Episode 16

The Khmer Rouge Part 1 – Nagara Vatta

Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast released on a day that is neither the day nor the week that I said it would be released on. A couple of programming notes first: in the first episode of the podcast, I said that I was hoping to do one episode a week, and see how it goes, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep up with it. Especially when jumping around between really disparate times and places. So we’re going to get through these next probably three episodes, and then I have a plan to try and make things work on a weekly basis. I’ll explain more about that at the end of these episodes.

Secondly, as you may have guessed from the episode title, this isn’t going to be a light-hearted topic. But the first two episode should be okay in terms of how grim the content is. I’ll let you know if there’s anything that you might want to skip. Relatedly, I have a big long list of potential topics to cover, and there’s a lot of dark stuff on there. But researching each of those topics is grim, and it’s grim to hear about, too. But it’s also super important stuff. My plan is to do a much more light-hearted topic after each dark topic, for the sake of everyone’s sanity.

Now, as is frequently the case, when I began researching this topic, I intended to cover one thing, and ended up finding other stories just chronologically prior that are also relevant to this podcast’s theme. In this instance, I was planning to cover what happened to literature under the Khmer Rouge, but in the course of researching that, I came across another story about things that happened leading up to the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule. So that’s what today’s episode is going to be about.

And with that said, it’s time to get into historical context.

Cambodia has, over several centuries, frequently been invaded and occupied by Vietnam and Thailand. In the 19th century, there had been four incursions and an occupation by Thailand, and another occupation by the Vietnam (Knuth 2006: 123).

In the 19th Century, Europe was still doing colonialism, and France had a particular presence in southeast Asia. This included Cambodia’s neighbour, Vietnam. This lead to increased French interest in Cambodia as their presence in Vietnam grew. Cambodia had been under joint Thai and Vietnamese “protection” since 1846, when Thailand and Vietnam agreed to share Cambodia to avoid further conflicts, though Thailand seems to have had more involvement in Cambodian affairs. As they had done over the course of their prior invasions, it was the Vietnamese and Thais who had chosen Cambodia’s ruler, King Duong.

And, I’m sorry about pronunciation here, I’m doing my best but… there aren’t that many sources online that, um, give pronunciation for these names. And those that do exist generally give the Vietnamese pronunciation rather than the Cambodian or Khmer pronunciation. So… I’m doing my best.

Duong died in 1860, and a man called Norodom is appointed as the new king. But Norodom is not particularly popular in some areas of Cambodia, and flees back to Thailand in 1861, to return at the end of the next year with Thai support (Chandler 2008: 172).

But having Thai support to help him return doesn’t mean he super loves all the meddling that Thailand is doing. He flirts with the French, and signs a treaty with France in 1863 in which they would offer protection in exchange for mineral exploration rights and timber concessions (Chandler 2008: 172). Norodom keeps this treaty secret from the Thais for a few months, and when they find out immediately backtracks and reassures Thailand that he totally relies on and appreciates their support (Chandler 2008: 173). Thailand, in turn, keeps this secret from the French until 1864.

After this, the French and the Thais magnanimously come to an agreement to cosponsor Norodom as king, and he’s finally crowned later in 1864. In 1867 the French forced the occupiers out, and essentially got Norodom to sign a treaty making Cambodia an independent French Protectorate. I.e.: it becomes a French colony.

Also in the 1860s, the city of Angkor is brought to global attention through the expeditions of Henri Mouhot, who was exploring the area around the Tonle Sap lake. Mouhot did not discover Angkor. It was never lost. Cambodians knew where it was, and they knew stories of the time that were handed down as folktales (Keyes 1990). Mouhot wasn’t even the first European to visit Angkor, but it was his visit that brought it to prominence as a cultural site. You’ve probably heard of Angkor Wat. If you’ve seen Cambodia’s national flag, Angkor Wat is the building on the middle stripe. It’s a temple complex from the 12th Century. The city of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th Century, in favour of a more defensible location.

Despite not discovering Angkor, Mouhot and the subsequent archaeological attention the site received brought Angkor and that time period of Cambodian history to the forefront of Khmer national identity, and over the years unfavourable comparisons would be made between the contemporary state of the Khmer people compared to what it had been in the medieval period. The monuments of the Angkor kingdom, along with hundreds of stone inscriptions, archives, and libraries gave national pride a distinct focus, and also revealed that Cambodia had the longest thriving written record in a southeast Asian country (Knuth 2006: 122). Today, the work of archaeologists in mapping the site has shown in to be the largest pre-industrial city in the world (May 2015). A translation of one of the stone inscriptions, written in Sanskrit the between 1190 and 1200 CE has revealed it to be a poem composed by Angkor queen, Indradevi. She is celebrated as one of Cambodia’s first women poets (May 2015).

