The Road to Khmer Independence

By Kenneth T. So
(In collaboration with Monireak Keo)

Cambodia will be celebrating the anniversary of its independence from France on every November 9 since 1953. This essay will examine the history of Cambodia from the period of Prince Norodom Sihanouk ascension to the throne until the time France granted independence to Cambodia. This essay will examine the roles of important Khmer politicians, princes, and king who helped shape the events in Cambodia during this important period of Khmer history. I am not a historian nor a scholar, but I have a lot of interest in Khmer history. My essay will not please everybody, but it is my duty as a Khmer to interpret, discuss, and analyze the events during the above period in an honest and objective manner.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk was crowned king of Cambodia on 25th April 1941 by the French who had ruled and occupied Cambodia for almost 80 years. The French saw in the young 19 years old king a person they could manipulate to fit their colonial rule.

When Prince Sihanouk became king, the world event was in turmoils. World War II had started, France fell to Nazi Germany and the German army had already entered Paris (June 14, 1940). Even though the French was no longer powerful, they somehow still managed to rule the Khmer nation. Taking advantage on the French weakness, the Japanese government of Emperor Hiro Hito took turn to replace the French, and on 9 March 1945 decided to dissolve the French colonial administration. Ironically, Germany was on the verge of collapse and the French were gaining control of their own country. On 13 March 1945 Norodom Sihanouk, as king of Cambodia, declared independence from France. It was a bold move on the part of the young king because the French could replace him with another Khmer prince if they could regain their colonial rule over Cambodia again. Either King Sihanouk was gambling on this move or he was pressured by the Japanese government to do so. Son Ngoc Thanh who opposed the French and fled to Japan previously, returned to Cambodia and was appointed Foreign Minister.

Japan surrendered to the Allied on 15 August 1945 after the US dropped two atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Soon after the surrender of the Japanese, a new Cambodian government was established with Son Ngoc Thanh as Prime Minister. The French returned to occupy Cambodia in October 1945 and Son Ngoc Thanh was arrested for collaborating with the Japanese and sent into exile in France. He was put under house arrest. Because of the French action, Son Ngoc Thanh's supporters regrouped in the northwestern part of Cambodia, an area that was still under the control of the Thai government, and formed a new movement called the Khmer Issarak. This movement was formed with the Thai encouragement and support.

Khmer citizens got their taste of brief independence from France during the above period, from March to October 1945. Most Khmer people did not realize that the Khmer Issarak was not a homogenous guerilla movement. The movement was composed of people from different backgrounds, political philosophies, agendas, and ethnicities.

The movement included people from the leftist factions, Vietnamese leftists, true Khmer nationalists, Khmers that were anti monarchy, Khmer Serei people that were loyal to Son Ngoc Thanh, opportunists, and just bandits who had no political affiliation but joined the movement just to take advantage of the chaotic situation in Cambodia by terrorizing people in the countryside.

It is erroneous to call the movement Khmer Issarak. The word Khmer in the movement should not be used here because foreign powers were exploiting the Khmer situation for their own political benefits. The Khmer Issarak movement was analogous to the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP) of Heng Samrin after it had been split from Pol Pot that had foreign agents infiltrated into the party. As a matter of fact, some Khmer Issaraks who were members of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) helped found the KPRP in 1951 (The Cambodia Communist Party was founded in 1951. KPRP of Heng Samrin was founded in 1979).

Therefore, it is not correct to call the Khmer Issarak movement a nationalist movement that some historians or scholars contended. Due to the threat of the Khmer Issarak movement, King Norodom Sihanouk negotiated with the French for full independence to neutralize the movement that was gaining in popularity. Khmer people in general did not know that they were exploited by foreign powers under the umbrella of Khmer Issarak movement. It was estimated that the Khmer Issarak with the Viet Minh operating alongside the movement was controlling approximately 50 percent of the Khmer territory. In the meantime, the leftist government in Bangkok was overthrown in 1947.

