From Sideshow
To Genocide:

Cambodia Before the Holocaust

Cambodia Colonized

The Seeds of Independence

Sihanouk and the Geneva Accords

The Cold War and Cambodia

Nixon's War:
The U.S. Bombing Campaign

The Coup

The War Rages

The End of Cambodia;
The Beginning of a Nightmare

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Cambodia Colonized:
The Fall of Angkor to the Arrival of the French

From the 9th to the 13th centuries, the Cambodian empire of Angkor was the most powerful political force in Southeast Asia. Their expertise in irrigation and public works allowed the Khmer people to build their 250-square-mile capital of Angkor, while their military prowess expanded their control into modern-day Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Beginning in the fifteenth century, though, the Thai kingdom of Siam began its ascendance in the region. After several half-successful attempts, the Siamese sacked Angkor in 1594. The once great city of Angkor never recovered, and the Khmer empire soon fell to pieces.

By the early 1800s, much of modern Cambodia's territory was either a part of Siam or was a vassal state paying tribute to the Siamese court. Additionally, significant portions of its land were occupied by Vietnamese who were migrating west at a steady rate. Not unlike Siam, Vietnam was Cambodia's historical enemy, but Vietnamese expansion into Cambodian territory proved to be the more humiliating experience. Cambodia managed to maintain its monarchy, but the Khmer kings of this period were largely powerless.

When the French arrived in Southeast Asia to colonize Cochin China (southern Vietnam), it was only a matter of time before they set their eyes on Cambodian territory. The French recognized an excellent opportunity in Cambodia - Cambodia was weak and subservient to the Siamese empire, which was weakening in its own right. But Siam also had the support of Great Britain, France's chief colonial rival. Cambodia could serve as an excellent buffer zone between their precious Cochin China and pro-British Siam. Similarly, King Norodom of Cambodia recognized the French could provide his fragile government protection from Vietnamese encroachment from the east, so in 1863 he signed a treaty of protection. A year later the French annexed Cambodia, adding it to its Indochina union.

For over 75 years the French administered the economic affairs of the Cambodian state. The Cambodian monarchy managed to survive, but as during the Siamese vassal period, the king served largely as a cultural symbol rather than a political leader. Despite occasional unrest, the French colonial period was a relatively quiet time for Cambodia, for France's main interests lay in Vietnam. The Cambodians themselves, though, did not always feel the positive effects of France's hands-off approach since the colonialists employed Vietnamese civil servants to manage Cambodian affairs. Many Cambodians were severely frustrated by the fact that their historical rivals were now being selected to oversee the Cambodia state.

Steady signs of significant Cambodian political upheaval first became apparent in 1941, when King Sisowath Monivong died. The Sisowath family had consolidated its power base over the decades - a power base that now caused the French much concern. The French wanted a king who would acquiesce to their colonial administration, so they denied the Sisowath family (including their rising star prince, Sirik Matak) the right to the throne. The French instead selected a king from the house of Norodom, close cousins of the Sisowaths. The Norodom family could legitimately trace its claim to the throne through several Norodom monarchs of the late 1800s, yet by 1941 they were seen by the French as the weaker royal house. With this cynical strategy in mind, the French chose an inexperienced young prince, 19-year-old Norodom Sihanouk, as the new Cambodian king.

It wasn't long though before the French lost control of the situation. Later that same year Japan invaded Southeast Asia, quickly occupying all of French Indochina, including Cambodia. The Japanese left Sihanouk on the throne and allowed Vichy French representatives to administrate Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They also began to reinforce local anticolonialist feelings in the hopes of making the peoples of Indochina simultaneously pro-Japanese and anti-French, despite the fact that the Japanase were a form of colonialists in their own right. Both the Japanese government and their Thai allies supported the Khmer Issarak (Free Khmer) partisans, an anti-French Cambodian guerrilla movement led by Son Ngoc Thanh, a popular Khmer republican and politician. By March 1945, though, Japan recognized that they would soon lose hold of Indochina, yet they did not want to allow France to regain its former position in Southeast Asia. As one of their final acts of occupation the Japanese ordered the kings of Indochina - Cambodia's Sihanouk, Laos' King Sisavang Vong, and Vietnam's Emperor Bao Dai - to declare independence from France. Suddenly the colonies of French Indochina were transformed into fledgling nations - nations whose long term aspirations for true independence remained in serious question.

Next: The Seeds of Independence

From Sideshow to Genocide: Copyright 1999 by Andy Carvin. All Rights Reserved.