Authorities didn’t see it coming.
Tens of thousands of Cambodian farmers, angered by corrupt local officials demanding more than the mandated labor taxes, had gathered outside the Royal Palace, clamoring for King Sisowath to prevent the gouging.
The year was 1916, and a popular movement was “set in motion with disconcerting speed,” wrote one French resident of the era. “The entire population was involved,” wrote another, recounted by historian David Chandler in “A History of Cambodia.”
King Sisowath eventually ordered the crowds home with vague promises to address their concerns, but the discontent further rattled French officials already wary of a manifesto that had made the rounds a year earlier.
The proclamation’s authors were unknown, but its message was clear: “The French have made us very unhappy for many years by keeping bad people as the king and as officials while treating good people as bad.”
A century later, Cambodia’s leaders remain skittish of mass gatherings.
At a graduation speech last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to “eliminate whoever wants to destroy security and social order.”
“You have the right to demonstrate,” he said, responding to threats of mass protests by the opposition CNRP. “Why can’t we have the right to respond?”
History gives Mr. Hun Sen reason to be concerned.
Once dismissed by French administrators as lazy and docile, Cambodians have made rare but powerful public shows of disaffection. Caught off guard, their leaders have typically responded with violent suppression.
Some of the earliest French accounts praised what they identified as the obedience and respectfulness of Cambodians, traits they sorely misjudged. Trouble for the French began not long after they signed a treaty to create the protectorate in 1863.
Eager to separate state revenues from those that flowed to the crown and its local officials—and to get a cut of their own—French soldiers stormed the Royal Palace in 1884 and dragooned King Norodom into signing a treaty granting them control of “all administrative, judicial, financial and commercial reforms.”
The French assumed that the reforms would be well-received by ordinary Cambodians, whose intergenerational indebtedness to local lords amounted to a kind of slavery. But they underestimated the ability of local elites to mobilize the masses against the changes.
“We cannot deceive ourselves; with the exception of a few points on the river where our supporters still hold on, with difficulty, the insurrection is master of the whole region,” wrote one French resident of Kompong Cham province, whose 1886 account was cited in French historian Alain Forest’s “Cambodia and French Colonization.”
It took almost two years, 4,000 troops and French assurances that they would backtrack on their administrative overhaul to calm the guerilla uprising.
The rebellion was fueled by a competitor to the throne and opportunistic local feudal leaders who circulated rumors of “the catastrophes that the French would introduce into traditional society,” wrote Mr. Forest, adding that it was “a well-established phenomenon in Cambodia, that we see again in 1916.”
Neither the uprisings of the 1880s nor the protests of 1916 sparked a broader nationalist sentiment, Mr. Forest wrote in an email. “In fact, they were quickly forgotten” until researchers resurfaced them in the 1960s and 1970s.
Provincial discontent with heavy taxes again came to a head in early 1925, when ambitious French administrator Felix Louis Bardez tried to make an example of delinquent taxpayers in Kompong Chhnang province’s Krang Laav village.
Mr. Bardez summoned the men to the village hall and threatened the group with imprisonment, then treated himself to lunch as the hungry prisoners and a group of some 700 villagers looked on.
The lunch proved to be the last straw for a mob of 20 or so of the villagers, who set upon and killed Mr. Bardez and two members of his retinue using anything in sight: chairs, fence palings, ax handles and a rifle butt. The murderers went on to mutilate—and, in some accounts, dance around—their victims’ bodies, as the larger group of onlookers set off for the provincial capital to demand a return of their tax payments.
The killers’ trial became a political spectacle in its own right. Fearful of acknowledging more widespread dissatisfaction with French rule, officials downplayed the political motives behind the murders and classified correspondence from Mr. Bardez that suggested tax demands were excessive. They were even rumored to have poisoned a defense attorney’s tea.
The episode yet again exposed the “unreality of French mythology about the peaceful ‘Cambodian character’” in the face of the highest per-capita taxes in Indochina, according to Mr. Chandler, the historian.
The French faced a final major bout of insubordination in the “Umbrella War” of 1942.
The protest was set in motion by the detention of activist monk Hem Chieu, a vocal critic of the monarchy’s grip on the clergy and French colonization.
Hem Chieu became an overnight cause celebre and three days later some 500 demonstrators traveled down Norodom Boulevard to the offices of the leading French administrator near Wat Phnom, demanding the monk’s release and an end to the usurpers’ control of the Buddhist order.
