Menu Site Map Links Misc. Terrain Scenarios Operations Viet Minh CEFEO History Home What's New
The Origins of the War

The War in Cambodia 1945-53

Of all the Indochinese regions, Cambodia probably saw the least fighting during the French Indochina War. That is not to say that nothing happened in the country during this period - in fact, many seeds of the later struggles were sown during this time. Political activity was more important than - but did not entirely replace - military guerrilla action in Cambodia. 


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 country (like Laos) was on the verge of collapse. After repeated requests for French assistance, a protectorate was established in 1863. By 1884, Cambodia was a virtual colony, and soon after it was made part of the Indochina Union with Annam, Tonkin, Cochinchine, and Laos. France continued to control the country even after the start of World War II through its Vichy government, though border provinces were seized by Thailand after the war of 1940-41. The Japanese removed the French regime early in 1945, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk declared an independent state of Cambodia (within the "Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" set up by Japan). This was short-lived, as the Allies retook Indochina and brought the French back. As in Laos, a mixture of Viet Minh style communist nationalism, and court politics reigned in Cambodia. 

The dominant ethnic group are the Khmer, about 85% of the population. The remainder are mostly Vietnamese, along with ethnic Chinese, and Muslim Chams. A number of primitive tribes make up the remainder. The Vietnamese count for as much as 10% of the population. In Cambodia tensions between Khmer and ethnic Vietnamese have been the norm for centuries, and ethnic 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 part in the Cambodian economy and in politics. The Chams had for several centuries settled in the territory north of Phnom Penh but originally they were from the Da Nang area in present-day Vietnam. Until the 15th century the kingdom of Champa, centered near modern Da Nang, ruled the trade route between China and Southeast Asia. Subsequently, the Chams were pushed farther and farther to the South and West by the more numerous Vietnamese. During the time of the decline of the realm of Angkor they settled in the territory 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 embraced Islam. The influence of Malay Muslims can be recognized today in many Cham customs, including the way they dress. Only small numbers of ethnic Thais and Laotians live in Cambodia, in the western Cambodian town of Battambang 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 boundaries between Cambodia and South Vietnam (the region is one geographic entity) the borders with Laos and Thailand clearly follow the mountain ranges. 

Timeline 1945-54 for Cambodia


  • 7th February: US B-29 bombers bomb Phnom Penh. One of the targets is the 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 join the PCI (Indochinese Communist Party)
  • 9th March: The Japanese remove the French administration and intern most of the French military and administration.
  • 12 March: King Sihanouk renounces the Franco-Cambodian treaties, and sets up a new government under his control.
  • 13 April: Sihanouk publicly glorifies the "Empire of the Rising Sun, liberator of the Asian peoples".
  • 30th May: The ardent nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh returns to Phnom Penh and 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 regime, seven young anti-monarchist nationalists stage an attempted coup. Supported 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 Ministers.
  • 15th August: Japan surrenders.
  • 28th September: Letter from Sihanouk to Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu (French High Commissioner for Indochina), asking for negotiations on the independence of Cambodia.
  • 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 disarm the Japanese troops. Murray (following discussions with the Cambodian Minister of Defence, Kim Tith) flies to Saigon on 11th October to meet his superior (General Gracey) and the newly arrived General Leclerc. He suggests that Son Ngoc Thanh be arrested.
  • 15th October: Gen. Leclerc arrives in Phnom Penh. Son Ngoc Thanh is summoned 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). Sihanouk is conveniently on a pilgrimage during these events, and is brought back 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 Monireth (a military-trained conservative who was probably involved in Thanh's arrest, 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, and that he accepts the French plan to form an Indochinese Federation within the French Union. 