Notwithstanding Mouhot’s archaeological endeavours, the Cambodian people were generally not thrilled with the French “protection”, and especially not with the amount of Vietnamese control, caused by the fact that the French had filled many government positions with Vietnamese recruits rather than Cambodians.

Apart from disliking the French, King Norodom’s rule also roused the ire of many – he was authoritarian, and governed haphazardly, with a focus on self-interest. Revolts against his rule break out in 1866, and the 1870s. Because Norodom ruled under the control of the French, disapproval of his government was intrinsically tied to disapproval of the French regime. The French manage to put these rebellions down, but it wasn’t easy, because the rebels had popular support (Chandler 2008: 174).

Over the next decade French control of Cambodia continued to tighten, and in 1884 the French forced Norodom to sign another treaty handing over more power to them, giving them control over taxes, government revenue, and public works. Norodom wasn’t happy about signing it, but he saw it as the only way he could keep power – his half-brother, Sisowath, was waiting in the wings, ready to take his place should the French decide to replace Norodom (Chandler 2008: 175). The national response to the treaty was a nationwide rebellion in 1885.

Luckily for Norodom’s desire to stay in power, the French need him to put down the rebellion, and in July 1886 Norodom tells the rebels that if they stop fighting and lay down their arms, things will pretty much go back to the way they were before. No reprisals. After this, the French continue to strengthen their grip by surrounding Norodom with advisors who were loyal to them (Chandler 2008: 178).

As we all known, colonial powers only have the best interests of their colonies in mind, which is why the French stoked the resentment between Cambodians and Vietnamese, by mocking the Cambodians as lazy and unreliable, and filling the government with Vietnamese, rather than Cambodian members (Knuth 2006: 123). Finally, in 1887, the French decided to merge Vietnam and Cambodia into one entity called Indochina. A few years later, Laos and a small Chinese territory joined the crew. Shockingly, this is not popular with Cambodians, and even more shockingly, they’re also not happy with the fact that the French, like Norodom, governed in their own self-interest, rather than that of the Cambodian people, so there’s a simmering undercurrent of resentment.

In 1904, Norodom died, and Sisowath was crowned in 1906.

In 1907 Franco-Thai negotiations resulted in Thailand returning the areas of Battambang and Siem Riep to Cambodia, which had been annexed by Thailand back in 1795. This area includes the Angkor site, so Sisowath and his people are pretty happy to have it back (Chandler 2008: 184). In 1926, King Monivong succeeded Sisowath as king.

For the next few decades the situation in Cambodia, and their resentment of the French, continues to simmer. The introduction of cars and typewriters at the beginning of the twentieth century resulted in increased isolation between the French and the Cambodians. Because the French had neglected education, few Cambodians could write or prepare reports in French, leading to more Vietnamese workers being brought in to fill those spaces (Chandler 2008: 185).

Let’s take a break here from politics to talk about Khmer literature during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The French had very much neglected efforts to spread education in Cambodia, which was still, as it had been for centuries, predominantly in the hands of the sangha - the Buddhist monastic orders. Before 1927, there were no Khmer language newspapers or journals. What literature that was printed was Buddhist texts and verse epics from the 19th century. (Chandler 2008: 194).

In 1924, Suzanne Karpeles published translations of six Pali tales from the Dhammapada. Afterward, she put forward a proposal for a National Library that was quickly accepted, resulting in the creation of the Royal Library. The purpose of the library was the research, preservation, collection, and reproduction of ancient manuscripts that were stored in temples and the homes of private citizens (Edwards 2007: 190-91). Karpeles became the director of the library, and later, of the Buddhist Institute. And she helps set up some pretty impressive stuff. By 1927, the library was distributing books to bookstores established at four outlets, and between 1927 and 1930, it sold over 60,000 volumes. And by 1930 they were also running a book bus that made monthly visits to all the provinces, had 57 provincial depots. In these places people could either browse books for free, or purchase them, and it offered ancient and modern works in Khmer, Siamese, Burmese, and French.

