|Of all the Indochinese regions, Cambodia probably saw the
during the French Indochina War. That is not to say that nothing
in the country during this period - in fact, many seeds of the later
were sown during this time. Political activity was more important than
- but did not entirely replace - military guerrilla action in
Although Cambodia had a rich and powerful past under the Hindu state of
Funan and the Kingdom of Angkor, by the mid-nineteenth century the
(like Laos) was on the verge of collapse. After repeated requests for
assistance, a protectorate was established in 1863. By 1884, Cambodia
a virtual colony, and soon after it was made part of the Indochina
with Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchine, and Laos. France continued to control
the country even after the start of World War II through its Vichy
though border provinces were seized by Thailand after the war of
The Japanese removed the French regime early in 1945, and Prince
Sihanouk declared an independent state of Cambodia (within the "Greater
Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" set up by Japan). This was short-lived, as
Allies retook Indochina and brought the French back. As in Laos, a
of Viet Minh style communist nationalism, and court politics reigned in
The dominant ethnic group are the Khmer, about 85% of the
The remainder are mostly Vietnamese, along with ethnic Chinese, and
Chams. A number of primitive tribes make up the remainder. The
count for as much as 10% of the population. In Cambodia tensions
Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese have been the norm for centuries, and
Vietnamese are poorly integrated into the Khmer population. Compared to
the ethnic Vietnamese the ethnic Chinese are better integrated, and the
Chinese, or Khmer families with Chinese ancestry, played an important
in the Cambodian economy and in politics. The Chams had for several
settled in the territory north of Phnom Penh but originally they were
the Da Nang area in present-day Vietnam. Until the 15th century the
of Champa, centered near modern Da Nang, ruled the trade route between
China and Southeast Asia. Subsequently, the Chams were pushed farther
farther to the South and West by the more numerous Vietnamese. During
time of the decline of the realm of Angkor they settled in the
of what is now Cambodia. In the 17th century, after the Khmer king Chan
converted to Islam and invited Malay Muslims into Cambodia, most Cham
Islam. The influence of Malay Muslims can be recognized today in many
customs, including the way they dress. Only small numbers of ethnic
and Laotians live in Cambodia, in the western Cambodian town of
and the respective border areas. One reason for the low penetration of
Cambodia from these two neighbouring countries is the topography of the
border regions with Thailand and Laos. While there are no natural
between Cambodia and South Vietnam (the region is one geographic
the borders with Laos and Thailand clearly follow the mountain
Timeline 1945-54 for Cambodia
7th February: US B-29 bombers bomb Phnom Penh. One of the targets is
Unnalom monastery, at which 20 monks (and other personnel) are killed.
A professor of Pali at the monastery - Tou Samouth, who had previously
taken part in a 1942 rebellion - was stirred to move to Vietnam and
the PCI (Indochinese Communist Party)
9th March: The Japanese remove the French administration and intern
of the French military and administration.
12 March: King Sihanouk renounces the Franco-Cambodian treaties, and
up a new government under his control.
13 April: Sihanouk publicly glorifies the "Empire of the Rising Sun,
of the Asian peoples".
30th May: The ardent nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh returns to Phnom Penh
becomes Foreign Minister.
June: Formation of a "Freedom" (Issarak) group at Battambang.
25th June: Sihanouk reiterates Cambodian claims on Cochinchina.
9th August: Unhappy with what they see as a weak and conservative
seven young anti-monarchist nationalists stage an attempted coup.
by a large number of monks - most notably the militant Son Ngoc Minh -
and by the old-boys of the Sisowath Lycée, they enter the Royal
palace in the dead of night, demanding the abdication of the King, and
the dissolution of the government. Son Ngoc Thanh orders their arrest,
but five escape and join the PCI in 1946.
14th August: Son Ngoc Thanh becomes President of the Council of
15th August: Japan surrenders.
28th September: Letter from Sihanouk to Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu
High Commissioner for Indochina), asking for negotiations on the
8th October: British Lt. Col. E. D. Murray arrives in Phnom Penh with a
detachment of Gurkhas and the title of "Supreme Allied Commander", to
the Japanese troops. Murray (following discussions with the Cambodian
of Defence, Kim Tith) flies to Saigon on 11th October to meet his
(General Gracey) and the newly arrived General Leclerc. He suggests
Son Ngoc Thanh be arrested.
