Cambodia Before the Holocaust
The Seeds of Independence
Sihanouk and the Geneva Accords
The Cold War and Cambodia
The U.S. Bombing Campaign
The War Rages
The End of Cambodia;
The Beginning of a Nightmare
World War II
and the Seeds of Independence
At the conclusion of World War II, French and allied forces began their return to Southeast Asia in the hopes of reclaiming their former colonies. The French reasserted themselves into Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam's Cochin China, largely with the hopes of molding a new Indochina run by pro-French democratic constitutions instead of anti-French, independent-minded regimes. In northern Vietnam, though, Ho Chi Minh, nationalist leader of the communist guerrilla force known as the Viet-Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh for short), refused to allow Bao Dai and his French-supported monarchy to run the nation's affairs. On August 2, 1945 - before the allies could stop him - Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh forces entered Hanoi, declaring the birth of a new Vietnamese state in a speech modeled after the US Declaration of Independence:
"We, members of the provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam solemnly declare to the world that Viet-Nam has the right to be a free and independent country - and in fact it is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty."
The French, needless to say, did not accept Ho's authority; with the help of British troops they eventually forced Ho to sign a truce in 1946. The truce, though, did not hold for long - skirmishes between French and Viet Minh forces increased at an alarming rate. In 1947, the French chased Ho Chi Minh and his supporters out of Hanoi. The Viet Minh regrouped in the bush and began a war of attrition against the French - a war of attrition that would continue in one form or another for nearly 30 years.
Meanwhile in Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk asserted himself as the shrewd and ruthless politician that would later make him infamous in the West. As the Japanese withdrew Sihanouk appointed Son Ngoc Thanh as prime minister. Sihanouk hated Son but he recognized that his political rival would bear the brunt of French retribution because of his new official government position. As expected, Son was eventually arrested by the allies and exiled. And though he had once been willing to work with Ho Chi Minh and his communist forces, Son Ngoc Thanh now concluded it would be expedient to seek independence through the Thai and US governments, which both wanted to take advantage of waning French colonialism. So Son abandoned his left-wing Khmer Issarak movement and joined the right-wing Khmer Serai guerrillas, anti-Sihanouk rebels who fought for the end of Cambodia's monarchy.
King Sihanouk now focused his efforts on negotiating independence from the French and expanding his own authority. By all accounts, Sihanouk was arrogant and autocratic, yet his kingly status, charisma, and love for Cambodia made him popular with the people. Sihanouk also demonstrated amazing political pliability as he created and destroyed allegiances whenever it served his interest. This ability to shift alliances at the drop of a hat would eventually cause problems in his relationship with the United States, which didn't understand Sihanouk's ever-changing loyalties and the idiosyncratic nature of Cambodia politics. Yet for the time being, public posturing served Sihanouk well - the French granted Cambodia significant autonomy in 1949, though the economy and the military were still in the hands of the colonists.
Because of France's long-standing influence in Cambodia, certain young Cambodians were fortunate enough to receive scholarships for study in Paris. These students often came from middle class, well educated families with the right connections. During the late 40s and early 50s, many of these students became enamored with left-wing French intellectualism, preferring to spend more time on private political gatherings than on their homework. Among these student activists, a handful of them joined the French communist party, including four young men with strong anti-colonial and socialist leanings - Son Sen, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Saloth Sar. Saloth Sar, who came to France to study radio electronics, eventually flunked out of his scholarship because of his excessive time spent on politics. Khieu Samphan, on the other hand, was scholarly to the point of being obsessive; in 1959 he wrote a
dissertation arguing for an agrarian collectivist society as an end to traditional Cambodian feudalism and class structure. For many politically active Khmers studying in Paris, the communist party was a convenient way of taking part in the trendy Paris intellectual scene. But for these four particular students and their friends, this time spent in France planted the ideological seeds that would later destroy their homeland.
Next: Sihanouk and the Geneva Accords
From Sideshow to Genocide: Copyright 1999 by Andy Carvin. All Rights Reserved.