In 1863, Cambodia under king Norodom became a protectorate of France. In October 1887, the French announced the formation of the Union Indochinoise (Union of Indochina), which at that time comprised Cambodia, already an autonomous French possession, and the three regions of Vietnam (Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. In 1893, Laos was annexed after the French threatened Siam’s King Chulalongkorn with war, thereby forcing him to give up the territory.
French colonial occupation
The seat of the Governor-General for the whole of French Indochina was based in Hanoi, which was situated in Tonkin (now northern Vietnam). Cambodia, being a constituent protectorate of French Indochina, was governed by the Résident Supérieur (Resident-General) for Cambodia, who was directly appointed by the Ministry of Marine and Colonies in Paris. The Resident-General was in turn assisted by Residents, or local governors, who were posted in all the provincial centers, such as, Battambang, Pursat, Odong, and Siem Reap. Phnom Penh, the capital, was under the direct administration of the Resident-General.
The Resident-General held considerable power, but the person in the position frequently wanted more. In 1897, the ruling Resident-General complained to Paris that the current king of Cambodia, King Norodom was no longer fit to rule and asked for permission to assume the king’s powers to collect taxes, issue decrees, and even appoint royal officials and choose crown princes. From that time, Norodom and the future kings of Cambodia were figureheads and merely were patrons of the Buddhist religion in Cambodia, though they were still viewed as god-kings by the peasant population. All other power was in the hands of the Resident-General and the colonial bureaucracy. Nonetheless, this bureaucracy was formed mostly of French officials, and the only Asians freely permitted were ethnic Vietnamese, who were viewed as the dominant Asians in the Indochinese Union.
In 1904, King Norodom died. Rather than pass the throne on to Norodom’s sons, the French passed the succession to Norodom’s brother Sisowath, whose branch of the royal family was more submissive and less nationalistic to French rule than Norodom’s, who was viewed as the more nationalistic branch of the family. Likewise, Norodom was viewed as responsible for the constant Cambodian revolts against French rule. Another reason was that Norodom’s favorite son, who he wanted to succeed him as king, Prince Yukanthor, had, on one of his trips to Europe, stirred up public opinion about French colonial brutalities in occupied Cambodia.
Siem Reap, Battambang & Preah Vihear received by King Sisowath, 1907
Meanwhile, the rule of King Sisowath, and his son, King Sisowath Monivong, were peaceful, even though the monarchs were nothing but puppets and pliant instruments of the French. During Sisowath’s reign, the French succeeded in getting Thailand’s reformist king, King Chulalongkorn, to sign a new treaty in 1907, which returned the northwestern provinces of Battambang and Siemreab back to Cambodian rule. In this sense, the Sisowath branch of the family is seen in restoring Cambodian land, even though it all passed under oppressive French colonial rule.
Economy during the French colonial occupation
Not long after the French first established an autonomous presence in Cambodia in 1863, the French realized that their dream of Cambodia becoming the “Singapore of Indochina” was an illusion and that Cambodia had no hidden wealth. Thereafter, Cambodia’s economy was not significantly modernized. France collected taxes efficiently, but otherwise brought few changes to the Cambodian village economy.
Discrimination against non-Vietnamese by the French continued, especially when it was revealed that Cambodians paid the highest taxes per capita in Indochina. In 1916, a tax revolt bought tens of thousands of peasants to Phnom Penh to petition King Sisowath Monivong for a reduction in taxes. The French, who had thought the Cambodians were too quiet and indolent to organize a protest, were shocked. Despite the protest, King Sisowath Monivong could do nothing. In 1925, villagers killed a French resident who threatened to arrest tax delinquents.
Some areas of the economy did develop under French rule. The French built some roads and railroads on Cambodian territory. While relatively few kilometers of railways were laid, one important line connected Phnom Penh and the Thai border through Battambang. The cultivation of rubber and corn was economically important, and soon Battambang and Siemreab provinces became the rice bowls of Indochina. During the 1920s, Cambodia profited when rubber and corn were in demand, but after the Great Depression in 1929, Cambodia began to suffer, especially among rice cultivators whose falling incomes made then more than ever the victims of moneylenders.