Due to pressure from the Khmer Issarak, the French agreed to let Khmers form political parties in 1946. Two major parties were formed and both were headed by Khmer princes. Prince Sisowath Yutevong [1], at the age of 33 headed the Democratic Party while his rival, Prince Norodom Norindeth at the age of 40 headed the Liberal Party. The two parties were politically and philosophically different in their approach to solving the Khmer problems.

The Democratic Party was a party that believed in civil liberties and parliamentary democracy modeled after the French Fourth Republic. The party advocated a constitutional monarchical system of government with a popularly elected assembly having legislative and deliberative powers. The party was strongly anti-French in sentiment. The Democratic Party platform was demanding the immediate independence from France and wanted a parliamentary form of government. Their members were composed of intellectuals with such luminary personalities like Prince Yutevong, Son Sann, Chhean Vam, Sim Var, Ieu Koeuss, Huy Kanthoul, just to name a few. Penn Nouth was the counselor to the Democratic Party.

In contrast, the Liberal Party that was founded by Prince Norindeth and Sonn Voeunsai did not attract the professional elite bodies like those of the Democratic Party. The party members were composed of landowners, businessmen, top ranking officials, and Buddhist monks. The party advocated respect for human rights, person and property, and better understanding between Khmers and French. The Liberal Party preferred to retain some form of partnership with France and favored a gradual democratic reform instead of a sudden breakup espoused by the Democratic Party. The French actively supported the Liberal Party of Prince Nodindeth and very much opposed the Democratic Party of prince Yutevong.

Why did the Democrats choose Prince Yutevong of royal blood to head the Democratic Party instead of a commoner? Before answering the above question, it is perhaps necessary to understand the background of the prince first. The prince was an intellectual and well educated. He graduated from the Faculty of Sciences in Montpellier, France in 1941 with a doctorate degree in Physical Sciences with high honor (mention très honorable). Before returning to Cambodia after he finished his study, Prince Yutevong had represented the French Union as its Delegate at the Conference in Hot Springs, USA. He also worked for the French Ministry of Outre-Mer. Not only was the prince a French official, but he was also an active member of the French Socialist Party (SFIO[2]). Since Cambodia was still controlled by the French, it was believed the Democratic Party members felt it would be to their advantage to choose Prince Yutevong to head the party for the above reasons. As to the French, they probably felt and hoped that Prince Yutevong would still be friendly to France because he went to French school, worked for French government, and served as a Delegate for the French Union. In this fashion the French could still control both parties.

Prince Yutevong and the Democrats were fighting the French, considered at the time to be enemy of the Khmer people. But it was acceptable to the democrats that their leader was married to a French woman. Why wasn't this a case of sleeping with the enemy?

The first election in 1946 provided the Democrats with a majority in the assembly. Prince Yutevong was the main architect who drafted the Khmer Constitution modeled after the French Fourth Republic. It was ironic that the Democrats wanted to divorce from France but at the same time they wanted to create a Khmer Constitution modeled after the French. Did the Democrats design it this way as not to antagonize the French? How can France object to this constitution since it was modeled after her country? After the Constitution had been completed, the power was now in the hand of the National Assembly. Prince Yutevong, who had been until now a minor prince, suddenly realized that he would become more powerful than the king. On 6 May 1947 the king proclaimed the birth of the new Khmer Constitution. The king realized that his role as a monarch was greatly reduced, stripped much of his power.

With the Democratic Party victory, Prince Yutevong became President of the Council of Ministers, meaning he was Prime Minister of Cambodia. In addition to his position as Prime Minister, he also kept the post of Minister of Interior to himself. Why would someone who espoused democracy want to retain the two most important positions for himself? Why didn't the prince appoint somebody else to the post of Minister of Interior? What was the reason behind Prince Yutevong’s thinking? Did he not trust some of the people who worked around him?

