It is most regrettable that in its continuous attempts to embarrass the Royal Government of Cambodia, The Cambodia Daily has now sought fit to compare the period of the rule of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk with the rule of Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen.
—Letter to the Editor—
In so doing, Michelle Vachon’s article “Ways of a Dictator” (September 17-18) has painted as black a picture as possible of His late Majesty’s rule over Cambodia during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Popular Socialist Community) period from 1955 to 1970.
It should not be necessary to emphasize how different these two periods of Cambodian contemporary history are. During the Sangkum period, Cambodia confronted the challenges of the Cold War with a domestic communist-
inspired insurgency, threats to its borders by rapacious neighbors on the east and west and the war in Vietnam. Cambodia relied on foreign aid for its development.
Today’s Cambodia is at peace. There are no domestic insurgencies threatening the Royal Government nor are there threats to Cambodia’s territorial integrity. The country enjoys both substantial foreign investment as well as foreign aid for its development and national reconstruction, following years of civil strife and the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime.
Ms. Vachon’s shallow article seems to suggest that the Democratic Party of the 1940s and 1950s was the perfect example of democratic principles. It was not so.
As Pol Pot’s biographer Philip Short has written, the Democratic Party was plagued by fractiousness and during the five years they had formed a government “the Democrats had shown themselves to be corrupt, feudalistic, incompetent and addicted to Byzantine factional squabbling which paralysed political life.”
Ms. Vachon seems to suggest that Ieu Koeus, the successor of Prince Youtevong, had been assassinated as part of what she refers to as Sihanouk’s “absolute and sometimes bloody control of the country.” Not so. The historical record shows that the assassination of Ieu Koeus in 1949 was organized by a member of the entourage of Prince Norodom Norindeth, president of the Liberal Party. Mr. Short has identified Yem Sambaur as the assassin of Ieu Koeus. Yem Sambaur was a close associate of Lon Nol and became foreign minister after the March 18, 1970, coup d’etat.
The purpose of the formation of the Sangkum was to seek national unity, which was threatened by continuous fights between the existing political parties, which were unable to work together for the higher interests of the nation. Indeed, the former French ambassador to Cambodia, Pierre Gorce, told me when I met him in Paris that the Cambodian political parties were “a pannier a crabs” (a basket of crabs) going in all directions who could not agree on anything. Pierre Gorce had been a senior official in the French colonial administration, so he had an intimate knowledge of the country and personalities.
The Sangkum was not a political party, but rather a national gathering, a kind of mass organization led by the charismatic authority of the former king, without the impediment of formal monarchical office. Its members were of all political tendencies gathered in a government of national union, which was capable of being identified neither with the left nor the right of the political spectrum, thus forging a national union which the late King felt was essential for the survival of an independent Cambodia.
In the environment of the Cold War, Sihanouk was able to instill a sense of nationhood and national unity and, more importantly, a sense of national destiny and purpose into an overwhelmingly rural population. Any fair-minded observer of Cambodia at the time would have realized that the policies Sihanouk followed were the only possible policies for his country.
Cambodia was a country that could not, certainly in the international sphere, control its own destiny—a country largely without resources and powerful friends, which had more or less to keep afloat in a region of the world that was in flames during the whole period of the successive wars in Vietnam, not only the one between North and South Vietnam but the one between Vietnam and France and the relative chaos in Laos also.
Milton Osborne’s book, “Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness,” seems to be a favorite of Ms. Vachon as she constantly quotes from it. Mr. Osborne has written some good books on Cambodia and the region, but I should point out that this particular work is one at the bottom of his scholarship on Cambodia because, as pointed out by Kate Frieson of the University of Victoria in Canada in her review of the book in the Journal of Asian Studies: “no new primary research was carried out, none of the important figures close to Sihanouk were interviewed and no attempt was made to consult Khmer sources. Osborne has recycled material from his previous books and journal entries written in the 1960s and 1970s and relied on the recent works of well-known Cambodian scholars to fill in the gaps and update the material.”
Regarding the accuracy of the allegations made by Mr. Osborne against Sihanouk, it should be pointed out that in the 1970s it was Mr. Osborne who wrote that Sihanouk had ordered the murder of three left-leaning deputies: Khieu Samphan, Hu Nim and Hou Youn. Khieu Samphan is still alive in Phnom Penh and Hu Nim and Hou Youn were murdered by Pol Pot. I ask: Is it intellectually honest to reproduce allegations of such gravity without first checking its accuracy?
Ms. Vachon has also alleged in her historically inaccurate article that Sihanouk was responsible for the repression of “farmers protesting exploitation by local officials in Battambang province’s Samlot district in 1967 and of Ratanakkiri province hill tribes opposing land grabbing in 1968.”
Regarding Samlot, newly declassified information suggests that the trouble began when Chinese rice merchants, dissatisfied with the government’s policies, which attempted to give peasants more direct say in the commercialization of the rice, convinced some of these small land-holders that they were being swindled by the government cooperatives, in spite of an average increase of 10 riel per picul in the government’s buying price. It is true that there had been delays in paying the small land-holders for their produce and Sihanouk had publicly accused the provincial governor and his assistants of corruption and replaced them.
