How King Sihanouk Brought French Rule to a Peaceful End

When the late King Norodom Sihanouk declared independence from France on November 9, 1953—60 years ago on Saturday—he was fulfilling the goal of many Cambodians who had been advocating for the end of French rule since the 1930s.

That he managed to accomplish this within just 16 months of taking up the cause foretold of the leader he would become: an astute politician who knew how to gage situations and take advantage of them, a master at using the media to build public support, and a statesman who intended to rule his country. 

In June 1952, King Sihanouk had seized power in what amounted to a bloodless coup, dismissing the government of the Democratic Party and promising to obtain the country’s independence within three years.

The French, who were trying to maintain their Indochina administration, distrusted the Democratic Party and were happy with these developments. The party had come to power in 1946 in the country’s first democratic election, in which it had won 50 of the National Assembly’s 67 seats.

The Democratic Party’s leaders viewed the country as a constitutional monarchy. But the notion of a king who “reigns but does not rule,” as King Sihanouk would put it in the 1990s, did not appeal to the young monarch. In January 1953, the King dissolved the National Assembly, declaring the nation in danger and promulgating martial law.

While he acted with the support of the French, he would soon surprise them by announcing in February 1953 that he was going to France for health reasons.  Once in Paris, however, he began lobbying for the country’s full independence from France.

Failing to be taken seriously by the French government, the 30-year-old king embarked on his first media tour, going to Canada, the U.S. and Japan to draw support for the cause of Cambodia’s independence.

Returning to Cambodia in May 1953 and finding the French still unwilling to accede to his demands, King Sihanouk took a series of measures, which he would later call his “Crusade for Independence.”

In view of his growing hostility toward the French authorities and the fact that France was already at war with Vietnamese nationalists, and did not want to fight on a second front in Cambodia, the French government resorted to starting independence negotiations in August 1953.

The King won a limited freedom for his country. He was given control of the armed forces, the judiciary and foreign affairs while France maintained its hold on the economy and especially international trade and the lucrative rubber plantations.
By November 9 that year, the country was fully independent. “[King] Sihanouk is correct, on balance, in interpreting the French collapse at this point as a personal victory,” historian David Chandler said.

“The French saw little harm and some benefit in granting Cambodia its independence earlier than they granted it to Vietnam,” Mr. Chandler added.

“For one thing, they knew that [King] Sihanouk was genuinely pro-French as none of the Vietnamese leadership was. There was little at stake militarily in Cambodia. Also, to his credit, [King] Sihanouk’s surprisingly vigorous campaign in 1952-53 was embarrassing to the French, especially as he threatened to arm the Cambodian population against them—as he probably never would have done.”

Once the country was independent, the King would maintain excellent relations with France, and the number of French people in the country would greatly increase in the 1950s and 1960s compared to the Indochina years.

The end of France’s control over Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam became official in July 1954 with the signing of the Geneva Accords. This concluded 90 years of French administration in Cambodia that had started with King Ang Duong writing to France in 1853 and asking for protection against its powerful and expansionist neighbors, Vietnam and Siam, as Thailand was then called.

“King Ang Duong…believed that there was but one solution, that is, to obtain the protection of a country more powerful than Siam and Vietnam: France,” said historian Henri Locard.

“But he viewed protection in the traditional sense, that is, one pays a fee whereby the [powerful] country provides protection, sends a few advisors and so on. This was not at all the way the French interpreted this,” he said.

In the colonial tradition of the time, France took full control of the country, turning its king, who had been an absolute monarch, into a constitutional one.

The terms of the Protectorate Treaty negotiated by French admirals and finally signed in 1863 by King Norodom—King Ang Duong’s son and successor—were ambiguous, leaving a great deal to the France’s interpretation, Mr. Locard said. However one issue was clear: In the name of protection, they were to assure security not only along the country’s borders but within the country, he said.

The first protest against French rule would be orchestrated in 1885 by Cambodian officials about to lose their personal sources of revenues as the French administration was separating private and public budgets and taking control of public works, customs and tax collection in addition to abolishing slavery.

The Cambodians ended up being heavily taxed and, since France invested in the country little of the money collected, Cambodia was compensated at the signing of the Geneva Accords, Mr. Locard said. France agreed to build the port of Sihanoukville as repayment—during Indochina, the only seaport built in the region had been in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, he said.

