When Cambodia was granted independence in November 1953, it made little difference to the lives of most of the population, who struggled to survive on the rice plains.

Sihanouk was still the king, the French (who most Khmers had rarely seen) were gone, and life was still very tenuous. One sixth of the sub-districts in the country were under guerilla control1  and, in many areas including much of Kampot province, this situation hardly changed for the next half century. 

Sihanouk had been put on the throne by the French but brought to power by a wave of popular nationalism. With independence he was the undisputed leader of his country, but had inherited a democratic political structure from France. Before the 1955 elections were held, in a surprising move Sihanouk abdicated his throne, passing it over to other family members, and entered politics as the head of a party called Sangkum Reastr Niyum, meaning the “community of the common people”.

 

A 1955 official portrait of King Norodom Sihanouk2