It seemed that with their success, the Democratic Party would be strong and happy. On the contrary, the success spoiled the Democrats and clashes within the party were occurring constantly. Were there jealousies among the Democrats fighting for important positions within the newly formed government? Prince Yutevong did not live long enough to enjoy the Democrats' victory because he died on 17 July 1947. Speculations on the death of the prince at such an early age and on the height of his success ran rampant. How did he die so young? Was there any sign of him being sick or contracting some kind of illness? Did the French poison him or did the Democrats themselves have anything to do with his death? Who would benefit the most about Prince Yutevong's death? The mystery surrounding his death had not been satisfactorily resolved.

After the death of Prince Yutevong, the Democratic Party elected the grandson of King Sisowath, Prince Sisowath Vachhayavong, to be Prime Minister from 25 July 1947 to 20 February 1948. Afterward, the party elected Chhean Vam to succeed Prince Sisowath Vachhayavong. However, due to some infightings, the Prime Minister found his power insufficient and could not get things done. He asked for more power but it was turned down. Immediately, Chhean Vam was overthrown on that issue in 14 August 1948. Penn Nouth was elected as the next Prime Minister. He did not remain long at the head of his cabinet because Yem Sambaur, a former member of the Democratic Party, accused Penn Nouth of corruption. Yem Sambaur had left the Democratic Party to form his own minority grouping. Inexplicably, Yem Sambaur was chosen as the next Prime Minister on 12 February 1949 to replace Penn Nouth. How could this happen since the Democratic Party had the majority of the vote? The only reason this curious event could be explained was that the members of the Democratic Party became jealous of each other and preferred to see somebody from the outside instead of one of their own becoming Prime Minister.

After Yem Sambaur became Prime Minister, the Democrats started to have second thought and they finally passed a motion of censure against the Prime Minister. The nature of the censure was not clear. Because of this action, on 18 September 1949 King Norodom Sihanouk dissolved the National Assembly and signed a treaty with France granting some independence for Cambodia.

The treaty granted Khmer people most of administrative functions within Cambodia. In addition, the provinces of Battambang and Siemreap that the French recovered from the Thai were given to the Cambodian government for self-governing rule with its own armed forces without any French interference. This was called the autonomous zone, similar to the autonomous zone of Pailin that Hun Sen granted to the remnants of Khmer Rouge. However, on matters of foreign policy, the Cambodian government had to coordinate its actions and decision making with the French Union. The French retained most of the judicial systems, finances, and customs. Outside Battambang and Siemreap, France retained military operations. The reason the French wanted to retain military operations on other parts of Cambodia was because they felt more of a threat coming from Vietnam than Thailand, a threat that could break the French Union.

According to the Constitution at the time, in the event of the dissolution of the National Assembly, the President of the Assembly would become the chief executive pending the holding of new elections. At the time, Ieu Koeuss [3] was President of the Assembly. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in January 1950. Theories abounded on who assassinated Ieu Koeuss. Some claimed it was Yem Sambaur himself who had a hand behind the whole affair while some pointed the fingers at Prince Norindeth. However, this case had never been resolved and still remains a mystery to this day.

Because of the death of the President of the National Assembly, the king reappointed Yem Sambaur to succeed himself as Prime Minister. This action had made the Democrats very upset since the elections would now be postponed. Because of this turn of event that sent Cambodia into turmoil, the king began to consider the possibility of modifying the Constitution. He wanted the Assembly to be a consultative body and shifting the power of ratification to the king. According to the Constitution, any amendments would require a three-fourth vote of the Assembly. Since the body had been dissolved, on October 1951 the king appealed to the heads of political parties to amend the Constitution. Both Democrats and Liberals opposed any constitutional changes that would decrease the power of the Assembly.

