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.”
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:
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>
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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!