The Library’s efforts to collect and document texts was helped by donations of books from delegates of monks, who travelled to the library to deposit Buddhist texts and ritual objects for safekeeping. One group of monks alone donated 233 manuscripts along with other antique objects (Edwards 2007: 192-93). The library also hired monks and scribes to copy onto palm leaves manuscripts that were falling apart, or rare. John Dee would have liked Suzanne Karpeles.

Around that same time period, the Kambuja Suriya, (“Cambodian Sun”) appears. It was a monthly journal, and primarily focused on texts concerning the royal family, Buddhist literature, and folklore (Chandler 2008: 194). A year later, another monthly periodical, the Sruk Khmer is launched, and it’s circulation reached 2,000 in its first year (Edwards 2007: 194). It has a simpler style that the Kambuja Suriya, aiming to offer advice on topics such as farming, childcare, writing; included news from Indochina, France, and Cambodia; and also included Buddhist stories and poems (Edwards 2007: 194). It also encouraged readers to submit their own letters and stories, and even offered a subscriber discount to temples and schools. By 1931 it had turned into a weekly production, sold advertising space, and became more like a newspaper (Edwards 2007: 195).

Now, that kind of publishing might make you think that literacy was rapidly increasing – it was not. It was increasing, but not that rapidly, and it was a lot higher among the young, and the city-dwellers. Out in the countryside, literacy rates were still incredibly low, and most people ‘heard’ the newspapers as it was read out by a monk, rather than read it themselves (Edwards 2007: 195).

In the late 30s and early 40s original novels written in Khmer begin to appear. Two of them have claims to being the first Khmer novel. The first is Rim Kin’s Sophat written in 1938. It was first published in Vietnam in 1941, and wasn’t available in Cambodia until 1942. It’s in the mould of an archetypal romance, in the vein of what the excellent TV Tropes website calls ‘The Suddenly Suitable Suitor’. She’s an uptown girl, he’s a poor boy. They love each other, but alas, their difference in wealth and status make their relationship untenable to those around them. But then! The boy discovers he’s actually from a wealthy background, thus removing the obstacle to their romance (Smyth 2005).

Please don’t think I’m being disparaging of this plot or genre – this is the same plot Shakespeare uses in A Winter’s Tale. It’s Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Ernest. It’s * The Recognition of Sakuntala*. It’s not an uncommon feature in gothic novels. This is a pro-Romance as Proper Literature podcast.

The other contender for ‘first novel is Kim Hak’s, Dik Hanle Sap (“The Waters of Tonle Sap”), which is also a romance. This one was published in 1939, when it was serialised across three issues of Kambuja Suriya. So it was published later than Sophat, but published before it in Cambodia itself.

In his introduction, Kim Hak explains some of his motives for writing the novel: he’s concerned about Khmer literature not being very advanced, he talks about how few people there are who have a good understanding of Khmer literature, and how they only produce work to help spread Buddhism (Chigas 2000: 143). I.e. he’s concerned with a lack of written Khmer culture. Other cultures have an abundance of literature; Cambodia does not. His reasons for writing the novel are wrapped up in an attempt to use modern writing techniques to establish a national identity that stretches back far into the past.

In 1936 another newspaper began to print: the Nagara Vatta - the “Angkor Wat”. It was founded by Pach Chhoeun, Sim Var, and Son Ngoc Thanh, and it, and its journalists, especially Son Ngoc Thanh are the heart of this story. Thanh had been born in Vietnam, and educated in France. He’d gone there to do a law degree, but never finished it. In 1933, he’d been employed by the Royal Library as a clerk. The three of them were at the nexus of Cambodia’s literary and intellectual movement, and came into contact with scholars at various established institutes, the sangha, and with those French scholars like Karpeles (Chandler 2008: 199).

The newspaper’s slant was, to start with, pro-Cambodian, whilst avoiding being anti-French, though it did criticise the French for being so slow to modernise Cambodia’s education system. It voiced objections both to the domination of trade and commerce by Chinese businessmen, and over the predominance of Vietnamese workers in the civil service. (Chandler 2008: 186).

The paper also commented on the lack of suitable employment for educated Khmers, though by the end of the end of the 1930s education had improved a little, and there were more Khmers in administration positions (Chandler 2008: 199). Over time, it developed stronger anti-Vietnamese and anti-colonial stances (Chandler 2008: 200). As early as 1937, the Nagara Vatta was circulating around 5,000 copies.