What saved the Democratic Party was its unity opposing King Norodom Sihanouk's legislations as well as his appointments of new cabinet members. The Democrats continued to oppose all policies made by the king, making his life miserable. No matter what the king did, the Democrats would contest and oppose him. A new election was held in September 1951 and again, the Democrats won the majority with fifty-four out of seventy-eight seats. The Liberal Party obtained eighteen seats while the rest went to the remaining parties. On October 1951, Huy Kanthoul became Prime Minister, and immediately a serious deadlock developed in Khmer-French relations as the Democrats went into almost absolute opposition to the French authorities. Two more Prime Ministers succeeded Yem Sambaur prior to Huy Kanthoul becoming Prime Ministers. Prince Sisowath Monipong, the son of King Monivong, became Prime Minister from 1 June 1950 to 3 march 1951 and Oum Chheang Sun succeeded Prince Monipong until 12 October 1951.

To counter balance the popularity of the Democrats, the king asked the French to release Son Ngoc Thanh from his house arrest in France. Son Ngoc Thanh returned to Cambodia with great triumph on 29 October 1951. Huy Kanthoul, who was Prime Minister, offered Son Ngoc Thanh a position in his cabinet but this latter turned down the offer because he expected the position of Prime Minister to be handed to him. Son Ngoc Thanh founded a weekly newspaper called Khmer Krauk (Khmer Awake), incessantly attacking the French Union. Pending rumor of an imminent arrest, Son Ngoc Thanh fled Phnom Penh and joined the Khmer Issarak.

There were people who accused King Norodom Sihanouk of dictatorship or of being an unconstitutional monarch. The people who made those accusations did not study the facts properly. The king had properly exercised his power as the Constitution had demanded. The reason he wanted to change the Constitution may be in part for self-interest, but also to prevent the same type of chaotic situation that happened during this tumultuous time. He followed the Constitution by going through the motion of Assembly vote to make amendment to the Constitution. He was exercising his democratic right and obeying the Constitution. We must not be quick to judge the king's action without properly understanding the events in Khmer politics.

The government of Huy Kanthoul found itself confronting with the problem of arresting people involving in flyers' distribution. The Dap Chhuon's party of Eysan Mean Chey (Dap Chhuon remained in Siemreap) with Mao Chhoy representing the party in Phnom Penh started to distribute flyers and created a chaotic situation in Phnom Penh. Prime Minister Huy Kanthoul issued an arrest warrant for people like Lon Nol and Yem Sambaur. Sim Var was the Chief of police at the time. Lon Nol was later released but Yem Sambaur was put in a house arrest at Banteay Cheung Khmao located near the Cine Lux movie theater. The arrest of Lon Nol and the semi-incarceration of a former Prime Minister of Cambodia made the situation in Cambodia dangerously explosive. Sensing the situation in Cambodia getting out of control, the king dismissed the government of Huy Kanthoul and on 13 January 1953 he dissolved the National Assembly and declared martial law.

The king was very in tune to the wish of the Khmer population, which was to obtain full independence from France. To avoid the situation in Cambodia from deteriorating further, King Sihanouk decided in March 1953 to go to France and asked the French President to grant complete independence to Cambodia. The French government turned a deaf ear to King Sihanouk's demand and accused the king of being too alarmist. Additionally, the French were threatening to replace the king if he continued to be in an uncooperative mood.

Khmer Democrats and Khmer Issarak had made the Khmer independence a national issue, but King Sihanouk took it a step farther. After the French refusal to King Sihanouk's demand on Khmer independence, he decided to elevate the Khmer struggle against the French to the international level. King Sihanouk decided to risk his future as king of Cambodia by campaigning against the French. The meeting with the French government was a failure. Therefore, instead of going home directly from France, the king made a brilliant political decision by stopping in the United States, Canada, and Japan to publicize his "royal crusade for independence." It was a bold move by the king, because his action could trigger the French to replace him as king of Cambodia with another prince.

