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.
The first mention of a ‘southwest’ area for communist activities seen by this author is in 1950, with the founding of the Unified Issarak Front at a meeting in Kompong Som (Sihanoukville). 3 This followed shortly after a meeting just over the border in Ha Tien run by the Vietminh.
The UIF was a united front, which, in a manner to be repeated in 1970 with the FUNK, was always intended to be directed and run by the communist movement. Son Ngoc Minh4 was the founder, and he set up a Peoples Liberation Central Committee shortly after. This had three zones; the south-west, the north-west and the east. Minh was the first Khmer member of the Indochinese Communist Party.5
By 1948 the pepper industry of Kampot province, was in the hands of the nationalists and generating funds to buy weapons and munitions. 6 In fact Minh claimed in June 1950 that, since the guerilla movement controlled over a third of the territory of the country, they were declaring independence from France. 7
A travelling Frenchman noted of the guerillas, “… their presence in the region makes for a heavy atmosphere”, in contrast to other parts he visited. He quoted a pamphlet put out by a nationalist organisation “… the French, who we thought had been chased out forever, have begun to return, and, as in the past, are growing rich on the labour of the peasants”8
Although inspired and imagined by the communists, the Issaraks were not a homogenous group, reflecting the wide range of opposition to French rule. The French sought to exploit this by a divide and conquer strategy. They sought to cut deals with Issarak warlords who controlled territory, getting them to agree to fight the Vietminh and allow the French army to move through without conflict, in return for a free hand in their territory.
Prince Chantaraingsey managed large tracts of Kompong Speu in this way. Savang Vong, described as a “sickly, opium addict”9 similarly managed an area straddling Kompong Speu and Takeo. Here, a young and bold radical called Ta Mok was waging battle as much against a fellow Issarak, Savang Vong, as against the French.
The Issarak “Central Office” was named as Mt La’ang10 in Kampot province and remained a Khmer Rouge stronghold throughout their rule. The southwest headquarters of the Issaraks however, was identified by the Governor of Kampot as in the Koh Sla river valley, an area of hill country about 35 kilometres directly north of Kampot, in Chhouk district. He intended to create a war zone in which residence and travel were forbidden11
A recent photo of Koh Sla hill country
(Ken Lau, Creative commons - http://www.panoramio.com/photo/91699329)
Guerrilla numbers and impact in all parts of the southwest region were spiraling upwards. If you travelled west from Kampot, 30 bridges (out of 50) were destroyed. Despite the surrender of 3,500 Issaraks ‘from 1949’ (probably to 1952) there was little appreciable impact on security.12
In Takeo and other provinces the French, in a strategy the Americans used later in Vietnam, decided to remove peasants from their land and set them up in “large fortified villages” along the main road. In Takeo alone, 282,000 villagers were moved into these ‘protected villages’.13 Kampot was to follow. In July 1952, 30,000 peasants were forcibly relocated, despite attempts by the UIF leader to burn them down. 14
In 1953, Sihanouk decided to be part of the solution and put himself at the head of the wave of resistance to French rule. He declared a "Royal Crusade for Independence" which won concessions immediately from a financially and militarily exhausted French regime. Non communist Issaraks disbanded, assuming, correctly, that their nationalist revolution would be more likely achieved by Sihanouk. French defeat at Dien Bien Phu followed in July 1954 and, in the conference to bring the colonial experience to a close, Cambodians were now in control of their own affairs.
While the national revolution was formalized by the Geneva Accords of 1955, the socialist revolution was indefinitely postponed and the Khmers who had fought for this, were told by the Vietminh to leave their homeland and join the new communist regime in Hanoi. A thousand cadres, including their leader Son Ngoc Minh, left.
The subordination of the Cambodian revolution to the needs of the Vietnamese were seen as sowing the seeds of betrayal, and Pol Pot never forgot this. He learnt that the revolutionary Khmers needed to be in charge of their own fate and would never be comfortable playing second fiddle to anyone else, especially the Vietnamese.
The southwest region would be a quiet place for most of the next decade. Even Ta Mok went to Phnom Penh to study. The other revolutionaries left, or arriving back in the country from Paris, bided their time by becoming teachers - where they helped educate the next generation of radicals. But that is another story.
- Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power. (Verso, London, 1986), p 14.
- David Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History. (Silkworm Books, Bangkok, 1991), p 21
- Kiernan, ibid, p 79
- His name was really ‘Achar Mean’ (Achar meaning someone with a functionary role in a pagoda) and he presumably aspired to the influence of both Son Ngoc Thanh, local nationalist leader, and Ho Chi Minh.
- Kiernan, ibid, p 45
- Chandler, ibid p 40
- Kiernan, ibid, p 80. No country took this seriously.
- Chandler, Ibid. The Frenchman was a Phillipe Devillers, a young soldier and later scholar of the region making a propaganda film.
- Kiernan, ibid p 76
- Phnom La'ang is on National Road #3, about 35 kilometres NE from Kampot town. It stayed in KR hands until well into the 1990's
- Kiernan, ibid, p 85
- Ibid, p 87
- Ibid p 86
- Ibid p 127