15th October: Gen. Leclerc arrives in Phnom Penh. Son Ngoc Thanh is
by Murray to meet Leclerc, arrested and taken to prison in Saigon (from
where, after a lengthy trial, he is deported to France in 1947).
is conveniently on a pilgrimage during these events, and is brought
to Phnom Penh under an Allied escort. Kim Tith joins the French, while
the Finance Minister (Pach Choeun) takes to the hills with the rebels.
17th October: Following the announcement of Thanh's arrest, Prince
(a military-trained conservative who was probably involved in Thanh's
and who is also Sihanouk's uncle) takes office as prime minister.
23rd October: Sihanouk agrees to read out a prepared statement in which
he declares his loyalty, and that of the Cambodian people, to France,
that he accepts the French plan to form an Indochinese Federation
the French Union.
4th January: A Franco-Khmer "modus vivendi" is signed. The French
is ended, giving Cambodia a dubious autonomous status within the French
Union. A French Commissioner is to be appointed, with French
within the new administration. France maintains control over defence
foreign affairs. Sihanouk demands that new legislation on free speech
formation of political parties be included.
January: Formation of the Association des Etudiants Khmers (AEK
- Khmer Student Association) in Paris under Ea Si Chau, who remains in
Paris until 1950.
March?: The Kanaq Sereipheap (Liberal Party) is founded by
Norodom Norindeth (a rival claimant to the throne) with clandestine
backing. With support mainly from those close to the Royal Family, and
the Sino-Khmer business class, it stands for closer ties with
April: Cambodian intellectuals, headed by Sim Var, Chhean Vom and Ieu
found the Pak Pracheatipatey (Democratic Party), with some
and Royal (notably from Sihanouk's father, Prince Suramarit) support .
10th April: Romain Pénavaire becomes Commissioner.
June: Prince Sisowath Yuthevong, returning from France (where he had
involved with socialist politics, but had earned a reputation for
and integrity), is elected President of the Pak Pracheatipatey. Married
to a Frenchwoman, and without the typical web of clients in Cambodia,
is seen by many as an ideal alternative to either nepotistic
or direct French rule.
7th August: A group of 300 Issarak activists, led by Dap Chhuon (a
who had previously served as a sergeant in the Thai Army), Norodom
(a rebel prince) and Son Ngoc Minh, occupy Siem Reap and the Angkor
complex for 6 days. In the fighting, 7 French officers are killed.
10th-12th August: CEFEO troops (Demi-Brigade SAS, Legion and
armour) are sent to Siem Reap to reinforce the garrison there.
1 September: First ever democratic elections held in Cambodia. The
gain an absolute majority in the resulting assembly, and aim to
programmes of anti-colonialism and modernisation of the State. Their
campaign is successful despite interference by both French and
17th November: A Franco-Thai agreement nullifies the Tokyo convention
1941, and returns the Cambodian provinces occupied by Thailand. The
Franco-Thai Treaty is ressurected. However, Thailand unilaterally
a presence on the site of the Temple of Preah Vihear, and continues to
support and harbour the Issarak movement through into 1948.
9th-23rd December: Operation Omega. CEFEO troops (1 squadron
staff from the 9e DIC, 1 battery of III/RACM, plus a batallion of
reoccupy Poipet and Pailiu, recently relinquished by the Thais.
15th December: Under pressure from his nephew, Prince Monireth finally
stands down as Prime Minister in favour of Prince Youthevong.
7th January: The US State Department refuses to transmit an Issarak
to the Secretary-General of the UN, demanding the independence of the
6th May: Promulgation of the new Constitution - Cambodia becomes a
20th May: Léon Pignon becomes French Commissioner.
11 July: Unexpected death of Youthevong.
25 July: Sisowath Watchhayavong becomes head of government.
29th October - 6th November: Operation Neron. Sweep of the
of Reeds by 1 batallion of the DBCCP.
21 December: Democrats maintain their absolute majority in
25th December (to 2nd January 1948): Operation Pluton. Airborne
operation by the HQ and 1 company of the 2e BCCP, as a raid on a Viet
base on the Koulen Khuo plateau in Siem Reap province.
2nd January: Chhean Vom forms new government.
1st February: Formation, at Battambang, of the "Liberation Committee of
the Khmer People" (CLPK - comité de libération du
khmer) presided over by Dap Chhuon. The CLPK commands a force of
men, and has links (and later alliances) with the VM.
15th August: Penn Nouth takes power.
