How Did Cambodia Gain Independence From France?

When the conflict finally came to a conclusion, the situation in Cambodia was a complete mess. Even though they promised Cambodia and the other Indochina protectorates a tightly defined amount of self-government, the Free French, led by General Charles de Gaulle, were keen to reclaim Indochina. This was despite the fact that they had previously occupied the region. They were convinced that they had a “civilising mission,” and as a result, they envisioned the incorporation of Indochina into a French Union consisting of countries that had once been French colonies and that had a similar experience with French culture. This arrangement, on the other hand, failed to pique the interest of either the urban professional elites or the ordinary people. The short time of independence for Cambodia, which lasted from March to October of 1945, was like a revitalising breath of fresh air for Cambodians of nearly all areas of life. The lazy lifestyle of the Khmer people belonged to a bygone era.

In Phnom Penh, Sihanouk, in his capacity as head of state, was put in the extremely precarious position of negotiating with the French for full independence while simultaneously attempting to neutralise party politicians and supporters of the Khmer Issarak and Viet Minh who considered him to be a French collaborator. Sihanouk’s negotiations with the French resulted in the Khmer People’s Democratic Republic gaining full independence in 1953. Sihanouk had a great talent for political survival throughout the turbulent era that lasted from 1946 to 1953. This skill served him well both before and after he was deposed from power in March of 1970. The Khmer Issarak was a guerrilla force that operated in the border regions. It was composed of a very diverse group of fighters. There were antimonarchical nationalists loyal to Son Ngoc Thanh, Vietnamese leftists, indigenous leftists, and simple bandits who were taking advantage of the disarray to intimidate peasants. Even though their fortunes fluctuated during the immediate postwar period (a major setback was the overthrow of a friendly leftist government in Bangkok in 1947), by 1954 the Khmer Issarak operating with the Viet Minh controlled as much as 50 percent of Cambodia’s territory, according to some estimates. This was despite the fact that their fortunes rose and fell during the immediate postwar period.

In 1946, the French government gave the Cambodians permission to organise political parties and to conduct elections for a Consultative Assembly. This assembly would provide the king with advice for the writing of Cambodia’s constitution. Both of the main parties were led by princes sprung from royal families. The Democratic Party, which was headed by Prince Sisowath Yuthevong, advocated for quick independence, democratic reforms, and parliamentary administration. These ideas were supported by the party. Teachers, public employees, politically active members of the Buddhist priests, and other individuals whose attitudes had been substantially impacted by the patriotic appeals of Nagaravatta before to its closure by the French in 1942 were among its supporters. There was widespread support among Democrats for the harsh tactics used by the Khmer Issarak. The Liberal Party, which was headed by Prince Norodom Norindeth, was responsible for representing the interests of the older rural elites, which included the nation’s largest landowners. They argued for gradual democratic transformation and supported maintaining some sort of the colonial relationship that had been established with France. The election for the Consultative Assembly was conducted in September 1946, and the Democrats were victorious, taking fifty of the assembly’s sixty-seven available seats.

The Democrats, who had a strong majority in the assembly, drew up a constitution that was patterned after the one used in the Fourth Republic of France. The majority of decision-making authority was vested in a National Assembly that was chosen by the people. On May 6, 1947, the monarch gave a speech in which he grudgingly declared the new constitution. Although it acknowledged him as the “spiritual head of the state,” it also demoted him to the position of constitutional monarch and did not specify how much of an active role he may take in the affairs of the country. In subsequent years, however, Sihanouk would use this ambiguity to his advantage. Specifically, he would:

The Democrats were successful in regaining a substantial majority in the National Assembly at the elections held in December 1947. Despite this, there was a great deal of contention inside the party. The organization’s founder, Prince Yuthevong, had passed away, and there was no obvious candidate to take his place. During the years 1948 and 1949, it seemed that the only thing that brought the Democrats together was their opposition to legislation that was supported by either the monarch or his appointees. The French presented a draught of a treaty in the late year of 1948, and one of the primary issues that arose was whether or not the monarch was open to the idea of independence within the framework of the French Union. After the National Assembly was dissolved in September 1949, King Sihanouk and the French administration were able to come to an agreement over the treaty via the exchange of letters. Two months later, it entered into force, despite the fact that approval of the treaty by the National Assembly had never been gained.