  • 4th January: A Franco-Khmer "modus vivendi" is signed. The French protectorate is ended, giving Cambodia a dubious autonomous status within the French Union. A French Commissioner is to be appointed, with French representation within the new administration. France maintains control over defence and foreign affairs. Sihanouk demands that new legislation on free speech and 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 Prince Norodom Norindeth (a rival claimant to the throne) with clandestine French backing. With support mainly from those close to the Royal Family, and the Sino-Khmer business class, it stands for closer ties with France. 
  • April: Cambodian intellectuals, headed by Sim Var, Chhean Vom and Ieu Koeus, found the Pak Pracheatipatey (Democratic Party), with some monastic 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 been involved with socialist politics, but had earned a reputation for honesty and integrity), is elected President of the Pak Pracheatipatey. Married to a Frenchwoman, and without the typical web of clients in Cambodia, he is seen by many as an ideal alternative to either nepotistic aristocrats or direct French rule. 
  • 7th August: A group of 300 Issarak activists, led by Dap Chhuon (a khmer who had previously served as a sergeant in the Thai Army), Norodom Chantaraingsey (a rebel prince) and Son Ngoc Minh, occupy Siem Reap and the Angkor temple complex for 6 days. In the fighting, 7 French officers are killed. 
  • 10th-12th August: CEFEO troops (Demi-Brigade SAS, Legion and ex-Japanese armour) are sent to Siem Reap to reinforce the garrison there. 
  • 1 September: First ever democratic elections held in Cambodia. The Democrats gain an absolute majority in the resulting assembly, and aim to initiate programmes of anti-colonialism and modernisation of the State. Their election campaign is successful despite interference by both French and pro-Monireth factions. 
  • 17th November: A Franco-Thai agreement nullifies the Tokyo convention of 1941, and returns the Cambodian provinces occupied by Thailand. The 1937 Franco-Thai Treaty is ressurected. However, Thailand unilaterally maintains 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 RICM, staff from the 9e DIC, 1 battery of III/RACM, plus a batallion of engineers) 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 memorandum to the Secretary-General of the UN, demanding the independence of the three Indochinese states. 
  • 6th May: Promulgation of the new Constitution - Cambodia becomes a Constitutional Monarchy. 
  • 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 Plain of Reeds by 1 batallion of the DBCCP. 
  • 21 December: Democrats maintain their absolute majority in elections. 
  • 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 Minh 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 peuple khmer) presided over by Dap Chhuon. The CLPK commands a force of 800 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 distancing 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 at destroying VM units around Giong Thanh, carried out by the HQ and 2 companies of the 2e BEP, together with 1 company of the Royal Khmer Army. 
  • March-June: Tensions rise between different factions of the Issarak movement, 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 form a Cambodian communist party. 
  • 18th September: Sihanouk dissolves the National Assembly, and indefinately postpones the elections due in November. 
  • 20th September: Ieu Koeus forms a government answering solely to the King. 
  • 28th September - 2nd October: Operation Ocedar. Attack by the 2e BEP on VM units in the Sri Chen area. 
  • 1st October: Dap Chhoun rallies to the government. He is left free to control a large part of northern Cambodia as a virtual warlord. 
  • 8th November: Franco-Cambodian Treaty is signed. Cambodia becomes an independant 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 Cambodian 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 BCCP. 
  • 31st March - 1st April: Airborne assault on Kra Lanh (northern Cambodia) 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 1er BCCP. 
  • 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 governmental 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 (Vice-President), Sieu Heng (Vice-President and Defence Minister), Tou Samouth (Vice-President), Son Phuoc Rattana and Non Suon. A red flag with a yellow image of the Angkor Wat temple (with five towers) in the centre, is adopted as the symbol of the FUI. 
  • 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, and in the name of the FUI and CCLP, Son Ngoc Minh proclaims the independance of Cambodia. A "Marxist Circle" of Khmer students in Paris is formed - though the students are mostly nationalist and anti-monarchist rather than socialist. One of the notable student activists is Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot). 
  • 14th October: Cambodia joins the UN Convention on the Prevention of Genocide (of 9th December 1948). 
  • 1st November: In Paris, the AEK elects Van Molyvann as President. 
  • 22nd November: Meeting between Sieu Heng (FUI), Souphanouvong (Laos) and Ton Duc Thang (VM), preparing to transform the PCI into three autonomous Communist Parties, acting in concert.


  • 8th February: The 9 Cambodian cadres within the PCI meet with Le Duc Tho 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 itself into the Workers Party of Vietnam. The formation of the PRPK is announced, but the date of the 1st Congress of the PRPK is disputed (19th February, 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 parlimentary 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 provisional central committee of the PRPK - is founded with Son Ngoc Minh as President. 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 Government. On the same day, Jean de Raymond, the French Commissioner, is assassinated. 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 Résistance Khmer (GRK - Khmer Resistance Government), with Son Ngoc Minh as President. 
  • 11th January: Son Ngoc Thanh founds the journal Khmer Krok ("Khmer 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 Democratic Party. 
  • 16th May: Jean Risterucci becomes Commissioner. 
  • 19th May: Anti-French demonstration in Battambang organised by the Democratic Party. 
  • 26th May: Anti-French demonstrations in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kompong Cham organised by the Democratic Party. Early June: The Democratic Government arrests a group of politicians who (with some army support) are demanding the dissolution of this government. Amongst them are Lon Nol and Yem Sambaur. 
  • 15th June: First phase of the Royal coup d'Etat. As French troops move into Phnom Penh, Sihanouk dissolves the Democratic Government and institutes 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 Cambodia. 
  • 24th September: The CNKL and FUI join forces. 
  • 27th November: The pro-US Son Ngoc Thanh and the pro-Vietnamese Son Ngoc 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 achieves little except for an agreement to assure their mutual security (which will last until 1954).