20th October: Lucien Loubet becomes interim French Commissioner.
February: The CLPK becomes the CNKL (Comité National Khmer de
Libération - Khmer National Liberation Committee), with a
from the VM. The new president is Poc Khan.
12th February: Yem Sambaur heads government.
26th February: Jean de Raymond becomes French Commissioner.
24th-25th March: Operation Prestige. Airborne operation aimed
destroying VM units around Giong Thanh, carried out by the HQ and 2
of the 2e BEP, together with 1 company of the Royal Khmer Army.
March-June: Tensions rise between different factions of the Issarak
concerning whether to form an alliance with the VM or not. The Issarak
splits into left- and right-wing groups, and the left-wing start to
a Cambodian communist party.
18th September: Sihanouk dissolves the National Assembly, and
postpones the elections due in November.
20th September: Ieu Koeus forms a government answering solely to the
28th September - 2nd October: Operation Ocedar. Attack by the
BEP on VM units in the Sri Chen area.
1st October: Dap Chhoun rallies to the government. He is left free to
a large part of northern Cambodia as a virtual warlord.
8th November: Franco-Cambodian Treaty is signed. Cambodia becomes an
state within the French Union. The treaty specifies that Cambodia does
not renounce its' claims on Cochinchina.
14th January: Assassination of Ieu Koeus.
10th March: Strike action in the Chup plantations.
12-22nd March: Seminar in Ha Tien (southern Vietnam) attended by a
communist delegation, led by Son Ngoc Minh, and a Vietnamese communist
group under Le Duc Tho.
28th March: Operation Ceramique. Sweep of Pursat by the 1er
31st March - 1st April: Airborne assault on Kra Lanh (northern
by the HQ of 2e BCCP, GC3 of 1er BCCP, elements of BAPS, and 1 commando
of EMO Sud.
5th-10th April: Operation Canigou. Sweep of Kompong Canang by
17th-19th April: The first Khmer resistance congress is held at Kompong
Som Loeu. 200 activists (including 105 monks) decide to create the Front
Uni Issarak (FUI - United Issarak Front), led by Son Ngoc Minh. A
cadre, the Comité Central provisoire de Libération du
Peuple (CCLP - Provisional Central Committee for the Liberation of
the People) is founded, with Son Ngoc Minh as President, Chan Samay
Sieu Heng (Vice-President and Defence Minister), Tou Samouth
Son Phuoc Rattana and Non Suon. A red flag with a yellow image of the
Wat temple (with five towers) in the centre, is adopted as the symbol
3rd May: Government headed by Sihanouk, provisionally.
1st June: Government headed by Sisowath Monipong.
19th June: The FUI declare that they control a third of the country,
in the name of the FUI and CCLP, Son Ngoc Minh proclaims the
of Cambodia. A "Marxist Circle" of Khmer students in Paris is formed -
though the students are mostly nationalist and anti-monarchist rather
socialist. One of the notable student activists is Saloth Sar (later
as Pol Pot).
14th October: Cambodia joins the UN Convention on the Prevention of
(of 9th December 1948).
1st November: In Paris, the AEK elects Van Molyvann as President.
22nd November: Meeting between Sieu Heng (FUI), Souphanouvong (Laos)
Ton Duc Thang (VM), preparing to transform the PCI into three
Communist Parties, acting in concert.
8th February: The 9 Cambodian cadres within the PCI meet with Le Duc
and decide to create the Parti Révolutionnaire de Peuple Khmer
(PRPK - Khmer People's Revolutionary Party).
11-19th February: 2nd Congress of the PCI, at which it transforms
into the Workers Party of Vietnam. The formation of the PRPK is
but the date of the 1st Congress of the PRPK is disputed (19th
28th June, or 30th September have been suggested).
3rd March: Government of Oum Chheangsun.
11th March: The communist movements of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia meet
in Vietnam and announce a common programme.
26th July: Sihanouk calls the Issarak militants the Khmer Viet Minh.
9th September: General Election. After a 23-month suspension of
processes, a legislative assembly is once more in place. The Democratic
Party wins a landslide victory.
30th September: A "formation and propaganda" committee - i.e. the
central committee of the PRPK - is founded with Son Ngoc Minh as
The PRPK now contains about 1000 members.
13th October: Huy Kanthoul heads the new democratic government.
