In the mid nineteenth century the expansive French empire was in competition with the British, and this motivated them to strengthen their hold on what became known as Indochina. In 1863 France established a “protectorate” over Cambodia, and in doing so defined the country in the modern sense.

Their efforts over the next 40 years ensured that Siam (Thailand) and Cochinchina (Vietnam) did not absorb the land of the Khmers. “For its own reasons, France preserved Cambodia’s existence.”1 The French built up the monarchy, led by King Norodom, ensuring it became a symbol of national pride and identity.

Although ensuring Cambodia’s existence and forcing Siam to relinquish large chunks of territory2, the French presence was not accepted peacefully by the Khmers. Muller wrote "Cambodians neither surrendered nor fought back but instead turned away and went about their business, smiling politely and paying no further attention. …. They (the French) had come to colonize, to civilize, to modernize, and no-one seemed to care"3 This changed in 1885-6 when a series of revolts broke out (including in Kampot) when the French forced the king to give up the right to independently raise taxes.

In 1906 Marseille hosted exotic Cambodian dancers at a colonial exposition4

Abolishing slavery

Despite siding with the French in putting the rebellions down, Norodom continued to resist attempts by the French to bring changes such as abolishing slavery and modernizing the legal code, land ownership and administration. Not until after his death in 1904 did change accelerate and the economy grow, under King Sisowath.

To fund the colonial bureaucracy in Indochina, France established state monopolies on staple products such as salt and alcohol (rice wine) and then charged consumers a hefty price for something they were used to producing for themselves. For a country with little surplus from producing rice this caused deep resentment and kept Cambodian peasants mired in poverty. Opium production and distribution was also a state monopoly until after WW2, and helped blunt effective resistance to their rule.

In 1916 at least 30,000 peasants5 converged on Phnom Penh to petition King Sisowath to reduce the impact of another hated imposition, the corvee, a system of forced labour which was used to build roads and infrastructure as well as funnel labour to rubber plantations in the east. The peasants left with vague promises but little changed.

With a monarch (King Sisowath) in power more amenable to French goals, the economy underwent significant change in such fundamental areas as land ownership. The French had a negative view of Cambodians potential for skilled labour and deliberately brought in other ethnic groups as part of their plans to modernize the economy and society.

Chinese traders

Vietnamese clerks were imported to run the provincial administration and Chinese traders, long active in this part of the world, were encouraged to operate and stimulate commerce in provincial areas, such as Kampot. Most urban areas, such as Kampot, in the first half of the twentieth century had few Khmers, and mainly comprised Chinese, Vietnamese as well as French officials.

Under the French in the first half of the twentieth century, there was a “tremendous extension in land under cultivation and rice production,”6 partly as a result of the modernization reforms. The rice-growing peasants however continued to live in abject poverty with low productivity, unavoidable taxes and a growing indebtedness to Chinese moneylenders, who became the “social overlords of the Kampuchean peasantry.”7

Banditry also was a feature of life in the inaccessible and lawless countryside. The low-lying terrain of much of Cambodia’s heartland meant it was expensive to build roads and much of the interior remained a no-go area to authorities who, apart from collecting taxes, had little reason to go there. Partly as a result of this, bandits roamed the provinces radiating out from Phnom Penh, targeting Khmer villagers and Chinese traders and adding to the troubles of peasants simply trying to survive.

Through the 1930’s a nationalist movement developed in the pagodas around the country and in Phnom Penh as forward thinkers tried to imagine a life without the French. A Khmer newspaper, Nagravatta, edited by Son Ngoc Thanh, was started in 1936 and the French actively encouraged the development of a local Buddhist culture as a counter to the Thai influence. Ironically, the pagodas became the training ground for the generation of nationalist and communist revolutionaries who rose to power later in the century.

Early Cambodian nationalist, Son Ngoc Thanh8

In 1939 many Frenchmen left Indochina to fight for their divided nation in Europe as Hitler invaded and occupied Paris. The Japanese arrived in Indochina a year later and France never again peacefully ruled the region. They formally left Cambodia in 1953, and the rest of Indochina the following year.


  1. Milton E Osborne, 1997, The French presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia, White Lotus, Bangkok, p
  2. France and Siam (Thailand) had constant disputes over Cambodian land. Battambang and Siem Reap (containing Angkor Wat) were handed back to Cambodia in 1907, under military pressure from France. However this situation reversed in 1940 when France lost a brief military conflict and Cambodia lost these provinces again. They were returned in 1946.
  3. Gregor Muller, 2006, Colonial Cambodia's 'Bad Frenchmen', Routledge, New York, p 8
  5. Osborne suggested the figure could be as much as 100,000. Milton Osborne, “Peasant Politics in Cambodia: The 1916 Affair” Modern Asian Studies No 12, 1978, pp 217-243
  6. Ben Kiernan and Chanthou Bou, Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1942-1981, Sharpe, 1982, London, p 3.
  7. Ibid, p 4