Penny Edwards asserts that the Nagara Vatta is ‘now widely regarded as the birth certificate of Cambodian Nationalism’ (2007: 5). It presented a platform in which those Cambodians who could read and write – students, members of the sangha, government officials, and such, could discuss Cambodian national identity, their culture, their past, and their future. The idea that the Nagara Vatta and other print publications would stop Cambodian culture and identity being forgotten, or disappearing, was frequently expressed. People are writing in, contributing to a growing picture of what Cambodian national identity should look like – what parts of the past were good, what parts of tradition were bad.

So that’s what’s happening on the literature front. Let’s get back to the international politics, because, unfortunately, in 1939, World War 2 happens, and Cambodia inevitably gets dragged into it. When France was captured by Germany in 1940, Cambodia came under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy French government, with support from Japan. For reasons that certainly had nothing to do with her being Jewish, or a woman doing better than her male counterparts, Suzanne Karpeles, the one who had helped found the Royal Library, was dismissed from her post.

At the end of 1940, the pro-Japanese Thai government sees that France is pretty weak at the moment, and take the opportunity to invade Cambodia, to take back the areas they had begrudgingly let go of in 1907.

Thailand won on land, but France defeated them at sea. Japan then stepped in and imposed an armistice and hosted negotiations that resulted in the Thais keeping most of the captured land – Battambang and most of Siem Reap; the French did manage to retain Angkor, though (Candler 2008: 203). This settlement is humiliating for king Monivong, and for the short remainder of his life, he refuses to meet with any French officials, or even speak to people in French (Chandler 2008: 204).

On the 24th of April, 1941, King Monivong died, leaving an issue of succession. In the 1930s, Monivong’s son, Monireth, had been the favourite for the throne, but Norodom Sihanouk, grandson of Monivong was also floated as a possibility by French officials. And in the end, it’s Sihanouk that the Vichy rulers go for (Chandler 2008: 204). He’s crowned in October 1941, aged 18. Because: monarchies.

Under Vichy rule, the government had a more ideological bent that previously, and it was pro-Axis powers (that’s Germany, Japan, and Italy). It also encouraged the nationalist identity based on the Glory of the Angkor civilisation (Chandler 2008: 203).

At this point, there were also around 8,000 Japanese troops stationed in Cambodia, and they had a certain degree of sympathy towards certain anti-colonial sentiments, which the educated few had picked up on, and the Nagara Vatta began to develop into increasing anti-colonial, pro-Japan platform (Chandler 2008: 205). This attitude was not appreciated by the French, who censored articles in over 30 issues, even censoring the lead editorial article in ten issues (Chandler 2008: 205).

In 1942, something happens which gives them a specific person whose cause and plight they could champion. Hem Chieu, a monk who was teaching in Phnom Penh, was implicated in a vague plot to accomplish a coup. He had made a vague suggestion about it to some Cambodian militia, and evidently someone informed on him (Chander 2008: 205) This leads to the arrest of Hem Chieu and another monk on the 17th of July, 1942. The arrest incensed his intellectual colleagues, especially because the civil authorities who arrested him hadn’t allowed him to perform the ritual of leaving a monastic order (Chandler 2008: 205).

Over the next three days anti-colonial groups, of which Son Ngoc Thanh was a member, conduct secret negotiations with the Japanese, trying to secure their support for an anti-French demonstration planned for July 20th. The demonstration was a march, around 10,000 strong, led by the editor of the Nagara Vatta, Pach Chhoeun. Son Ngoc Thanh himself stayed hidden (Kiernan 2004: 44). The demonstrators marched to Phnom Penh, to the office of the resident superieur, Jean de Leus, where Pach Chhoeun tried to present him with a petition for the release of Hem Chieu, and was promptly arrested (Chandler 2008: 206).

Over the next few days others who had been involved in the march were rounded up, and trials were quickly held. Son Ngoc Thanh, who had also helped plan the demonstration hid out in Phnom Penh for a few days before escaping to Battambang, then Bangkok, and finally to Tokyo, where the Japanese gave him a false name and government protection (Chandler 1986: 83). Pach Chhouen was sentenced to death, but his sentence was then commuted by the Vichy government to life imprisonment. Hem Chieu, by the way, did not get released, and died in 1943 on a French penal island. (Chandler 2008: 206).

The arrest of Pach Chhoeun and Thanh’s departure led to the shutting down of the Nagara Vatta. The Head of the Vichy Government’s Information, Press, and Propaganda department hoped that the readership would switch to the official Newspaper, Kampuchea. Of course, when your newspaper is heavily censored, and only able to report what a repressive government wants people to hear, along with propaganda, it just doesn’t tend to be as popular (Edwards 2007: 236). By 1943, Kampuchea’s readership just tipped over 1,700, compared to the 5,000 readers the Nagara Vatta had when it was shut down. The content of the Kampuchea was at best irrelevant to many Cambodians, at worst patronising propaganda by unpopular colonial overlords (Edwards 2007: 236).