The colonial connection was officially severed as a result of the treaty, and Cambodians were handed power over the majority of administrative responsibilities. Sihanouk referred to this as giving Cambodia “fifty percent independence.” Batdambang and Siemreab provinces, which had been recovered from Thailand after World War II, but which the French, hard-pressed elsewhere, did not have the resources to control, were included in a self-governing autonomous zone comprising Batdambang and Siemreab provinces. As a result, the Cambodian armed forces were granted freedom of action within this zone. France maintained a large degree of influence over Cambodia’s legal system, finances, and customs, and Cambodia was still obligated to coordinate questions of foreign policy with the High Council of the French Union. The French maintained command of all military activities taking place outside of the autonomous zone throughout the conflict. In addition to this, France was granted permission to keep military bases on Cambodian land. In 1950, diplomatic recognition was granted to Cambodia by the United States of America as well as by the majority of noncommunist states; however, in Asia, only Thailand and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) extended recognition.

In the second election for the National Assembly, which took place in September 1951, the Democrats obtained a majority of the seats, and they immediately began their policy of opposing the monarch on almost all fronts. Sihanouk requested that nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh be allowed to return to his homeland after being granted amnesty from exile by the French government. Sihanouk made this request in an attempt to earn more favour from the general population. On October 29, 1951, he marched in with much pomp and circumstance into Phnom Penh. It did not take him long, however, before he started calling for the departure of French soldiers stationed in Cambodia. Khmer Krok, a weekly journal that he had formed, published his reiteration of this demand at the beginning of 1952 with the headline “Khmer Awake!” In March, the publishing of the journal was forced to come to an end, and Son Ngoc Thanh, along by a small number of armed supporters, escaped the capital city to join the Khmer Issarak. As a result of Sihanouk’s accusations that he was a communist and an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States, he was sent into exile and did not return until Lon Nol formed the Khmer Republic in 1970.

In June of 1952, Sihanouk made the announcement that he was dismissing his cabinet, suspending the constitution, and took over as prime minister of Cambodia. After that, in January of 1953, he declared martial rule and dissolved the National Assembly, both of which were done without clear constitutional authorization. From June 1952 to February 1955, Sihanouk was in full control of the country’s government and exercised direct governance. After the assembly was dissolved, he established an Advisory Council to serve as a replacement for the legislature and elevated his own father, Norodom Suramarit, to the position of regent.

Sihanouk travelled all the way to France in March of 1953. In reality, he was launching a vigorous campaign to convince the French to give total independence while it seemed as if he was travelling for the sake of his health. If he did not achieve full independence in a timely manner, the climate of opinion in Cambodia at the time was such that the people were likely to turn to Son Ngoc Thanh and the Khmer Issarak, who were fully committed to achieving that goal. Son Ngoc Thanh and the Khmer Issarak were fully committed to achieving that objective. During talks with the president of France and with other top officials, the French argued to Sihanouk that he was being too “alarmist” about the political climate inside Cambodia. The French also implied, although in a more oblique manner, that they may oust him from his position if he did not change his obstructive behaviour. Sihanouk was able to bring attention to Cambodia’s predicament as he was travelling through the United States, Canada, and Japan on his way back home after what looked to be a fruitless journey.

Sihanouk left Phnom Penh in June to go into self-imposed exile in Thailand, declaring that he would not return until the French gave assurances that full independence would be granted. This was done to further dramatise his “royal crusade for independence.” Sihanouk left Phnom Penh to go into exile in Thailand. Because he was unwelcome in Bangkok, he relocated to his royal home in Siemreab Province, which is located close to the ruins of Angkor. Lieutenant Colonel Lon Nol, a former right-wing politician who was becoming a prominent and, in time, an indispensable Sihanouk ally within the military, was in charge of Siemreab, which was part of the autonomous military zone that had been established in 1949. Siemreab was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lon Nol. The monarch and Lon Nol discussed potential strategies for resistance while stationed in Siemreab in the event that their stipulations were not met by the French.

Sihanouk was taking a risky gamble because the French could have easily replaced him with a monarch who was more amenable to their will. However, the military situation was deteriorating throughout all of Indochina, and on July 3, 1953, the French government declared itself ready to grant full independence to the three states of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Sihanouk’s gamble paid off, and Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos became independent nations. Sihanouk was adamant that his conditions be met, which included having complete authority over the nation’s judicial system, the police force, and the national defence. The French gave in, and at the end of August, Cambodian authority was given over to the police and the courts. In October, Cambodia took complete command of its armed forces, which it had previously shared with France. King Sihanouk, who was revered as a hero by his subjects at this point, made a triumphant return to Phnom Penh on November 9, 1953, the same day that independence day was celebrated. In 1954, control of all remaining issues that may undermine Cambodia’s sovereignty, such as financial and budgetary considerations, was transferred to the newly established Cambodian state.

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