Khmer Serei armed units (funded by the CIA, South Vietnam and Thailand) were also active in the region, as were the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, and there are reliable Australian intelligence reports that suggest that the Chinese Embassy was also implicated. The Embassy had been taken over, at the time, by followers of the Cultural Revolution in China, and the ambassador, Chen Shuliang, was unable to control them. This has been confirmed to me by a Chinese diplomat that served at the time at the Embassy.
All these groups fanned the flames of rebellion, armed with Lee Enfield and locally manufactured rifles. It was not, I emphasize, a peaceful demonstration, but an armed one and, therefore, the army was charged with putting it down. Some rebels were shot and about 200 were arrested, with 300 armed rebels remaining at large. All those arrested were liberated by Sihanouk, who also replaced the local army commander and proclaimed an amnesty. A civilian-led program instituted by Sihanouk, largely with the assistance of the Buddhist clergy, encouraged people to return to their homes and helped them to rebuild or construct new ones, and provided them with gifts of seeds, food and household items.
In September 1977, Pol Pot claimed responsibility for the Samlot rebellion. In any event, it was an armed rebellion completely different from the peaceful demonstrations that have occurred recently in Cambodia because of illegal land-grabbing.
As for events in Ratanakkiri, the late King ensured that the rights and sacred land of the hill tribes were protected by law. However, I was recently informed by two foreign researchers in the area that “the hill tribes are complaining of land-grabbing of their ancestral lands given to them by Samdech Euv in the 1960s.”
Ms. Vachon writes: “With the country ruled by one man who would make decisions on a whim, projects would at times defy logic and prove costly. For instance, the Takeo-Kampot University located in the countryside had a Faculty of Oceanography even though it was located 50 km from the sea, writes the late Charles Meyer.”
Here I would point out that what Sihanouk had in mind when he established the Faculty of Oceanography at the Takeo-Kampot University was to encourage the study and development of fisheries, an important source of income for the area, as well as to keep a close watch on the territorial integrity of Cambodia, threatened by South Vietnamese claims to several islands on the Gulf of Thailand opposite Kep. In Australia, we have an Antarctic Institute that studies and keeps an eye on Australia’s interests in Antarctica, even though the institute is located 4,464 km from Antarctica.
Ms. Vachon then goes on to write that when Sihanouk left the country in January 1970 for France, the economic situation was deteriorating and discontent growing. Let me quote from two reports by experienced Asia-based reporters that suggest the opposite to Ms. Vachon’s premise.
Peter Sharrock from Reuters cabled on December 23, 1970, the following: “Before the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, last March, a record year for rice and overall export earnings was forecast. Cambodia was economically independent, did not have a trade deficit and should have registered a record in earnings for the exportation of rice and other exportable products. Cambodia’s foreign exchange reserves are still at the healthy level of about 70 million US dollars but this will certainly be drawn on in the coming months and could soon no longer effectively exist as liquid reserves.”
Francois Nivolon from the French newspaper Le Figaro wrote on its edition dated May 16, 1980, that: “At the beginning of 1970, Cambodia was prosperous, its balance of payments was stable. The harvest of 1969 had been superb and promised a surplus exportable of 400,000 tons of rice.”
As for the spurious allegation that Sihanouk had taken “extensive luggage” upon leaving Phnom Penh on January 6, 1970, I think it is the product of people who wish to tarnish the late King’s image. This allegation is not new. Someone even wrote that the gold taken abroad had been used to fund the construction of residences in Beijing and Pyongyang, which is false because those properties belong to those countries.
The so-called “parliamentary vote” of March 18, 1970, was not a democratic exercise as Ms. Vachon would like us to believe, but rather a pure and simple coup d’etat. The National Assembly building was surrounded by tanks and deputies were threatened that if they did not vote in favor of the motion, their families would suffer the consequences. A report from the then-newly opened U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh went as far as raising concern about “the constitutionality of the parliamentary vote.”
During the Cold War, many foreigners did not understand that the great concern of Sihanouk throughout his rule of Cambodia was to keep Cambodia out of the mess in Vietnam and as a neutral country. This, of course, was very difficult when you had pressures from both sides. And this was particularly so in the case of the Americans who could not understand how Sihanouk could place the interests and even the survival of Cambodia above what the Americans regarded as the essential struggle in the world against communism.
I would conclude by saying that the only reason that Ms. Vachon and many other foreigners are able to enjoy their lives and work in peace in Cambodia today is because of the great efforts, which I personally witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s, made by Sihanouk to bring back to Cambodia not the monarchy, but rather a functioning democratic society with all the freedoms the Cambodian people deserve. If those freedoms are trampled today, it is not the fault of His late Majesty the King Father.
Julio Jeldres is the official biographer for the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and a research fellow at the Monash Asia Institute at Monash University in Melbourne.