Industry was primarily designed to process raw materials for local use or for export. Immigration into Cambodia was considerable; and Cambodia became quite ethnically diverse. As in Burma and Malaysia, which were both under British rule, foreigners dominated the work force of the economy. Vietnamese, despite their privileged position, became laborers on rubber plantations. Soon, many Vietnamese immigrants began to play important roles in the colonial economy as fisherman and businessmen. The Chinese had been living in Cambodia for centuries, and they dominated commerce before the French arrival. Under the French, this status quo remained the same, but the French placed restrictions on the Chinese. Nonetheless, Chinese merchants and bankers in Cambodia developed commercial networks that extended throughout Indochina to China as well.
Emergence of Khmer nationalism
Unlike Vietnam, Cambodian nationalism was politically quiet during the early 1900s. This was probably so because of the reigning monarch and the way the French handled the monarchy. Khmer villages who were used to abuse of power believed that if the monarch was on the throne, Cambodia was fine as it was. At the same time, low literacy rates in Cambodia, which the French were reluctant to improve, stopped nationalist currents to spread as they were in Vietnam.
However, Cambodian nationalism was emerging among the educated urban Khmer elite. When the French restored the monuments at Angkor Wat, the pride of many Cambodians’ was awakened at their country and their past history. Many of the new urban educated elite were graduates of the Cambodian History department at Lycee Sisowath in Phnom Penh. There, resentment at the way Vietnamese students were favored resulted in a petition to King Monivong in the 1930s. Significantly, the first major nationalists, members of the Khmer Krom, were members of the Cambodian minority who lived in Vietnam. Son Ngoc Than and Pach Choeun began publishing Nagaravatta (Angkor Wat), the first Khmer newspaper. It mildly condemned French colonial policies, its corruption, its usury in rural areas, foreign domination of the economy, and also criticized the Vietnamese for their past imperialism and their privileged position in Indochina.
Flag of Cambodia under Japanese occupation
The Khmer were lucky in escaping the suffering endured by most other Southeast Asian peoples during World War II. After the establishment of the Vichy regime in France in 1940, Japanese forces moved into Vietnam and displaced French authority. In mid-1941, they entered Cambodia but allowed Vichy French colonial officials to remain at their administrative posts. The pro-Japanese regime in Thailand, headed by Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, requested assurances from the Vichy regime that, in the event of an interruption of French sovereignty, Cambodian and Laotian territories formerly belong to Thailand would be returned to Bangkok’s authority. The request was rejected. In December 1940 the French-Thai War erupted, and the Thai Burapha Army invaded Cambodia the following month. The French were hard-pressed to resist against the better-equipped Thai forces on the ground and in the air, but nevertheless managed to score a naval victory in the Gulf of Thailand . At this point, Tokyo intervened and compelled the French authorities to agree to a treaty ceding the province of Battambang and part of the province of Siemreab to Thailand in exchange for a small compensation. The Cambodians were allowed to retain Angkor. Thai aggression, however, had minimal impact on the lives of most Cambodians outside the north-western region.
King Monivong died in April 1941. Although his son, Prince Monichao, had been considered the heir apparent, the French chose instead Norodom Sihanouk, the great grandson of King Norodom. Sihanouk was an ideal candidate from their point of view because of his youth (he was nineteen years old), his lack of experience, and his pliability.
Japanese calls of “Asia for the Asiatics” found a receptive audience among Cambodian nationalists, although Tokyo’s policy in Indochina was to leave the colonial government nominally in charge. When a prominent, politically active Buddhist monk, Hem Chieu, was arrested and unceremoniously defrocked by the French authorities in July 1942, the editors of Nagaravatta led a demonstration demanding his release. They, as well as other nationalists, apparently overestimated the Japanese willingness to back them, for the Vichy authorities quickly arrested the demonstrators and gave Pach Choeun, one of the Nagaravatta editors, a life sentence . The other editor, Son Ngoc Thanh, escaped from Phnom Penh and turned up the following year in Tokyo.