Although over the years there were some protests and incidents against the French administration —usually triggered by tax collection—the first true movement for independence took shape with the advent of the first Khmer-language newspaper in the country. The Nagara Vatta was launched in 1936 by Pach Chhoeun and Sim Var, who were soon joined by Son Ngoc Thanh. They were in close contact with the Buddhist Institute and “modernist” monks such as Hem Chieu who were at odds with the traditionalists of the Buddhist sangha, the religious leadership. They were also close to Lycee Sisowath high school’s student association and with students and teachers of the Advanced School of Pali.

As the concept of self-rule for Cambodia along with other new ideas were starting to circulate among this emerging class of intellectuals, World War II began in Europe, and Cambodia fell under France’s Vichy regime that was collaborating with Nazi Germany and Japan.

Soon, 8,000 Japanese soldiers were stationed in Cambodia and, despite a battle waged by French and Cambodian forces against the Thais, the northwestern provinces were taken over by Thailand.

France was at war and Indochina’s Governor General Admiral Jean Decoux would not tolerate any semblance of opposition to the French in the region. Posters of Marshal Philippe Petain, the head of France’s Vichy government, were distributed and his slogan “Work, Family, Nation” was taught in Cambodia schools, Mr. Locard said.

When French administrators heard that Hem Chieu and his group were planning to take up arms against the French, they arrested him on July 17, 1942: He was immediately disrobed so that he could be tried as an ordinary civilian, Mr. Locard said. In fact, Hem Chieu opposed violence or any armed intervention, and it was Son Ngoc Thanh who was plotting to have the French killed, he explained.

A peaceful demonstration of more than 500 monks and 500 lay people was held on July 20, 1942, to ask for his release. The French authorities responded by arresting Pach Chhoeun who came to meet them and submit the request. Son Ngoc Thanh, who had not taken part in the demonstration, went into hiding and escaped the country. The incident was followed by severe measures to curb the movement and any progressive ideas in politics or religious institutions. The Nagara Vatta was shut down.

Tried in front of a French military tribunal, Hem Chieu and Pach Chhoeun were accused of making anti-French remarks, regretting the loss of the western provinces to Thailand and planning an armed rebellion. Condemned to death, their sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Hem Chieu would die in the French penal colony of Poulo Condor in Vietnam and Pach Chhoeun was released at the end of World War II.

Following the Vichy government’s defeat and the imminent collapse of Nazi Germany in Europe, on March 9, 1945, the Japanese forces arrested all French nationals in Indochina and encouraged King Sihanouk to declare independence from France. This, the 22-year-old King did, heading the new government.

According to Mr. Chandler, between March and December 1945, this government issued 155 laws and 390 administrative decrees. After the return of the French in January 1946, 75 percent of these laws and 90 percent of the decrees remained valid.

France, which had hoped to recreate the pre-war situation in Indochina, renegotiated with Cambodia in January 1946. The Cambodians would administer the country with some French oversight while France would control defense and foreign policy. This included negotiating with Thailand the return of the western provinces, which was done in December 1946.

“Political parties sprang up very soon after the French, in early 1946, allowed them to do so,” Mr. Chandler said. “The idea of elections and a constitution appealed to many in Cambodia’s small elite-not exactly its aristocracy…but an amalgam of schoolteachers, lycee graduates, monks and former monks, middle ranking bureaucrats, and so on.  “The only element of society that was pro-French was the royal family,” he said.

The first democratic election took place on September 1, 1946, giving absolute majority to the Democratic Party over the Liberal Party that was supported by the French as well as by King Sihanouk and the more conservative royals.

However, between a constitution that put power in the hands of the National Assembly, leaving little latitude to the executive office, and the death of its leaders—Prince Sisowath Yuthevong of illness in 1947 and Ieu Koeuss, assassinated in 1950—the Democratic Party found itself weakened. On top of that, King Sihanouk was delaying constitutional reforms that may have given the cabinet more powers.

When King Sihanouk seized power in 1952, Cambodia’s first democratic experiment came to an end. But the king demonstrated his leadership by taking the gamble to gain independence for the country, Mr. Locard said.
And the King succeeded.

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