And the French decided to do something else at this point which didn’t help their popularity. They declared that Cambodians needed to switch to the Roman alphabet. Instead of being written in their own alphabet, Khmer must be transliterated into an alphabet the French could read. The French essentially saw the difference in their alphabets as a sign of Cambodian inferiority – the Roman alphabet is better - more sophisticated, and rational. And thus, forcing them to use the Roman alphabet would obviously be good for Cambodians and make them smarter and better (Chandler 2008: 207). Shockingly, this doesn’t go down well with the sangha, since it’s essentially a critique of their teaching methods, and ability to teach well. The reforms weren’t applied to religious texts, but government documents and schools, now had to be transliterated. The policy was enforced aggressively through 1944-45 (Chandler 2008: 207). At the same time they also decided, for similar reasons, that the country needed to switch from the Buddhist lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

But these policies don’t last long, because on the 9th of March, 1945, the Japanese forces stationed throughout Indochina disarmed the French soldiers and removed French officials from their government positions (Chandler 2008: 208). They then asked Sihanouk to declare independence from France, which he did, changing the name from Cambodge, as the French had called it, to the Khmer pronunciation of the word, Kampuchea. He also declares support for Japan. So, y’know. Totally independent and not just under the control of a different foreign power.

Documents that would help us reconstruct what happened in 1945 are frustratingly patchy in places, but for the next seven months, Cambodia is, at least in name, independent. A new cabinet took office on the 9th, staffed with men loyal to the king (Chandler 1986: 82).

On the 13th of March, the king issues a proclamation that the French can keep their Latin alphabet and Gregorian calendar – the Cambodians are going back to their old systems, thank you very much. And in May, Sihanouk makes a speech declaring that French will gradually be phased out of the education system, and that eventually, all teaching will be done in Khmer (Chandler 1986: 85).

Under pressure from monks and others who supported Son Ngoc Thanh, King Sihanouk petitions Japan for his return, and at the end of May, Thanh returns from his exile, and joined the new cabinet as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Despite the formation of this new cabinet, the majority of the power remained with Sihanouk

In July, Sihanouk headed a rally held to commemorate the monk’s rebellion and march of 1942. He’s joined by Pach Chhoeun - the editor of the Nagara Vatta - who had led the march, and who had just been released from prison, and Son Ngoc Thanh. Someone, we don’t seem to know who, beyond the fact that it wasn’t Sihanouk himself, gave a speech. It encouraged patriotism and stoked nationalist sentiment. It didn’t directly criticise the monarchy, but it included plenty of examples of events where the ‘nationalist’ and ‘patriotic’ side had been anti-monarchy, and made heroes out of the rebels. Sihanouk responded by supressing mention of those events for the rest of his reign. Which kind of just makes sure the anti-monarchy types remember them (Chandler 2008: 209).

Two months later, on the 10th of August, several young members of the Cambodian militia stormed the palace in the early morning. They demanded that Sihanouk dissolve the current cabinet, and abdicate. Which he did. And most of the former ministers, barring Son Ngoc Thanh, were imprisoned (Kiernan: 48). This coup had the support of both Japan, Thanh, the sangha, and many students. The students supported the coup to the extant that, on that night, fifty students had gathered next to the palace, ready to join in if need be (Kiernan 2004: 50) Five days later, Thanh took office as the first Prime Minister of Cambodia (Chandler 1986: 88). His new cabinet included Pach Chhoeun. Thanh was probably okay with the coup because his colleagues in the cabinet were all pro-French; Thanh alone was of a more reformist, anti-colonial bent (Kiernan 2004: 49). For some reason, this event also made Thanh unpopular with Sihanouk (Kiernan 2004: 50). I guess being a teenager woken up in the night by armed men demanding you dissolve your cabinet will do that to you. It also made him unpopular with some members inside his new cabinet, in particular, the Defence Minister, Khim Tit (Kiernan 2004: 50).

Despite supporting the coup, Thanh immediately freed the former government cabinet ministers, and had seven members of the coup arrested. I would suggest it’s a possibility that he did this to try and improve Sihanouk opinion of him, but if it was, it didn’t work.