In a desperate effort to enlist local support in the final months of the war, the Japanese dissolved the French colonial administration on March 9, 1945, and urged Cambodia to declare its independence within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Four days later, King Sihanouk decreed an independent Kampuchea (the original Khmer pronunciation of Cambodia). Son Ngoc Thanh returned from Tokyo in May, and he was appointed foreign minister. On August 15, 1945, the day Japan surrendered, a new government was established with Son Ngoc Thanh acting as prime minister. When an Allied force occupied Phnom Penh in October, Thanh was arrested for collaboration with the Japanese and was sent into exile in France to remain under house arrest. Some of his supporters went to north-western Cambodia, then still under Thai control, where they banded together as one faction in the Khmer Issarak movement, originally formed with Thai encouragement in the 1940s.
Struggle for Khmer unity
Cambodia’s situation at the end of the war was chaotic. The Free French, under General Charles de Gaulle, were determined to recover Indochina, though they offered Cambodia and the other Inchochinese protectorates a carefully circumscribed measure of self-government. Convinced that they had a “civilizing mission,” they envisioned Indochina’s participation in a French Union of former colonies that shared the common experience of French culture. Neither the urban professional elites nor the common people, however, were attracted by this arrangement. For Cambodians of practically all walks of life, the brief period of independence, from March to October 1945, had been enjoyable. The lassitude of the Khmer was a thing of the past.
In Phnom Penh, Sihanouk, acting as head of state, was placed in a delicate position of negotiating with the French for full independence while trying to neutralize party politicians and supporters of the Khmer Issarak and Viet Minh who considered him a French collaborator. During the tumultuous period between 1946 and 1953, Sihanouk displayed the remarkable aptitude for political survival that sustained him before and after his fall from power in March 1970. The Khmer Issarak was an extremely heterogeneous guerrilla movement, operating in the border areas. The group included indigenous leftists, Vietnamese leftists, anti-monarchical nationalists (Khmer Serei) loyal to Son Ngoc Thanh, and plain bandits taking advantage of the chaos to terrorize villagers. Though their fortunes rose and fell during the immediate postwar period (a major blow was the overthrow of a left-wing friendly government in Bangkok in 1947), by 1954 the Khmer Issarak operating with the Viet Minh by some estimates controlled as much as 50 percent of Cambodia’s territory.
In 1946, France allowed the Cambodians to form political parties and to hold elections for a Consultative Assembly that would advise the monarch on drafting the country’s constitution. The two major parties were both headed by royal princes. The Democratic Party, led by Prince Sisowath Yuthevong, espoused immediate independence, democratic reforms, and parliamentary government. Its supporters were teachers, civil servants, politically active members of the Buddhist priesthood, and others whose opinions had been greatly influenced by the nationalistic appeals of Nagaravatta before it was closed down by the French in 1942. Many Democrats sympathized with the violent methods of the Khmer Issarak. The Liberal Party, led by Prince Norodom Norindeth, represented the interests of the old rural elites, including large landowners. They preferred continuing some form of the colonial relationship with France, and advocated gradual democratic reform. In the Consultative Assembly election held in September 1946, the Democrats won 50 of 67 seats.
With a solid majority in the assembly, the Democrats drafted a constitution modeled on that of the French Fourth Republic. Power was concentrated in the hands of a popularly elected National Assembly. The king reluctantly proclaimed the new constitution on May 6, 1947. While it recognized him as the “spiritual head of the state,” it reduced him to the status of a constitutional monarch, and it left unclear the extent to which he could play an active role in the politics of the nation. Sihanouk would turn this ambiguity to his advantage in later years, however.
In the December 1947 elections for the National Assembly, the Democrats again won a large majority. Despite this, dissension within the party was rampant. Its founder, Sisowath Yuthevong, had died and no clear leader had emerged to succeed him. During the period 1948 to 1949, the Democrats appeared united only in their opposition to legislation sponsored by the king or his appointees. A major issue was the king’s receptivity to independence within the French Union, proposed in a draft treaty offered by the French in late 1948. Following dissolution of the National Assembly in September 1949, agreement on the pact was reached through an exchange of letters between King Sihanouk and the French government. It went into effect two months later, though National Assembly ratification of the treaty was never secured.