29th October: Return of Son Ngoc Thanh to Phnom Penh, having been under
effective arrest in Saigon and France since 1945. He is greeted by tens
of thousands of people, including the Prime Minister and many of the
On the same day, Jean de Raymond, the French Commissioner, is
General Yves Digo is nominated his replacement on the following day. In
Paris, Hou Yuon becomes president of the AEK.
January: The CCLP renames itself as the Gouvernement de la
Khmer (GRK - Khmer Resistance Government), with Son Ngoc Minh as
11th January: Son Ngoc Thanh founds the journal Khmer Krok
Uprising") which proposes radical reforms. This divides the democrats,
and the journal is banned a month later.
9th March: Son Ngoc Thanh leaves Phnom Penh and rallies the (pro-Thai)
right-wing of the Issarak movement.
6th May: Anti-French demonstration in Phnom Penh organised by the
16th May: Jean Risterucci becomes Commissioner.
19th May: Anti-French demonstration in Battambang organised by the
26th May: Anti-French demonstrations in Phnom Penh, Battambang and
Cham organised by the Democratic Party. Early June: The Democratic
arrests a group of politicians who (with some army support) are
the dissolution of this government. Amongst them are Lon Nol and Yem
15th June: First phase of the Royal coup d'Etat. As French troops move
into Phnom Penh, Sihanouk dissolves the Democratic Government and
direct rule for three years as the Royal Mission.
16th June: Sihanouk takes power.
6th July: The Khmer Students Association (AEK) of France writes an open
letter complaining at the treatment of the legal government in
24th September: The CNKL and FUI join forces.
27th November: The pro-US Son Ngoc Thanh and the pro-Vietnamese Son
Minh each campaign in vain to be recognised as supreme head of the FUI.
A new series of negotiations and agreements between the two factions
little except for an agreement to assure their mutual security (which
last until 1954).
11th January: Sihanouk demands extraordinary powers from the National
13th January: In the second phase of the Royal coup d'Etat, Sihanouk
the National Assembly and declares a national state of emergency. Nine
deputies of the Democratic Party are arrested, on charges of
with the Issarak Movement and the Viet Minh.
14th January: Saloth Sar returns to Cambodia.
27th January: A National Consultative Council is formed by Sihanouk
amongst the former parlimentarians.
9th February: Beginning of the "Royal Crusade for Independence".
abdicates in favour of his father, and leaves for France (where he
the French government to suppress the AEK.
25th March: Sihanouk meets with French President Vincent Auriol, but
to convince him of the need to grant Cambodian independence.
April: Sihanouk travels in Canada, the USA and Japan, seeking support
12th June: Sihanouk declares himself in self-imposed exile in Siem
and announces his aim to free Cambodia.
14th June: Sihanouk travels to Bangkok, where he is ill-received by
26th June: Back in Battambang, Sihanouk calls for a general display of
support for his cause. 200,000 people respond.
3rd July: France declares herself ready to grant independence to
29th July: Sihanouk returns to power.
25th August: Franco-Khmer negotiations begin.
29th August: Franco-Khmer Accord transfers judicial and police powers
9th-11th October: Operation Seine. Sweep by riverine forces
Song Bay and the mid-Mekong.
17th October: Franco-Khmer Accord transfers control of local military
7th November: France transfers all remaining sovereign powers to
(notably control of defence policy).
9th November: Sihanouk declares Cambodian Independence.
23rd November: The Chan Nak administration takes power.
17th-30th December: Operation Samaki. Military action
by French aircraft (based at Saigon) aiming to suppress Viet Minh
in Battambang province.
The Royal Khmer Forces
There had been Khmer units in French service since long before the
War, but it was not until 1951 that (like Vietnam and Laos) a
Royale Khmère (ARK - Royal Khmer Army) was founded under the
overall command of King Norodom Sihanouk. This force consisted
6 Battalions of Chasseurs Cambodgiens (Cambodian Light Infantry)
1 Reconnaissance Squadron (Including a River Flotilla)
1 Squadron of Parachutists
There was no independent Khmer airforce at this point.