But in August something happens that makes short work of Thanh’s new government: World War 2 ends, and France decides it wants Indochina back, and on the 22nd of August, an allied plane drops leaflets proclaiming the imminent return of the French. Because the French had hoarded power for themselves, and neglected to train any Cambodians on how various aspects of government should work, there were very few specific policies or plans from the interregnum cabinets, which extended to a lack of any firm idea of how to deal with the possibility of French return.

In response to this threat, Thanh does two things. Firstly, on the 3rd of September, he declares there’s going to be a referendum on the issue of Cambodian Independence. There wasn’t actually any time to hold a referendum, but that didn’t stop Thanh declaring the results. Supposedly, 541,000 men between the age of 18 and 60 had voted for independence. For added effect, there were two invalid ballots (Chandler 1986: 89).

Secondly, he approaches both the Thai government and the Viet Minh for support, but fails to form any alliances that could help (Chandler 1986: 89). Without support, the French easily moved in and reclaimed the country, reinstalling themselves in the positions of power.

Now, brace yourselves, because a lot of things are going to happen in a very short span of time.

On the 15th October, 1945, General Leclerc and two officers arrived in Pnhom Penh to arrest Son Ngoc Thanh, a decision that was supported by the French forces in Vietnam, several French officials in Cambodia, and even Thanh’s own Minister of Defence, who had flown to Saigon to that request the French return (Chandler 1986: 90; Kiernan: 50). Conveniently, Sihanouk was away on a pilgrimage on that day. On the 17th of October, it was announced that Thanh had been arrested on the grounds that his “intrigues” were not in the best interest of either Cambodia or the Allied forces (Chandler 1991: 26). Thanh was sentenced at a court in Saigon to twenty years’ imprisonment. He was released after seventeen months and, with the assistance of the French government, was resettled in France with his two wives and seven children. Thanh was replaced as PM, on the same day he was arrested, by Prince Monireth. Monireth and his cabinet knew that Cambodia wasn’t in a position to gain independence or fight off the French, but they also didn’t want things to go back to exactly how they’d been before. So they do pretty much the only thing they can do, and get the French to actually have a discussion with them about what will happen to Cambodia going forward (TCH 26).

Oh and the editor of the Nagara Vatta, and Thanh’s friend and fellow minister for a brief while, Pach Chhoeun, fled when Thanh was arrested in October of 1945, and escaped to Vietnam (Kiernan: 51). He joins up with an anti-colonial group known as the Khmer Issarak, which had originally been created in 1940 by Poc Khun. Chhoeun sets up a new committee under them. Unfortunately for him, the committee only lasts four months, because the French re-established control of the border area the committee operated from (Kiernan 2004: 52). Pach Chhoeun surrendered to the French in April 1946, shortly after another committee member. Other committee members joined the Viet Minh and the Issarak.

But that’s April, and a bunch of other stuff has already happened by then. Most notably, in January Monireth and his cabinet reach an agreement with the French resulting in a modus vivendi being signed. It’s basically an agreement about how they’re going to proceed, including the French acknowledging the King’s authority when it came to internal administration affairs, and the Cambodians allowing the French to appoint a High Commissioner and post advisors in both ministerial and provincial positions (TCH 27). It provided for a Cambodian constitution being written, and the formation of political parties by Cambodians (Chandler 2008: 210). They also push to get back Battambang and Siem Riep, which the Japanese had decided Thailand could keep when they invaded in 1941.

In Phnom Penh, in March 1946 – about a month before Pach Chhoeun’s surrender, the Democratic Party was founded by Prince Yuthevong who had recently returned from finishing his education in France, and was enamoured with western-style democracy of the time, and ran on a platform of getting independence as soon as possible. This is the biggest force opposing the French. There were a couple of other political parties, but we don’t need to talk about them for now. Yuthevong’s Democratic Party attracted the kind of people who had been drawn to Son Ngoc Thanh, Pach Chhoeun, and the slant of Nagara Vatta. They also had the support of quite a lot of monks and students and Cambodia’s intellectual community (Chandler 2008: 213)

In September of 1946, elections are held to elect members of the Consultative Assembly that will advise Sihanouk regarding the drafting of the constitution. The voter turnout was just over 60%, and the Democratic Party win fairly decisively, gaining 50 of the 67 seats available (Chandler 2008: 214). The result rather upset Sihanouk, who saw it as a personal attack. A party critical of the French and wanting independence was implicitly critical of his own rule. Having decisively won, the Democratic Party set about drafting a constitution.