The treaty granted Cambodia what Sihanouk called “fifty percent independence”: by it, the colonial relationship was formally ended, and the Cambodians were given control of most administrative functions. Cambodian armed forces were granted freedom of action within a self-governing autonomous zone comprising Battambang and Siemreab provinces, which had been recovered from Thailand after World War II, but which the French, hard-pressed elsewhere, did not have the resources to control. Cambodia was still required to coordinate foreign policy matters with the High Council of the French Union, however, and France retained a significant measure of control over the judicial system, finances, and customs. Control of wartime military operations outside the autonomous zone remained in French hands. France was also permitted to maintain military bases on Cambodian territory. In 1950 Cambodia was accorded diplomatic recognition by the United States and by most non-communist powers, but in Asia only Thailand and South Korea extended recognition.
The Democrats won a majority in the second National Assembly election in September 1951, and they continued their policy of opposing the king on practically all fronts. In an effort to win greater popular approval, Sihanouk asked the French to release nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh from exile and to allow him to return to his country. He made a triumphant entry into Phnom Penh on October 29, 1951. It was not long, however, before he began demanding withdrawal of French troops from Cambodia. He reiterated this demand in early 1952 in Khmer Krok (Khmer Awake!) a weekly newspaper that he had founded. The newspaper was forced to cease publication in March, and Son Ngoc Thanh fled the capital with a few armed followers to join the Khmer Issarak. Branded alternately a communist and an agent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by Sihanouk, he remained in exile until Lon Nol established the Khmer Republic in 1970.
The campaign for independence
In June 1952, Sihanouk announced the dismissal of his cabinet, suspended the constitution, and assumed control of the government as prime minister. Then, without clear constitutional sanction, he dissolved the National Assembly and proclaimed martial law in January 1953. Sihanouk exercised direct rule for almost three years, from June 1952 until February 1955. After dissolution of the assembly, he created an Advisory Council to supplant the legislature and appointed his father, Norodom Suramarit, as regent.
In March 1953, Sihanouk went to France. Ostensibly, he was traveling for his health; actually, he was mounting an intensive campaign to persuade the French to grant complete independence. The climate of opinion in Cambodia at the time was such that if he did not achieve full independence quickly, the people were likely to turn to Son Ngoc Thanh and the Khmer Issarak, who were fully committed to attaining that goal. At meetings with the French president and with other high officials, Sihanouk was suggested as being unduly “alarmist” about internal political conditions. The French also made the thinly veiled threat that, if he continued to be uncooperative, they might replace him. The trip appeared to be a failure, but on his way home by way of the United States, Canada, and Japan, Sihanouk publicized Cambodia’s plight in the media.
To further dramatize his “royal crusade for independence,” Sihanouk, declaring that he would not return until the French gave assurances that full independence would be granted. He then left Phnom Penh in June to go into self-imposed exile in Thailand. Unwelcome in Bangkok, he moved to his royal villa near the ruins of Angkor in Siemreab Province. Siemreab, part of the autonomous military zone established in 1949, was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lon Nol, formerly a right-wing politician who was becoming a prominent, and in time would be an indispensable Sihanouk ally within the military. From his Siemreab base, the king and Lon Nol contemplated plans for resistance if the French did not meet their terms.
Sihanouk was making a high-stakes gamble, for the French could easily have replaced him with a more pliable monarch; however, the military situation was deteriorating throughout Indochina, and the French government, on July 3, 1953, declared itself ready to grant full independence to the three states of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Sihanouk insisted on his own terms, which included full control of national defense, the police, the courts, and financial matters. The French yielded: the police and the judiciary were transferred to Cambodian control at the end of August, and in October the country assumed full command of its military forces. King Sihanouk, now a hero in the eyes of his people, returned to Phnom Penh in triumph, and independence day was celebrated on 9 November 1953. Control of residual matters affecting sovereignty, such as financial and budgetary affairs, passed to the new Cambodian state in 1954.