The Nazi and Japanese-allied Vichy colonial administration responded swiftly and severely. Protesters were rounded up and quickly tried. Courts sentenced Pach Chhoeun, a newspaper editor who led the march, to death before commuting the sentence—the same fate, Mr. Chandler notes, that befell Mr. Bardez’s alleged murderers.
For his part, Hem Chieu died the next year in a penal colony off the coast of Vietnam.
Leaders from the movement went on to establish the Democratic Party, which won the country’s first democratic-style elections in 1946, according to historian Henri Locard.
“The same people resurfaced in 1970 and, from the time of UNTAC, with the Sam Rainsy Party and the present CNRP opposition,” he wrote in an email, referring to the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia.
July 20, 1942, marks “the birth of modern Cambodia and Hem Chieu was their guru,” he said. “Both have been forgotten [by] most Cambodians today.”
The then young Prince Sihanouk “had no interest for any of the demands of the demonstrators, and he derisively called the march, that had been planned by Hem Chieu to be peaceful, ‘The Umbrella War’ to turn it to ridicule and discredit it,” Mr. Locard wrote in an email.
When the king declared Cambodia’s independence in 1953, however, France’s problems became his own. Little changed for most Cambodians, according to Mr. Chandler, “who continued to pay taxes to an indifferent government in Phnom Penh.”
Little changed, too, in the government’s heavy-handed response to discontent that crescendoed over the next two decades.
After abdicating the throne to enter politics in 1955, Prince Sihanouk neutralized opposition parties by alternatively appropriating or harassing party leaders. When at least 30 members of the Democratic Party were beaten in 1957, the prince privately decorated the security forces involved in the action, and the party folded shortly thereafter, according to Mr. Chandler, who said hundreds of other dissidents disappeared.
That crackdown reached a larger scale in the 1967 Samlaut uprising. Protests by farmers fed up with the government’s rice policies in Pailin and Battambang cities surged into a violent conflict, forcing tens of thousands into the surrounding woods.
Prince Sihanouk said later that he’d “read somewhere” that 10,000 peasants had been killed in the ensuing crackdown, an action that radicalized the local population, emboldened guerilla leftist movements and further destabilized the prince’s waning influence over his country’s fate.
Like the French, Prince Sihanouk was shocked that his subjects would turn against him.
“By treating Cambodia as a personal fief, his subjects as children, and his opponents as traitors, Sihanouk did much to set the agenda, unwittingly, for the lackadaisical chaos of the Khmer Republic, the horrors of Democratic Kampuchea, and the single-party politics of the postrevolutionary era,” Mr. Chandler wrote.
Warfare, and not protests, marked the next three decades of Cambodian history, which only settled when the Khmer Rouge laid down their arms in 1997.
When, in August 1998, Cambodia was rocked by protests over that year’s election results, Mr. Hun Sen, then-Second Prime Minister, at first appeared to be more tolerant than his forebearers.
“I will allow this illegal demonstration to be held for three or six months as they wish,” he said in August 1998, as thousands of demonstrators protested at a sit-in site they dubbed “Democracy Square.”
Mr. Hun Sen’s patience proved to be short-lived. Authorities booted the demonstrators just two weeks later and cracked down violently against subsequent street protests that left at least 30 dead or missing and more than 100 wounded.
Craig Etcheson, a researcher who has written extensively about Cambodia’s recovery from the Khmer Rouge years, said every generation must “learn anew the lesson that there are consequences for disobedience to the authority.”
“In 1998, I think that lesson was taught through the widely disseminated photographs of police beating monks with their batons,” he wrote in an email. “That was deeply shocking to a lot of Cambodians, and they remembered it for a long time.”
More recent post-election protests in 2013 and 2014 pushed tens of thousands of opposition supporters, garment workers, monks and others onto the streets of Phnom Penh with a vigor that surprised authorities. The discontent ended with another bloody crackdown and at least six deaths, and, as in 1998, a fragile political compromise.
For the government, the threat of such movements is obvious, said Sophal Ear, author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.”
“Anytime people go into the streets, it’s a threat to the regime,” he wrote in an email. “That’s how revolutions begin.”
For his part, Mr. Chandler believes that Mr. Hun Sen will never relinquish power peacefully. But he cautioned that combativeness may be the wrong approach for those eager for change.
“If the workers really start getting angry—well, you wouldn’t get the country changed, but you’d get a lot of workers killed,” he said in a recent interview with Voice of America.
As long as Mr. Hun Sen lives and rules, he said, there is no opening for reform.
“He’s got the power. You guys don’t. It’s as simple as that.”