Meanwhile, in the anti-colonialist groups in the countryside, and the communist groups lurking over the border in Vietnam and Thailand, a group called the Indochinese Communist Party, the ICP are taking steps to try and help the anti-French movement. The ICP had been founded in the 1930s, and its original intent had been to help spread communism throughout southeast Asia. But, especially in Cambodia, where the prominence of Buddhism dampened support for communism, they hadn’t made much progress.

That changes when the first Indochina war starts, as countries resist France’s attempt to return. The Viet Minh are getting arms and support from Bangkok, but to get them back to Vietnam they either have to go through Cambodia, or skirt around its coast. Suddenly they’re a lot more interested in making friends with movements in Cambodia. But the dearth of communist groups means they instead turn to anti-French nationalist groups, like the Khmer Issarak (Short 2004: Ch1).

In October 1946 they recruit a former Buddhist monk by the name of Son Ngoc Minh, and make him president of a group they helped set up, Cambodian People’s Liberation Committee. The monk’s real name, according to the French at the time, was Pham Van Hua, though contemporary opinion is that it Achar Mean (Chandler 2008: 221). But as the president of the new committee, he was known as Son Ngoc Minh. Which, you might notice, is a rather similar name to Son Ngoc Thanh. Almost like they might have picked it in order to attract the support of those who admired Thanh (Short 2004: Ch1).

Throughout 1946 representatives from Thailand and Cambodia had been negotiating over Battambang and Siem Riep over in America. Between American pressure to return them, and Thailand’s desire to join the UN, they agree to let Cambodia have the two provinces in December (Chandler 1991: 28). This is what Monireth – the guy who took over as Prime Minister after Son Ngoc Thanh was arrested – was doing for most of the year, which means he missed the elections (Chandler 1991: 31). He, like Sihanouk, isn’t happy with the result, and actually refuses to step down for a few months, claiming that there’s no one suitable to head the new government. In fact, Sihanouk even asks him to try and form another government in December, but he fails, and the new government convenes in January of 1947 (Chandler 1991: 32).

Meanwhile, hiding out in Bangkok, the leaders of the Khmer Issarak, and their counterparts in the Lao Issara – an equivalent group working against French colonial rule in Laos, worked on a memorandum to the UN Secretary-General, requesting help in their quest for independence. They give it to the American representative in Bangkok in early January of 1947. The representative sends word to Washington, urging them to get the UN to discuss it urgently, before the situation in southeast Asia became even more complicated and messy. But the Americans decide they don’t want anyone to get involved, and tell him to give the memorandum back unopened (Kiernan 2004: 55-56).

When the government in Phom Penh convene in January, one of the first things they do is offer amnesty to the Issarak, which: also not popular with Sihanouk or the French. In March that year, in a move that certainly had nothing at all to do with French resentment of the power of the Democratic Party, 17 members of the party were arrested by the French. They were accused of being members of a super secret pro-Japanese group called the Black Star (Chandler 1991: 32). Which… didn’t exist.

In July of 1947, Yuthevong, leader of the Democratic Party, dies, aged 34. Sihanouk takes the opportunity to replace Yuthevong’s cabinet with an interim group. Despite this, the Democrats still win the next election, in December that year, with ease (Kiernan 2004: 57). The new government convenes in January 1948, with Ieu Koess, the Democratic Party’s successor to Yuthevong, as president, and a man called Chhean Vam as prime minister.

Meanwhile, on the 1st of February of that year, the Issarak rebels form the Khmer People’s Liberation Committee, the KPLC, led by a guy called Dap Chhuon. He wasn’t so much a left-wing nationalist so much as a traditional warlord, but there were notable elements within the committee that were left-wing nationalists (Kiernan 2004: 58).

In May of 1948, Sihanouk and his PM, Chhean Vam go to Paris. Sihanouk enrolled in some school courses, and Chhean Vam tried to negotiate – fruitlessly – with the French about Cambodian independence (Chandler 1991: 39).

When Vam gets back to Cambodia, he discovers that excrement has hit a propeller-based object. Several Democratic Party members were implicated in a scandal involving illicit trade in violation of tariffs. The vice president of the assembly, who was one of the implicated men, retired. Vam requested full power to investigate the issue, and have the governmental immunity of those implicated suspended. Weirdly, the assembly rejects the request. Can’t arrest a sitting member of a 1947 Cambodian assembly (Chandler 1991: 39). Unable to do anything about the corruption, especially after the commissioner of the police, Yem Sambaur destroys the files containing the evidence, Vam resigned in August 1948 (Chandler 1991: 39).

