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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Sihanouk's Rise to Power
and the Geneva Accords

By February 1953, Norodom Sihanouk was ready to make his move and consolidate his authority over Cambodia. As part of what he called his "royal crusade for independence" the young king traveled to France and demanded complete Cambodian sovereignty. When the French ignored his requests (to no one's surprise), Sihanouk hit the road, visiting Europe and the United States as part of a brilliant PR campaign. With each stop the king lambasted the French while boasting how he would not make enemies the communist Viet Minh forces. His travels were followed by a self-imposed "exile" near the ancient city of Angkor. The French, who were losing the war with Ho Chi Minh's forces, were in no position to stop Sihanouk antics, so in October they allowed the king to declare Cambodia's independence. France maintained some authority over economic policy, but foreign affairs and the military were now in the hands of Sihanouk.

As Sihanouk's independence movement gained momentum, France suffered its greatest Indochina defeat with the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In the spring of 1954 besieged French troops were decimated in the far northwest of North Vietnam over the course of 55 days of bombardment. Though the Viet Minh lost over 8000 men killed in battle (more than twice that of French killed) Dien Bien Phu proved to be the death knell for France in Indochina - it was only a matter of time before they would be forced to leave forever. The once mighty French empire was soundly humiliated and forced to negotiate full independence with all of its former colonies, including North Vietnam, Laos and Sihanouk's Cambodia.

In what the world hoped would be a final settlement to the Indochina conflict, Geneva played host to peace accords in May 1954, just as the Dien Bien Phu siege was coming to an end. At the July conclusion of the accords, Vietnam was recognized as two separate, sovereign governments: a communist North Vietnam led by Ho Chi Minh, and a pro-French South Vietnam led by prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who had been appointed by emperor Bao Dai. The Geneva accords also proclaimed that Laos and Cambodia would be guaranteed their right to remain neutral, nonaligned nations. Yet as many in the West prayed the fighting was now over, Sihanouk made no such assumptions. He concluded it would take a strong leader to keep Cambodia out of any future Vietnamese war, and in Cambodia no one was as strong a leader as he.

The Geneva accords also scheduled Cambodia's first national democratic elections. This spelled trouble for Sihanouk, for as a constitutional monarch he would have few real powers in the new democratic government. Following the conclusion of the Geneva accords, King Sihanouk stunned the world and abdicated the throne, giving the crown to his father, Prince Suramarit. By relinquishing his claim to the monarchy, Prince Sihanouk (as he was now known) was free to pursue his political aspirations and run for office. There was a high likelihood of Sihanouk winning the election given his popularity among the masses - his face was one of the only recognizable faces on the ballot for many rural Cambodians. But the prince took no chances: he closed opposition newspapers while his police force roughed up opposition leaders. As Sihanouk told one journalist, "I am the natural leader of the country... and my authority has never been questioned." (Chandler, A History of Cambodia, p 185)

Sihanouk also created his own political movement, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People's Socialist Community), and made a not-so-subtle hint to the political establishment that any good Cambodian would be proud to join it. If you wanted to become a Sangkum member, though, you were required to dissolve any relationships you had with other parties. The Sangkum was a severe blow to the three major opposition parties, including the so-called Liberals, a conservative group made up of landowners and business leaders; the Democrats, left-wing activists who supported a modern, French-style republic; and the Pracheachon, a pro-communist party made up of monks, teachers, and French-educated intellectuals. Many Cambodians, especially the Liberals and Democrats, quickly joined the Sangkum, abandoning their former parties in the fear of appearing to be against this burgeoning national movement. Even Khieu Samphan, the scholarly communist student who studied in Paris, joined the Sangkum in order to increase his political profile and personal security; privately, though, he remained a steadfast communist.

In 1955, Prince Sihanouk was elected the Cambodian head of state. Some opposition leaders maintained a precarious grip on power through their positions in the national assembly, but Sihanouk did his best to intimidate and humiliate all of them. The prince would often employ the tactic of making rousing speeches to the assembly, whose majority was loyal to him, and then present the minority opposition members with an offer to lead Cambodia if they thought they could do a better job than he. No one ever dared to take him up on the offer. On some occasions these assembly sessions reached such a fever pitch the opposition were beaten up by mobs afterwards. By 1963, Sihanouk's overwhelming authority and strong-arm tactics had purged much of the opposition out of politics, causing some of the Pracheachon politicians and their communist supporters to flee for their lives into the Cambodian wilderness. Among these exiles were Son Sen, Ieng Sary and Saloth Sar, who had returned to Cambodia from France to become active members of a secretive communist movement initially supported by North Vietnam. Though none of the three men openly participated in public politics, they feared their subversive communist activities had been compromised when their names were published on a list of "34 subversives" compiled by the Sihanouk government. The three soon escaped into the wilderness of eastern Cambodia and vanished. Sihanouk was glad to be rid of these oppositionist troublemakers, whom he later labeled rather mockingly as "Red Khmers" - or in French, les Khmer Rouges.

Sihanouk ruled with an iron hand, but he delegated powers to his loyal ministers so he could concentrate on his favorite hobbies, including jazz saxophone, filmmaking, magazine editing, and having affairs with foreign women. Yet the Cambodians of the countryside loved him - the god-kings of Angkor weighed heavily in the collective social conscience. For the foreseeable future Sihanouk was invincible and he knew it. Not unlike the other peoples of Southeast Asia, Cambodians were long accustomed to singular, autocratic leadership. As Frances FitzGerald described in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam narrative Fire in the Lake, many rural Southeast Asian peoples traditionally saw their leaders as having a "mandate from heaven." These leaders would have the loyalty of the people until someone powerful could come along and knock off the old leader decisively, thus demonstrating that the mandate from heaven had shifted to themselves. From 1955 to 1970, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was the only viable leader in Cambodia. He was also the only man whose political ruthlessness could manage to keep Cambodia out of the coming war that would ravage Vietnam and Laos. Cambodia was at peace, and for the moment, Sihanouk maintained his mandate from Heaven.

Next: The Cold War and Cambodia

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