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A Special Supplement: Cambodia

As the Vietnam war expanded, tensions began to develop between Sihanouk and the Viet Cong. Sihanouk’s press began to speak of Viet Cong support for the small local guerrilla groups, the so-called “Red Khmer” or “Khmer Viet Minh.” T. D. Allman, reviewing these developments just a few months ago,24 described the conflicts as more potential than real, if only because Sihanouk’s “enormous popularity continues undiminished in the countryside.”

Immediately after the March 18 coup, the leadership of the “Red Khmers” approached Sihanouk and offered to join him in opposition to American imperialism.25 Sihanouk accepted this offer and called for guerrilla war. In his speech to the closing session of the April 1970 Summit Conference of Indochinese Peoples in Peking (see note 18), Sihanouk said that US imperialist aggression has created a new unity among the peoples of Indochina:

This process of union and cooperation is in the line of history, in the same way as decolonization and liberation of oppressed peoples in the Third World. Only yesterday the colonial powers divided these peoples in order to “rule” them, and they did not accept decolonization until forced to do so by armed resistance. Today the old colonialists have been replaced by imperialists and neo-colonialists, and there is no hope, through diplomacy, negotiations, conferences or even friendly neutrality, of avoiding the mortal danger that they represent. Wherever this danger appears, armed struggle alone is the only way to eliminate it.

His closing words were: “Long live the united peoples of Indochina.”

Whether real unity among the Indochinese peoples will be achieved remains to be seen. Some of the best-informed observers are optimistic in this regard. Jean Chesneaux writes:

The history of Viet-Lao-Khmer relations has not bequeathed these peoples with a burden of colonial conflicts: the frontiers fixed by colonization have not been placed in question. The moral relations among them are also disentangled from the frictions of the past…. Cambodia today is plunged directly into the war by an external initiative, the promoters of which doubtless did not gauge all of the consequences: in particular, the development of solidarity among the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians.26

In the past, Sihanouk hoped, with much reason, that China would, in the long run, be the guarantor of Cambodian neutrality against possible Vietnamese incursions. China has no reason to want a powerful bloc of unified states to its south controlled either from the outside or by one dominant member, any more than the USSR in the postwar world looked with favor on a Balkan alliance dominated by Tito.27 Hence it is opposed to American domination of Indochina, as it would no doubt oppose Thai or Vietnamese domination were either to appear likely. American propaganda naturally insists that China hopes to rule the region itself, or to do so through its “puppet” in Hanoi, but these claims are supported by no evidence or serious argument. Sihanouk, though himself strongly anti-Communist in the past, appears to have had faith in China’s intentions, in part for the general reasons just mentioned, but in part also because of China’s attitude since his regime was established. Michael Field comments:

…as he [Sihanouk] frequently remarks, China has behaved in an exemplary fashion towards Cambodia; its independence and territorial integrity have been harassed, not by the Chinese colossus but by South Viet Nam and Thailand, camp-followers of the West.28

Now, of course, Sihanouk has formed a direct alliance with the Cambodian left and with China. It remains to be seen how the situation will develop under these changed circumstances, though it would appear that China’s long-term goals should remain unaltered, even after Cambodia’s most popular political personality, the formerly anti-Communist spokesman for Cambodian nationalism, has been driven into an alliance with the Communists.

The immediate background for the Cambodian coup of March 18 is described as follows by the commentator for the Far Eastern Economic Review:

The underlying cause for Sihanouk’s fall probably lay in the fact that although he revolutionised Cambodia’s foreign policy, and his own relations with the peasants and workers, he left the traditional Khmer elite free to occupy office and eventually use their traditional power against him.29

The report notes that “the common people continued to revere Sihanouk,” but a “tiny minority…brought Sihanouk down.” However,

The new rulers, as they busy themselves taking back in power and financial opportunities what Sihanouk took away from them, doubtlessly will have a much harder time retaining the loyalty of the countryside—where all real Asian revolutions begin and are won. By biting off the hand which fed them, the tiny group of aristocrats, army officers and businessmen which toppled Sihanouk may have insured its own doom.

