Before WW2 Cambodian nationalism did not have a military dimension. There was plenty of unrest in the southern part of the country but this was from bandits with a mercenary rather than a political agenda. Indeed some tended to avoid the French, selecting rich Chinese and ordinary Khmer villagers as their victims.1
This photo was taken in 1945 and appears to show the Japanese surrender in Indochina. With this ended any hopes for a Cambodian militia to fight the French
The armed struggle to remove the French probably began under the Japanese, who were keen to train locals into a militia to help defend their rule against the returning French and their allies. Some of the future military leaders of the country received their first military training here.2 Among the group were future Issarak leaders, such as Prince Chantaraingsey and Savang Vong, both of whom would have a disruptor role in the Kampot and Takeo region in coming years.
When Japanese troops arrived in Tonkin (the northernmost tip of French Indochina) in 1940, they paused and considered their position. Did they want to commit troops to a conflict they didn’t need or could they achieve what they wanted by other means? What followed over the next 5 years was a ‘dance’ between an overwhelming Asian military power and a weakened European colonial administration who would be allowed to stay in place as long as they did what they were told.
Nationalist fighters from the late 1940's