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
Sihanouk renounces US aid
Without the French to guarantee Cambodia’s borders, the job now fell to Sihanouk, and he cast around for powerful nations to provide this reassurance, including the US. The world superpower would not agree to this and in 1963, in a fit of pique, he renounced all US aid, and took a series of economic decisions that plagued his country for the rest of his rule. 4
He nationalised all import and export trade, and also the banks, and other industries. Unfortunately the institutions he set up to replace the free market versions were not up to the job, and corruption worsened. Credit dried up, and many rice growers ignored the new regulations to sell only to the government, preferring to sell to Chinese merchants, who paid cash (unlike the government) and in turn sold the rice to the communist forces over the border.
In renouncing US aid, Sihanouk also made enemies of many in the armed forces who now saw 30% of their budget disappear overnight. Spare parts and even uniforms were depleted, fuel was short with a lack of foreign currency, and the officers had to look for creative ways to maintain some sort of functionality.
The following year, 1964, Osborne states that Sihanouk arranged with China that they could bring arms through the port at Sihanoukville and take 10% for themselves. This of course was denied vigorously and was never really proven by the CIA until after Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970. They knew of the corruption of large numbers of military officers but did not see Sihanouk’s hand. This infiltration of military supplies and rice from Cambodia into the southern delta became known as the “Sihanouk Trail”.
Kampot prison during Sihanouks rule
Too little, too late
Sihanouk did try to make up with the US in early 1968 and undo some of the harm his policies had created but it was too late, and the forces unleashed by the raging Vietnam War overwhelmed the nation. Those elements of the Phnom Penh elite and armed forces who suffered from Sihanouk’s policies and his seeming unwillingness to change conspired to remove him.
This eventually happened in March 1970 when Lon Nol, a long time military and right wing political leader carried out a coup, with the blessing of the US.
- David Chandler, 2001, The Tragedy of Cambodian History, p 71, Silkworm Books, Bangkok
- Chandler, ibid
- Milton Osborne, Sihanouk, Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness,(Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 1994)