moreover, they did not restrain the North Vietnamese, and they were now the principal backers of the Khmer Rouge.  In a 1967 interview with Stanley Karnow, then a Washington Post Vietnam War correspondent, Sihanouk let it be known that he would grant Americans the right of “hot pursuit” against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in Cambodia–as long as no Cambodians were harmed.  In November 1968 he welcomed Lon Nol back into his cabinet as defense minister.  Then on May 11, 1969, the prince welcomed the restoration of normal diplomatic relations with the US and created a new “Government of National Salvation,“ with Lon Nol as prime minister.

US President Lyndon Johnson was reluctant to spread the war into Cambodia.  The only US troops that went in during his presidency were called “Daniel Boone squads,” covert teams of volunteers and mercenaries, wearing either black peasant pajamas or unidentifiable uniforms, going on intelligence-gathering or sabotage missions.  And no, I don’t think John Kerry was one of them.  During the 2004 US presidential election, the senator who kept reminding us that he was once in Vietnam claimed that Richard Nixon sent him on a secret mission into Cambodia in 1968, which is absurd because Nixon wasn’t president yet.  Anyway, after Nixon succeeded Johnson, Washington became more interested in Cambodia.  The first action by Nixon was a campaign to bomb military targets with B-52 raids; we covered that in Episode 88.  The bombing campaign was called Operation Menu, and it consisted of six small operations, directed against base areas near the Cambodia-South Vietnam border, from March 18, 1969 to May 26, 1970.  The whole operation was kept a tight secret, because the world would be outraged to learn that the Americans were bombing a neutral country.  The North Vietnamese kept quiet about it, too, because if they spoke up, it would be a confession that they had troops involved in illegal activities in Cambodia.

Unfortunately there were some civilians living in the areas targeted by the B-52s, so there must have been civilian casualties from the start.  Although Sihanouk did not approve of any bombing, and North Vietnam did not give aid to the Khmer Rouge between 1967 and 1969, the prince found that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong made convenient scapegoats, because they were a larger, more dangerous force than the Khmer Rouge, and getting them out of Cambodia would solve several problems for both the prince and the Americans.  Therefore he did not break the secret about the bombing, either, and his troops gave the Americans intelligence on the enemy bases.

Sihanouk’s political flip-flops had made him a royal pain in the neck, and one of my sources asserts that he neglected Cambodia’s internal affairs by spending too much time on his hobby – film-making.  In January 1970 the prince visited France for medical treatment, which meant a lengthy stay on the Riviera.  The prince was still away in March, when anti-Vietnamese riots broke out; mobs sacked the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong legations in Phnom Penh, and killed innocent Vietnamese civilians who happened to be living in the country.  Lon Nol had been left in charge, and he decided this was the time to crush the communists.  He closed Sihanoukville to North Vietnamese shipping, and he told the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong that they had 72 hours to get out of the country.  Since they couldn’t possibly comply with this ultimatum, you may consider it a declaration of war from Lon Nol.

What happened next is called the 1970 Cambodia Coup in most history texts, but it wasn’t a coup so much as an impeachment.  There was no fighting in the streets, no executions – the whole affair was bloodless.  On March 18, 1970, the National Assembly voted unanimously to invoke an article of the constitution that let them remove the head of state from office.  Lon Nol remained acting prime minister, his brother Lon Non played a strong role as Minister of Interior, and Sirik Matak was still deputy prime minister.  They kept In Tam, the president of the National Assembly, in that job; In Tam turned out to be the most experienced and politically mature of the senior members in the new, right-wing government.  There have been allegations that the CIA was involved in the coup, but no evidence of that has ever been found.  Still, Washington approved of the results, just as it approved of the coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

The new leaders moved to abolish the monarchy.  They dropped the country’s official name, the Kingdom of Cambodia, and for a few months they called it État au Cambodge, which is French for “State of Cambodia.”  Then in October 1970 they proclaimed the Khmer Republic, which would have a president instead of a monarch as the head of state.  Prince Sihanouk was tried and sentenced to death in absentia, a move which ensured he would not be coming back from his trip anytime soon.  The prince had once seen Bao Dai, the last Vietnamese emperor, languishing in exile in France, and he did not want the same fate for himself.  Confused and hurt, he went to China, and the Chinese and North Vietnamese persuaded him to form a coalition government with his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge, with himself as its figurehead leader.


The stage is now set for the Cambodian phase of the Second Indochina War, also known as the Cambodian Civil War.  Prince Sihanouk, Lon Nol, the Americans and the Khmer Rouge are all in place.  However, we have run out of time today, so that conflict will be covered in the next episode.  You can expect to see the next episode in the middle of June, real-time; join me again then.  Or as Adam West used to say in the old Batman TV series:

<Bat-time clip>

Do you like podcasts?  Of course you do.  If you are listening to this in June 2020, a podcasters’ conference, called the Intelligent Speech Conference, is coming up on June 27.  It is hosted by Roifield Brown, a highly successful podcaster in his own right, and it will be held online, so you don’t need to travel to attend – all you need is a broadband Internet connection.  The format for the discussions is still being worked on as I record this, so here is the trailer promoting it again.  I plan to record one more episode before the conference takes place; expect me to have more details next time.

<Play Roifield’s trailer>

Like every successful history podcast, this one is a labor of love, but it needs money to keep running in cyberspace, too.  If you can afford to support the podcast at this time, please consider making a donation, either a one-time donation through Paypal, or a monthly donation through Patreon.  Go to the page on Blubrry.com hosting this episode, and there you will find links to both Paypal and Patreon.  If you make a Paypal donation, you will have your first name mentioned on the Podcast Hall of Fame page, and at the beginning of the next episode recorded after the donation arrives over here.  Thank you in advance for your support.

And that’s not all you can do to support the show.  You can also write a review, at most of the places where you get your podcasts, and that review can attract new listeners, even years from now.  And on Facebook, I have set up the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, for sharing new episodes and anything related to the show.  The page has gotten several new “Likes” since the last episode; thanks for sharing the love!  And if you are no longer under quarantine from the Corona virus, spread the word, by telling your family, friends, and any history buffs you meet that you listen to the show!  Until we meet again, stay safe, happy and healthy, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!