The Kingdom of Cambodia and the Khmer Republic, and the Travails of the Khmer

Building on the ancient civilizations of Funan and Chenla, Cambodia came to embrace most of southern Indochina. One legend of the name is that a King Kambu married a seven headed Naga snake's daughter, with the country thus becoming known as "Kambuja." From the imperial brilliance of Angkor Vat in the 12th Century, however, Cambodia had fallen by the 19th Century into dual vassalage to Siam and Vietnam. The Vietnamese had seized the Mekong Delta, and the Thai were to swallow Battambang and Siem Reap. As the last king of a semi-independent Cambodia, Ang Duong (1846-1860) survived only because of his neighbors' concerns elsewhere. Some historians feel that the French saved Cambodia from disappearing from the map as did the once great Cham Kingdom under Vietnamese onslaught.

As the French occupied Cochin China in 1859, they began to fear British and Thai designs that might block a French Mekong empire. The French naval officers and officials in the East thus moved to extend their influence over Cambodia. In 1863 they pressured King Norodom to sign a Protectorate Treaty. Norodom (who was to reign 1860-1904) was sorely pressed by competing claims to the throne from his half-brothers, and welcomed at first the French support. Later he was to bridle at the efforts of the French authorities to limit the King's powers and to change the Kingdom's ways.

In 1887 a series of reforms were agreed on, and Cambodia became officially part of an Indochinese Union. Internal dissidence continued, spurred by high royal taxes, and the King secretly encouraged resistance against the French. The French resident superior, with a show of guns and gunboats, forced Norodom in June 1884 to sign a convention that reduced the country effectively to a colony. A futile rebellion broke out in January 1885, the only major challenge to French authority until the last years. Malaria and other tropical illnesses were for the French troops a more serious foe than the Cambodians.

On Norodom's death in 1904, his more pliant half-brother Sisowath was picked by the French as successor. During his reign, 1904-1927, and the following reign of his son Sisowath Monivong, 1927-1941, the French kept the monarchy as a splendorous symbol of state. Partly because of this, and because of national character, during these years there did not arise a nationalistic challenge to the French such as occurred in Vietnam.

In 1941, Admiral Decoux, the Governor General of Indochina - attempting to preserve as much of France's power as he could under the shadow of the Japanese - picked Norodom Sihanouk for the throne. The 18 year old prince was from the rival Norodom side of the royal family, and was allegedly selected over a prince of the Sisowath side as a more malleable instrument for the French authorities. When the Japanese seized full control from the French, they prompted Sihanouk to declare independence on March 12, 1945. But, after Japan itself collapsed, Sihanouk accepted the return of the French in September 1945, an action that brought him the persisting opposition of the Khmer Issarak movement headed by Son Ngoc Thanh (a movement later called the Khmer Serei). Sihanouk did persist in negotiations with the French, and gained recognition as "an autonomous kingdom within the French Union" in an agreement signed January 7, 1946.

The French had allowed the successive monarchs to keep their Royal Guards, but also formed the Corps de la Garde Indigéne in Cambodia as a constabulary. By Royal Ordinance of July 11, 1903, the first Cambodian battalion of riflemen was constituted under French officers. The Cambodian troops fought well in France in World War I, interestingly being paired with the Senegalese rather than with the Annamese and Tonkinese units.

The Khmer Royal Army (Forces Armees Royals Khmeres - FARK) grew out of a Franco-Khmer Military Convention of November 20, 1946. Under this, the first battalion of the FARK was created out of elements of the Cambodian Rifle Regiment of the French Army and the Khmer National Guard, a militia. By 1949 there were four battalions of some 6000 men, mainly French officered. With US military aid the army grew to 17,000 by 1953. In September 1953 the French agreed to pass military competence to the FARK, but in the spring of 1954 two battalions of Vietminh regulars invaded Cambodia, and the still hardly formidable Royal Army almost fell apart.

By the early 1950's Prince Sihanouk realized that his own position and the monarchy were jeopardized by the rising nationalism. He thus moved dramatically to force the issue of independence with the French. He declared a national emergency and ordered the mobilization of the "Forces Vives" volunteers for military training, traveled abroad to seek support, and then established himself in semi-exile first in Thailand and later in an outlying Cambodian province. He called his effort the National Crusade for Independence. The French were forced to accede, and Cambodia achieved full independence on November 9, 1953. At the Geneva Conference on Indochina that began in May 1954 Cambodian diplomats played their hand well. The government was recognized as the sole legitimate government, and the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities in Cambodia of July 23, 1954, provided for the withdrawal of both the French Union forces and the "foreign military formations having worked in liaison with the Vietnamese military units". This was to be inspected by the International Commission for Supervision and Control. The Royal Government agreed not to join in foreign military alliances or allow bases on its territory.