The Corps franc Khmer (Light troops for infiltration, raiding,
Cambodian Reconnaissance Units
Since their formation in September 1946, each battalion of the Régiment
de Marche du Cambodge (which became the Régiment Mixte
Cambodge - RMC - in 1947) contained a mounted section. A decision
19th July 1949 called for the fourth company of each battalion to be
to a mounted squadron, with cadres from the CEFEO Armoured Cavalry
Thus the 9th Coy. of the 3rd Bn. of the RMC was disbanded and replaced
by the 3rd Mounted Squadron, based at Sisophon, which was charged with
the security of the road between Sisophon and Siem Reap. The RMC, which
was disbanded in October 1953, gave rise to two battalions of Chasseurs
The first Reconnaissance Squadron of the ARK was formed in
at Phnom Penh, based around a detached squadron of the 5e RSM (Moroccan
Spahis). Together with another squadron, formed soon afterwards, and
Mounted Squadron of the RMC, these formed the Reconnaissance Regiment
Two squadrons of the (French) 4e Régiment de
having been reduced to a battalion of dragons à pied
dragoons), was absorbed in June 1954 into the composition of the 1st
Khmer Cavalry Battalion which itself formed part of the 1st Khmer
Uniforms and Equipment of ARK Forces
Like other indigenous forces, the ARK were generally decked-out in a
of British, US and French uniforms. The British-style slouch-hat was
Small-arms were mainly of American patterns.
Like their counterparts in Vietnam and Laos, the early Issarak military
units were mixtures of idealistic volunteers, bandits and "local
militias. Unfortunately, little detail is forthcoming concerning their
organisation, but I shall attempt here to give some examples of the
in service. It should be noted that the support for the Issarak
was initially mainly from Thailand, with the VM eventually taking their
Rural violence against the returned French escalated during
without any apparent direction from the Issarak movement. In the
of Kampot and Takeo, bordering Cochinchina, the Issarak partisans were
at their strongest (though still not numerous) and a French propaganda
camera unit visiting this area in 1946-47 found the atmosphere to be
compared to other regions of Cambodia. In these regions the Issaraks
communist schools and were more concerned with the pan-Indochinese
than most other Issaraks, but there were still appeals to the local
inspiring them to rise in the name of Buddha, or to recover the
past of Angkor.
A joint Issarak-Viet Minh command was set up during February
Bangkok, under the command of an ex-sergeant in the Cambodian Militia,
Dap (Sergeant) Chhuon. He had deserted from the French service in 1943
and gone over to the Thais - for whom he organised anti-French
in Cambodia. Chhuon was thought by the Cambodians to have magical
and had a following in the Kulen Mountains (north of Siem Reap). In
1946 his partisans had been part of the forces occupying Angkor Wat,
he was reputed to have command of "200 Germans, 300 Japanese, 200
girls, and many partisans" - the Germans, and almost certainly the
as well, were fanciful. In 1948 he was named as military commander of
CLPK, with approximately 800 men under his command on the "Kulen
Later, when the French gave control of Siem Reap to King Sihanouk in
Chhuon came over to the King with 400 armed men and retained an almost
feudal control over the area.
Another two Issarak bands were active in central Cambodia
The first was led by the Japanese-trained Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey
in northern Kompong Speu, near to the old Royal capital of Udong, where
the princely rebel could rely on support from the peasantry. His forces
were also involved in the Angkor Wat occupation of August 1946, and
joined the anti-communist Issaraks under Son Ngoc Thanh in Siem Reap.
The other band was led by Puth Chhay, who was a
who came over to the Issaraks after serving time in a French prison for
robbery and assault. A true bandit chief in his stronghold of S'aang
of Phnom Penh), he commanded approximately a thousand men, and hated
French. He drank heavily, was a womaniser, relied heavily on magic, and
was cruel to his prisoners. He also later came over to Son Ngoc
The communist rebels were always relatively small in number
were estimated to only be around 40 Khmer members of the ICP in 1950,
opposed to some thousand or more ethnic Vietnamese members in Cambodia.
The peasantry were generally slow to rise up and join in a popular
being conservative and somewhat timid. They prefered, on the whole, to
follow a King, and thus Sihanouk gained popularity at the communists'
It is notable that many of the Issarak leaders of the later years of
war were ethnic Khmers from Cochinchina.
Few photographs of Issarak soldiers have survived, but traditional garb
for Khmer is a black pyjama suit (similar to that of Cochinchina) with
a checked scarf (sometimes worn wrapped around the head). Bush-hats
popular with the later Khmer Rouge guerrillas, and were probably also
earlier. Weapons would have mainly been French or US patterns captured
from the French forces, or US small-arms provided by the Thais. Later,
the communist partisans received Chinese/Soviet types via Vietnam.
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