It is most regrettable that every time a foreign expert witness appears in front of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, opinion pieces appear in the English-language press in Phnom Penh that tend to alter historical events in Cambodia, according to the political persuasions of the respective writer.
I have in mind, in particular, the opinion piece by Henri Locard (published in The Cambodia Daily on February 17) concerning the recent appearance of well-known journalist and author Elizabeth Becker at the ECCC, in which he wrote that she “endorsed on two occasions the Khmer Rouge version of tragic recent Cambodian history.” Having read the complete record of Ms. Becker’s appearance at the tribunal, I find her answers were historically accurate.
The fact that Prince Norodom Sihanouk was a victim of a coup d’etat is not a “Khmer Rouge version” of history but is now accepted by eminent historians and scholars, including American ones, as part of Cambodia’s contemporary history. Mr. Locard’s version is that the coup was a kind of constitutional event. It was not. Deputies were summoned to the National Assembly under threats that their families would suffer the repercussions if they did not vote for the dismissal of Prince Sihanouk. The National Assembly was surrounded by tanks and soldiers to further scare the deputies.
The prince had indeed lost the support of the elites, i.e. the Sino-Khmer merchants who dominated the economy and the army hierarchy, which, not happy with making money from the delivery of Chinese weapons to the Vietcong, wanted the return of American military aid to enhance their personal fortunes. People like Samdech Nhiek Tioulong and Samdech Son Sann had not distanced themselves from the prince. On the contrary, Nhiek Tioulong, who was seen by Lon Nol as a competitor in the senior ranks of the Cambodian Army, was promptly added to the list of persons who could not return to Cambodia after the coup while he was on a visit to France. Chau Seng had chosen to return to his castle in France in 1968 because he had been threatened by Lon Nol and he feared that an accident could happen to him if he remained in Cambodia. He was also added to the list of those who could not return to Cambodia, and joined Prince Sihanouk in Peking soon after the coup.
But the Cambodian people had remained unwaveringly loyal to the prince. As reported by The New York Times on March 28, 1970, two members of the National Assembly sent by Lon Nol to Kompong Cham province to explain the reasoning behind the coup to the local population were knifed to death on March 26, 1970, during protests against the deposition of the prince. Furthermore, in the villages, the people were torn between fear of the new authorities and their love for Samdech Sihanouk.
The great folly of Lon Nol and his associates was to underestimate the unique rapport existing between the Prince Head of State and the rural population of Cambodia. As a villager told Ralph Blumenthal of The New York Times, “If anyone would speak out against the Prince publicly in the village he would be shot by the people.”
At the time of the coup d’etat, Prince Sihanouk, whose shrewd maneuvering at home and abroad had held back Communist penetration of the country for 15 years, was immersed in improving relations with Washington and actively seeking the withdrawal of North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops from Cambodia.
The prince understood well that Cambodia was no match for a unified Communist Vietnam and tried to maintain friendly relations with Hanoi in order to protect Cambodia’s independence and territorial integrity for the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Lon Nol and Pol Pot did not understand this reasoning and often provoked both the South and North Vietnamese by killing, in the case of Lon Nol, the Vietnamese residents of Cambodia and, in the case of Pol Pot, attacking Vietnamese villages inside Vietnam, causing the subsequent invasion of Cambodia.
Nevertheless, the prince had slowed ammunition and rice shipments flowing to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese and ordered the army to repel any infiltration of Cambodia’s territory by the Vietcong or North Vietnamese. This somewhat increased the cooperation of the Cambodian Army with the South Vietnamese and American forces in the border areas, but it was not enough to satisfy the senior military commanders in Saigon and Washington, who wanted a pro-American regime, not a neutral one, in Phnom Penh.
Regarding American involvement in the events of March 1970 in Cambodia, the U.S. military command in Saigon had been asking Washington to authorize a military attack against Cambodia since 1967, and only the intervention of Australia, which represented U.S. interests in Cambodia, prevented such an attack from taking place. This, however, did not stop the cover operations mounted by the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force, separately from the CIA’s own operations, all with the purpose of destabilizing the regime of Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia.
For instance, on March 1, 1970, a meeting was held in Saigon concerning the continued, increasing support being offered by the U.S. agencies to Lon Nol and the Khmer Serei, who were mostly Khmers from Southern Vietnam, or Khmer Kampuchea Krom. Over the preceding months, groups of these Khmer Serei defectors had “rallied” to the Cambodian government and had been welcomed at elaborate ceremonies, one of which was presided over by Prince Sihanouk himself.
These Khmer Serei forces trained by South Vietnamese and U.S. Special Forces were in fact the Trojan Horse that entered Phnom Penh as part of the plotting for the coup. They were used in March 1970 to organize the riots and sacking of the Vietnamese Communist diplomatic representations in Phnom Penh and, after the coup, to disperse the pro-Sihanouk demonstrations in some provinces, but also were responsible for the murder of innocent Vietnamese residents of Cambodia after the coup.
As can be seen from the above, writing about Cambodian history is not an easy task, but as historians, we must strive to research and produce accurate studies or opinion pieces for the new generations untainted by our personal political persuasions.
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.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Cambodia Daily.