Sihanouk followed this with further bold steps. To gain leeway for a more active role in politics and government, on March 2, 1955, he abdicated in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit, and assumed instead the title of Chief of the Royal Government (although still bearing the title “Samdech Upayuvareach” - Prince who had been King). He also formed a mass political movement, the Sangkum Reastr Niyun (People's Socialist Community), whose basic principles were loyalty to country and Sihanouk. In 1960 King Norodom Suramarit died, and Sihanouk took the title of Chief of State. Because of custom and constitution the Queen could not officially succeed to the throne, so instead she was made the Supreme Guardian of the Throne.

In the mid 1960's Sihanouk was pressed by domestic leftists and by the growing presence in the border areas of the Vietnamese communists. Convinced of US plots against him and of the ascendency of Hanoi, Sihanouk aligned himself more with China and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. After rural disturbances in Battambang in April 1967 were put down bloodily by the army, Sihanouk moved against the local leftists. By the end of the decade, however, he had alienated much of the Khmer elite, in part because of his toleration of the Vietnamese communist presence.

In 1969 Sihanouk made Lt. Gen Lon Nol premier of a "government of last salvation". On March 9 and 11, 1970, demonstrations were organized against the Vietnamese communist embassies. On March 16 the government issued the unenforceable order to the Vietnamese communist forces to leave the country within 48 hours. Sihanouk, then in France, was angered by criticism of him in the National Assembly, and Assembly members believed Sihanouk had ordered the secret police against them. Events moved quickly, and on March 18 the National Assembly, in joint session with Council of the Kingdom, voted to depose Sihanouk. The Khmer Republic under Lon Nol was officially established on October 9, 1970.

The FARK comprised some 35,000 men in 30 understrength battalions plus some 13 to 15 independent infantry companies, stationed in Beau Geste mud forts for static defense primarily of the Northeast and Phnom Penh. Sihanouk had feared a strong military, and there was only one other active duty general officer besides Lon Nol. The army had been heavily used for public works rather than for military duties. It was confusingly trained and equipped in the French, American, and Sino-Soviet systems. It was not a match for the People's Army of Vietnam.

The Khmer Republic renamed the military the Forces Armees Nationales Khmeres (FANK). It was rapidly expanded and reorganized into further battalions and at times brigades composed of several battalions. By 1972 there were some 200,000 troops (based on an uncertain count), plus Territorial Defense Forces (including 10,000 of the constabulary like Provincial Guard) and the Conchivapel (poorly trained volunteers). Units of ethnic Cambodians from Vietnam (Khmer Kampuchea Krom), including some of the CIA and Special Forces organized Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, provided the best trained troops, who were used so heavily that they were destroyed.

As the Khmer Republic began, there was enthusiasm for the removal of Sihanouk and for war against the hated Vietnamese - the Youn. But Lon Nol proved mystical and unwilling to delegate responsibility, and the leadership was neither as capable nor as selfless as was necessary. The high point of the Khmer Republic's military effort was the Chenla II operation when a FANK column went north to meet one coming from the beleaguered city of Kampong Chang. After joining, the units were struck hard by two PAVN divisions. The FANK was essentially on the defensive thereafter. FANK soldiers, however, often fought well. (The French had considered the Cambodians the bravest of the Indochinese soldiers, although they thought the Vietnamese made more tenacious troops.)

The FANK badly needed American advice and more support. But the US bombing, sometimes effective, sometimes haphazard, was stopped by Congress, and the US left Indochina. The 1973 "Peace Accord" with Hanoi had no effect in Cambodia, probably in part because the Khmer Rouge would not honor any agreement by Hanoi in regard to Cambodia. The vise slowly closed around Phnom Penh. FANK officers and the civil officials thought the end of the war would produce a Khmer-like modus vivendi, and this sense of unreality led them to accept far more passively than they should have the Khmer Rouge victory of April 17, 1975, and the holocaust thereafter.

There followed the sad years of the Khmer Rouge, and then the Vietnamese invasion to establish their puppet government, the People's Republic of Kampuchea. In 1989, the Vietnamese, under international pressure and tired of their own endless quagmire in Cambodia, finally withdrew their troops. The Paris Conference on Cambodia on October 23, 1991, signed a comprehensive agreement that gave the United Nations authority to supervise a ceasefire, repatriate the refugees, disarm the warring factions, and prepare elections. Prince Sihanouk, the one symbol of the unity and tradition of Cambodia, returned to his country in November as President of the Supreme National Council. The vote in a relatively fair election divided between Prince Norodom Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC Party and Cambodian People's Party of Hun Sen, the former communists who had constituted the PRK. The uneasy and at times violent relationship between the two was essentially won by Hun Sen who was to become later the Prime Minister. On Septemper 24, 1993, Sihanouk, however, had been elevated again to be King, and the Kingdom of Cambodia was thus reborn.