  • 11th January: Sihanouk demands extraordinary powers from the National Assembly. 
  • 13th January: In the second phase of the Royal coup d'Etat, Sihanouk dissolves the National Assembly and declares a national state of emergency. Nine deputies of the Democratic Party are arrested, on charges of collaboration 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 from amongst the former parlimentarians. 
  • 9th February: Beginning of the "Royal Crusade for Independence". Sihanouk abdicates in favour of his father, and leaves for France (where he persuades the French government to suppress the AEK. 
  • 25th March: Sihanouk meets with French President Vincent Auriol, but fails to convince him of the need to grant Cambodian independence. 
  • April: Sihanouk travels in Canada, the USA and Japan, seeking support for Cambodian independence. 
  • 12th June: Sihanouk declares himself in self-imposed exile in Siem Reap, and announces his aim to free Cambodia. 
  • 14th June: Sihanouk travels to Bangkok, where he is ill-received by Marshal Phibul Songgram. 
  • 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 Cambodia. 
  • 29th July: Sihanouk returns to power. 
  • 25th August: Franco-Khmer negotiations begin. 
  • 29th August: Franco-Khmer Accord transfers judicial and police powers to Cambodia. 
  • 9th-11th October: Operation Seine. Sweep by riverine forces between Song Bay and the mid-Mekong. 
  • 17th October: Franco-Khmer Accord transfers control of local military forces to Cambodia. 
  • 7th November: France transfers all remaining sovereign powers to Cambodia (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 undertaken by French aircraft (based at Saigon) aiming to suppress Viet Minh activity in Battambang province. 

The Royal Khmer Forces

There had been Khmer units in French service since long before the Indochina War, but it was not until 1951 that (like Vietnam and Laos) a semi-independent Armée Royale Khmère (ARK - Royal Khmer Army) was founded under the overall command of King Norodom Sihanouk. This force consisted of: 
  • 6 Battalions of Chasseurs Cambodgiens (Cambodian Light Infantry)
  • 1 Reconnaissance Squadron (Including a River Flotilla)
  • 1 Squadron of Parachutists
  • 1 Company of Engineers
  • 15 Infantry Companies
  • The Corps franc Khmer (Light troops for infiltration, raiding, reconnaissance, etc) 
There was no independent Khmer airforce at this point. 

Cambodian Reconnaissance Units

Since their formation in September 1946, each battalion of the Régiment de Marche du Cambodge (which became the Régiment Mixte du Cambodge - RMC - in 1947) contained a mounted section. A decision of 19th July 1949 called for the fourth company of each battalion to be converted to a mounted squadron, with cadres from the CEFEO Armoured Cavalry units. 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 Cambodgiens

The first Reconnaissance Squadron of the ARK was formed in January 1951 at Phnom Penh, based around a detached squadron of the 5e RSM (Moroccan Spahis). Together with another squadron, formed soon afterwards, and the Mounted Squadron of the RMC, these formed the Reconnaissance Regiment of the ARK. 

Two squadrons of the (French) 4e Régiment de Dragons, having been reduced to a battalion of dragons à pied (foot dragoons), was absorbed in June 1954 into the composition of the 1st Royal Khmer Cavalry Battalion which itself formed part of the 1st Khmer Mobile Group. 

Uniforms and Equipment of ARK Forces

Like other indigenous forces, the ARK were generally decked-out in a mixture of British, US and French uniforms. The British-style slouch-hat was popular. Small-arms were mainly of American patterns.

Issarak Forces

Like their counterparts in Vietnam and Laos, the early Issarak military units were mixtures of idealistic volunteers, bandits and "local defence" militias. Unfortunately, little detail is forthcoming concerning their organisation, but I shall attempt here to give some examples of the units in service. It should be noted that the support for the Issarak movement was initially mainly from Thailand, with the VM eventually taking their place. 

Rural violence against the returned French escalated during 1947, but without any apparent direction from the Issarak movement. In the provinces 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 tense compared to other regions of Cambodia. In these regions the Issaraks attended communist schools and were more concerned with the pan-Indochinese struggle than most other Issaraks, but there were still appeals to the local peasantry inspiring them to rise in the name of Buddha, or to recover the glorious past of Angkor.

A joint Issarak-Viet Minh command was set up during February 1947 in 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 guerrillas in Cambodia. Chhuon was thought by the Cambodians to have magical powers, and had a following in the Kulen Mountains (north of Siem Reap). In August 1946 his partisans had been part of the forces occupying Angkor Wat, and he was reputed to have command of "200 Germans, 300 Japanese, 200 Cambodian girls, and many partisans" - the Germans, and almost certainly the Japanese as well, were fanciful. In 1948 he was named as military commander of the CLPK, with approximately 800 men under his command on the "Kulen Front". Later, when the French gave control of Siem Reap to King Sihanouk in 1949, 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 during 1947-48. 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 later joined the anti-communist Issaraks under Son Ngoc Thanh in Siem Reap.

The other band was led by Puth Chhay, who was a near-illiterate peasant 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 (south of Phnom Penh), he commanded approximately a thousand men, and hated the 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 Thanh. 

The communist rebels were always relatively small in number - there were estimated to only be around 40 Khmer members of the ICP in 1950, as opposed to some thousand or more ethnic Vietnamese members in Cambodia. The peasantry were generally slow to rise up and join in a popular revolt, being conservative and somewhat timid. They prefered, on the whole, to follow a King, and thus Sihanouk gained popularity at the communists' expense. It is notable that many of the Issarak leaders of the later years of the war were ethnic Khmers from Cochinchina.

Issarak "Uniforms"

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 were popular with the later Khmer Rouge guerrillas, and were probably also seen 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.

Top - Home