At the same time as Vam resigns, two new political parties form. One of them is called the Khmer Renovation Society, formed by a group of men including a guy named Lon Nol. Their party was pro-monarchy, and thus obviously had the favour of the king. In November, Sambaur and 11 deputies from the Democratic Party defect to the more loyalist Liberal Party.

In January of 1949, Sambaur manages to take down the current government. Sihanouk insists that Sambaur become the Prime Minister. The Democratic Party, however, refuse to work with him. Around the same time Sambaur and Sihanouk open secret negotiations with a certain warlord, and extend the amnesty open to the Issarak.

Which is our cue to jump back to what’s been happening on the rebel side of things. If you remember, in February 1948, the Issarak rebels had formed the KPLC – the Khmer People’s Liberation Committee. They were led by a guy called Dap Chhuon.

In 1949, the KPLC becomes the Khmer National Liberation Committee (KNLC). What can I say, left-wing nationalists love a committee. A new committee of 7 men is elected in January, headed by Dap Chhuon (Kiernan 2004: 59).

Because Dap Chhuon is a warlord, rather than a left-wing nationalist, he has a rather authoritarian leadership style, which quickly alienates the other members of the committee (Kiernan 2004: 60). And without that left-wing nationalist loyalty, Chhuon is quite happy to defect to another side, should it suit him. In July of that year, elections within the KNLC result in Chhuon being replaced as leader by Poc Khun – they guy who had originally founded the first Issarak Committee back in 1940.

So Dap Chhuon is the guy Sihanouk and Sambaur are negotiating with in 1949. He defects to their side in September, taking hundreds of soldiers with him. (Kiernan 2004: 60).

Also in September, Sambaur gives up on trying to have a functioning government with the Democratic Party, who are threatening huge political upheaval, and asks Sihanouk to exercise him constitutional power to dissolve the government, which he does (Chandler 1991: 42).

Sihanouk selects a new cabinet, which, of course, is filled with people loyal to him. Unfortunately for him, the constitution also requires that, should the king dissolve the assembly, new elections must be held within two months. Which Sihanouk and Sambaur do not want. The democrats might win again. So instead, they say that the elections can’t be held because the state of affairs in the countryside is so bad that they wouldn’t be able to safely open polling stations there. Which was… fair. By early 1949, the King and the French were dealing with around 10,600 rebels in the countryside, and bandits were roaming freely too. (Kiernan 2004: 68)

So they do what is obviously the only thing they can do, and postpone the elections indefinitely. (Chandler 1991: 42). This is not a popular move among pro-Democratic Party students, who stage a protest towards the end of 1949.

There’s one other thing that happens in 1949 that’s relevant to this story. Sihanouk grants an audience to a group of students who were recipients of some government granted bursaries to go and study in Paris, one of whom was a young man named Saloth Sar.

If all of that was hard to follow, and a super confusing mess, just imagine what it was like actually living in the countryside in Cambodia at this point – dangerous and confusing.

That’s it for this week.

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You have been listening to The Poison Room, a podcast that holds the controversial opinion that colonialism is Not Great.

The voice in your ears has been: a member of a grand total of zero committees.


Chigas, G. (2000) ‘The Emergence of Twentieth Century Cambodian Literary Institutions: The Case of Kambujasuriya’ in The Canon in Southeast Asian Literatures, Smyth, D. (Ed), Curzon Press. Pp. 135-146.

Chandler, D. (1986) ‘Kingdom of Kampuchea, March-October 1945: Japanese Sponsored Independence in Cambodia in World War II’ Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Vol. 17: 80-93

--- (1991) The Tragedy of Cambodian History, Yale University Press.

--- (2008) A History of Cambodia (4th Edn) Westview Press.

Edwards, P. (2007) Cambodge, University of Hawaii Press.

May, S. (2015) ‘Cambodian Literature: From Angkor to Year Zero and Beyond’. Words Without Borders

Keyes, C. (1990) ‘The Legacy of Angkor’ Cultural Survival Quarterly 14: 56-59.

Kiernan, B. (2004) How Pol Pot Came to Power (2nd Edn), Yale University Press.

Knuth, R. (2006) Burning Books and Leveling Libraries Praeger.

Short, P. (2004) Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, Henry Holt & Co.

Smyth. D. (2005) ‘Khmer Literature’ Encylopaedia Britannica, Britannica Online.