The coup, Allman writes elsewhere,30 was not only short-sighted, in that it upset the delicate balance that Sihanouk had maintained, but also selfish. The main complaint of the tiny elite that staged the coup is that Sihanouk “had deprived the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the army of their traditional slice of the financial action and of their accustomed place in the sun. It was an upper-class coup, not a revolution.”

This fact must be appreciated. It goes a long way toward explaining the American invasion of Cambodia.

The March 18 coup was the culmination of a carefully prepared series of actions taken over the past several years that slowly eroded the position of the Cambodian left—tenuous at best—within the government. In the elections of 1966, Sihanouk departed from his usual practice of endorsing candidates. Under the conditions of Cambodian society, the result was a general victory for the most corrupt and the wealthiest candidates, those who could freely distribute bribes, patronage, and promises. As Jean Lacouture put it: “Khmer society received the kind of representation, manipulated by money and feudal conditions, which was natural to it in this period of its history.”

The only exceptions were three left-wing delegates—Hu Nim, Hu Yuon, and Khieu Samphan—who won easily. At the time, Sihanouk was warned by the leftist minister Chau Seng that a right-wing coup led by Lon Nol might be in preparation, but he apparently felt that he could keep the right under control, relying on the loyalty and support of the people. Step by step, he succumbed to right-wing pressures that were directed as much against his economic reforms as against his personal power, with its extensive and unique popular base among the peasantry and the small urban proletariat. By the end of 1969, much of Sihanouk’s “Khmer socialism” had been dismantled,31 and the few left-wing members of the government had been removed. To a large extent, these developments must be seen as an internal struggle for power among the Cambodian elite.

While this shift to the right was taking place within the government, the radical left took on a more activist policy in the cities, with demonstrations and popular agitation, and rebel groups were formed in rural areas. The intensification of the Vietnam war, with the spill-over into Cambodia, also served to increase the polarization within Cambodia that was held in check by Sihanouk’s personal popular strength.

Several months before the coup, members of the Khmer Serei began crossing into Cambodia and “rallying” to the Cambodian army with their arms and equipment. In retrospect, it appears that the Khmer Serei may have been a “trojan horse” infiltrated into the Cambodian forces, perhaps by the CIA, to stiffen the right-wing elements that were readying the anti-Sihanouk coup.32

On March 4, General Lon Nol, then President of the Council of Ministers and Minister of Defense, took on in addition the post of Minister of Information, thereby gaining control of the press, radio, and television. A few days later the army organized anti-Vietnamese demonstrations in Svay Rieng province, and staged a demonstration in Phnom Penh, where soldiers in civilian dress sacked the PRG and DRV embassies. Sihanouk, who was then visiting Paris, noted the rising threat to his rule, and commented:

If I do not obtain satisfaction that the Communists will respect Cambodia’s neutrality, then I will resign. A showdown between the extreme right wing and myself is most probable.

He went on to speak of the possibility of a coup d’état, led perhaps by General Lon Nol. He observed that many army officers are naturally right wing and “are nostalgic about American aid, which would enable them to lead an easy life.” “The Americans are inside the castle walls—that is, inside our homes.” He expressed certainty that right-wing leaders in the government were in contact with the United States, “whether through the embassy, the CIA or any such like organization, I do not know.”33

On March 18, the coup took place, led by General Lon Nol and Sirik Matak. A tiny Cambodian elite, hoping to win for itself a larger share of control in the economy and political life and resentful of Sihanouk’s personal authority and prestige, plunged the country into civil war and set the stage for the American invasion that now threatens to turn Cambodia into another Laos or Vietnam.