To put the French in a corner, in June 1953, the king declared that he would take a self-imposed exile in Thailand and would not return to Phnom Penh unless the French granted full independence to Cambodia. The Thai government did not cooperate with the king and did not welcome his stay in Bangkok. Why did the Thai government that supported the Khmer Issarak refused to also support King Norodom Sihanouk for the same cause, which was to restore Cambodia to full independence from the French? The Thai probably thought they had the Khmer Issaraks under their allegiance but could not extract the same thing from King Norodom Sihanouk. Since the king was not welcomed in Thailand, he decided to establish his headquarters in the autonomous zone in Siemreap. It was at this time that the bond between King Norodom Sihanouk and Lieutenant Colonel Lon Nol was formed. Lon Nol commanded the autonomous zone of Siemreap, established in 1949 by the French agreement.

The whole Indochina was in turmoil. From their base in Siemreap, King Sihanouk and Lon Nol resisted and fought the French. The Khmer Issaraks were also giving the French a lot of troubles. Finally on 3 July 1953, the French declared they were ready to discuss the full independence status of Cambodia. The king insisted on his own terms, demanding total control of Cambodia in four main areas: National Defense, Police, Judiciary, and Finance. The French agreed to the demands and King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh with great triumph. The Khmer Independence Day was proclaimed on November 9, 1953.

There is no denial that everybody played a part for Khmer independence, but King Norodom Sihanouk must be hailed as the main architect who obtained Khmer independence from France. The king was a brilliant and daring politician in his maneuvers with the French government. The king was undaunted in his pursuit of Khmer independence. The road to Khmer independence was a tumultuous one and it must not be forgotten. As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary of Independence, we must renew our faith to keep Cambodia independent and free from any foreign influence into our national affairs. The title proclaiming “Norodom Sihanouk as Father of Khmer Independence” is very appropriate and well deserving for our aging monarch.

[1] Prince Yutevong was the product of an incestuous grandparent. His grandfather, Prince Bhumarin, married his own sister, Princess Thnamvong, and produced the only child, Prince Chamraenvongs, which was the father of Prince Yutevong. Traditionally speaking, Prince Yutevong should not be a Sisowath. It is not clear how Prince Yutevong obtained Sisowath as his last name. It had been speculated that his parents wanted to take advantage of the linear linkage with King Sisowath who ascended the throne in 1904. Prince Yutevong who was born in 1913 was the son of Prince Chamraenvongs, a great-grandson of King Ang Chan II (different branch from King Ang Duong), and of Princess Sisowath Yubhiphan, the daughter of Sisowath Essaravong, with this latter being the oldest son of King Sisowath. Because Sisowath became king of Cambodia in 1904, Prince Yutevong's parents may have decided that their children should use their mother's last name, Sisowath, as their family last name. That kind of action was unprecedented in the history of Khmer royalty. Based on the above speculation, the direction of Prince Yutevong to be the leader of the Democratic Party was not by chance but by design. His opposition to King Norodom Sihanouk was a voluntary choice tacitly supported by the Sisowath's. The Sisowath felt cheated by the French for putting a Norodom on the throne. They felt that Prince Sisowath Monireth should have been the heir to the throne, following King Monivong's death. Since that time, the Sisowaths and the Norodoms have constantly been in tension with each other.

[2] SFIO (Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière) was founded in 1905. At the 1920 SFIO convention in Tours, France, the majority of the members decided to found the SFIC (Section Française de l'Internationale Communiste), which later became PCF (Parti Communiste Français). Even though SFIO has been weakened by the PCF it still has great influence over the workers (source: france/fr/instit/instit09.html)

[3] A personal interview with Chhuom Chhiet, an active member of the Democratic Party and who was also in charge of arresting Lon Nol and Yem Sambaur, revealed an interesting tale. He heard that a few days before his assassination, Iev Koeuss met with King Sihanouk and told him that he was going to quit his political life and retire to Battambang.


Cambodians Known to the World