The role of outside governments in the March 18 coup can only be guessed, and will probably never be known in any detail. Most observers take for granted that the Americans played a role. Chesneaux, for example, states that “the taking of power by the Lon Nol group is the result of a long series of attempts by the Cambodian right, supported by the United States.”34 As already noted, the actions of the Khmer Serei provide evidence for this view. The role of the French government is also open to some speculation. There are those who feel that the French government may have been directly implicated in the coup. Certainly, it gave little support to Sihanouk when the coup took place. Jean Lacouture describes the behavior of the French government as follows:

It now seems established that Prince Sihanouk, upon learning of the Lon Nol coup, telephoned directly to the Elysée—where, six days earlier, he had been the guest of M. Pompidou—to determine whether Paris would support him: if assurance would have been given him, he would have attempted, come what may, to land the next day in Phnom Penh. The response was so evasive, we have been told, that the prince set off for Moscow and Peking. One might judge that this was one of the moments when the elimination of General de Gaulle has played a role in international politics.35

Elsewhere, Lacouture notes that “in private circles, many Vietnamese and Khmers who support Prince Sihanouk are asking if one must not see, in this ‘neutrality’ of France face to face with the destruction of the policy of neutrality, one of the results of M. Pompidou’s trip to the United States.”36 An interesting speculation indeed.

Immediately after the coup pro-Sihanouk demonstrations broke out in many places. About eighty to one hundred Cambodians, all unarmed, were killed in the repression of these demonstrations. (“Significantly,” notes Allman, “no Vietnamese was killed”). Jean-Claude Pomonti of Le Monde reports:

  1. 24

    Far Eastern Economic Review, Feb. 26.

  2. 25

    Lacouture, op. cit.

  3. 26

    Chesneaux, op. cit.

  4. 27

    As has been frequently observed, this was probably one reason why Stalin did not support the Greek Communist guerrillas in the 1940s, contrary to American propaganda claims which continue to this day.

  5. 28

    Field, op. cit.

  6. 29

    T. D. Allman, April 2.

  7. 30

    Far Eastern Economic Review, April 9.

  8. 31

    On the actual character of “Khmer socialism,” see Field, op. cit. Some observers see the conflict between the “socialists” and those in favor of “liberalization of the economy” as essentially a struggle between elements of the Cambodian elite. Others regard “Khmer socialism” as being a step toward an egalitarian and modern society, within the specific context of Cambodian history and culture. I do not have enough information to attempt a judgment.

  9. 32

    Cf. Roy, op. cit., for this and other details. Among the current American allies in Cambodia are also several thousand “semi-pirates, semi-mercenaries” of the Khmer minority in South Vietnam, organized in the “National Liberation Front of the Khmers of Kampuchea Khrom” (K.K.K.). Their history is interesting. They were “formed under the Japanese occupation, then mercenaries for the French during the first Indochina war, and of the Americans during the second….” The leader, Kim Keth, formerly a French parachutist, explained that they “like to eat the flesh of Vietnamese, particularly the liver, which is the best.” See Pomonti, Le Monde, April 25, 1970.

    Their presence was noted by the American press a week later. The New York Times, May 3, states that 2000 well-armed members were flown into Phnom Penh the preceding night (in fact, Kim Keth, who claims that the K.K.K. has 4500 armed members, arrived in Cambodia in 1956, and claims to have been an interpreter for the American Embassy in Phnom Penh until it was closed, when he became an actor). Kim Keth states that they detested Sihanouk. Other sources report that Sihanouk always permitted a pro-K.K.K. paper to operate, though left-wing papers were suppressed in recent years. One would like to learn more about their activities in Cambodia and South Vietnam in the past fifteen years.

    It is interesting that Premier Lon Nol requested the use of these troops from President Nixon directly. Obviously, he understands very well who runs Indochina.

    It is perhaps relevant that an anti-Sihanouk coup attempted in 1958 is widely assumed to have been inspired by the CIA. See Field, op. cit., for a brief (and somewhat skeptical) account.

  10. 33

    John L. Hess, New York Times, March 13.

  11. 34

    Chesneaux, op. cit. In the same issue of Le Monde diplomatique François Honti comments that “It is now certain that those who took it upon themselves to abandon [Sihanouk’s policy of neutralism] received serious encouragement from American military circles hopeful of being able to count on Phnom Penh for a friendly government and to cut off the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops from their ‘Cambodian sanctuary.’… One might ask whether the United States, unable to win the war in Vietnam, is making a wise calculation in enlarging the field of battle….”

  12. 35

    Lacouture, op. cit.

  13. 36

    Lacouture, Le Monde diplomatique, May, 1970.

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