Episode 17

The Khmer Rouge Part 2 – The Original Khmer

Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about dangerous writing with a host that’s really bad at guessing how long things will take. Before we begin, I’ve got a couple of programming notes. First, a correction: last episode I used the pronunciation ‘Khmer (Kuh-merr) Rouge’, but apparently, that’s not the Cambodian pronunciation. Its, my accent excepting, Khmer (kuh-my) Rouge. Thank you for the info, Peter! I’m sure I’ve got other pronunciations wrong and if any of you know how things should be pronounced, I’d love to hear from you. Secondly: most of this episode is fine on the content-front. There are some mentions of killing. I’ve tried to convey how bad they were without getting too specific in the details, because: they’re grim as hell and dwelling on the details won’t add anything to this story. So with that said, let’s recap.

Last time we covered… well. A lot of stuff. But, the central focus was the founding of newspapers in Cambodia in the 1930s, leading to the creation of one known as the Nagara Vatta, founded by three men: Pach Chhoeun, Sim Var, and Son Ngoc Thanh. The newspaper was the breeding ground for growing ideas of national identity, and for forming ideas between the Buddhist monastic orders – the sangha, students, and other intellectuals. After the arrest of the monk Hem Chieu, Pach Chhoeun and Son Ngoc Thanh had helped organise a march to Phnom Penh, which Pach Chhoeun led. The goal was to present a petition for the release of Hem Chieu. What happened instead is that Pach Chhoeun, along with other protesters, were arrested. Son Ngoc Thanh, who had been hiding out when the march took place, fled the country, and ended up under the protection of the Japanese in Tokyo. When the Japanese swooped in and disarmed the French in 1945, Pach Chhoeun was released from prison, and Thanh was summoned back from Tokyo. Thanh joined the cabinet of the new government as Minister of Foreign Affairs. In August of 1945 there was a coup, supported by Thanh, where several young men stormed the palace and demanded the king, Sihanouk, dissolve the current cabinet and abdicate. After the coup, Thanh becomes Prime Minister, and Pach Chhoeun joined his cabinet.

But the other thing that happens in August is the end of War 2, and the French decide they want Cambodia back. They manage this with relative ease, due to Thanh’s government having no real plan to fend them off. Thanh is arrested on the 15th of October, and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. He was released after 17 months and relocated to exile in France. Pach Chhoeun fled to the countryside when Thanh was arrested, where he temporarily meets up with members of the rebel Issarak, but when the French regain the territory in which their cabinet base was located, the committee falls apart, and Chhoeun surrendered in April 1946.

And by 1949, the Issarak and other anti-colonial, pro-nationalist groups were causing more and more trouble to the French and Sihanouk. Which is not to say they weren’t causing serious trouble before then – in 1946, for instance, Issarak forces had massacred over 100 people in the Catholic village of Keiey Puoy. Catholicism was a French import, making it something despicable to the nationalists (Kiernan 2004: 56).

In Phnom Penh, the political situation was growing more unstable. A man called Yem Sambaur was in charge, and the Democratic Party were refusing to work with him, due to him kiiiinda’ being a little bit of a back-stabby back-stabber. By September of 1949, he’d asked Sihanouk to dissolve the assembly. This should have meant that new elections needed to take place within two months, but Sambaur and Sihanouk use the worsening bloodshed in the countryside to argue that they can’t safely hold elections, and therefore, totally reasonably, suspend them indefinitely. Students responded to this move by staging a protest.

But one student who probably wasn’t at those protests was a young man called Saloth Sar. He’s the central focus of this episode, so let’s go back a bit to find out more about his life up until this point.

It’s hard to pin down some of the details of Sar’s early life, because sources are scarce and they don’t always agree with each other, and Sar himself falsified a lot of details. And this uncertainty extends to his date of birth, but it was probably either 1925 or 1928. The latter date leaves less time unaccounted for, but his siblings have stuck by the former date (Chandler 1999: 7). He was the eighth of nine children. His father was a well-to-do farmer, and subsequently could afford to send his children to school. The situation of his family was not quite normal compared to other families in the same area – they had several connections with the palace in Phnom Penh – one of his older brothers worked as a clerk in the palace, and one of his older sisters was a ‘consort’ to king Monivong (Chandler 1999: 8).

In 1934 or 35, at around 9 or 10 years old, Sar moved in with one of his older brothers, Chhay. The first thing he does is spend several months at a Buddhist monastery – a standard part of any young boy’s education. Here, he became literate in Khmer, before heading on to attend a Catholic missionary school – the Ecole Miche. The lessons here, unsurprisingly, were taught in French.

Even just a primary education put Sar into a very small cohort. There were around half a million school-aged children in Cambodia at the time, and only a few thousand of them could afford to get this level of education (Short 2004: ch1).

In 1941 Thailand invaded and took control of Battambang and Siem Reap. The French had a now-inaccessible college in Battambang, so to replace it they opened one in Kompong Cham (jam). The new place is Collège Norodom Sihanouk, in honour of the newly installed King. In 1942 twenty boys were chosen to be the first cohort, and Sar was one of them. All of these students were to be boarders. Unfortunately, we don’t know when Sar left for Kompong Cham, so we don’t know if he was around in Phnom Penh when the monk’s demonstration against the arrest of Hem Chieu - the one that led to the arrest of Pach Chhoeun – took place (Chandler 1999: 18). Even if he wasn’t there, Sar would have very probably heard about it, but at this point in his life, he wasn’t much interested in politics.

Again, the lessons in this school were in French, and speaking Khmer was discouraged. (Chandler 1999: 18).

Sar wasn’t a brilliant student. He played the violin and seemed to enjoy it, but apparently wasn’t great at it. He learned to play the roneat too, a traditional Cambodian instrument. World War 2 didn’t seem to be a source of any particular attention for him and his schoolmates and friends until the 9th of March, when the Japanese swiftly moved to disarm the French (Short 2004: Ch1). One of the consequences of this move by the Japanese was that all of the French teachers at the school were replaced with Khmer teachers. So even if you’re a kid not interested in politics, that’s a thing you’re gonna notice.

We don’t know what Sar did in 1946 – the same year the Democratic Party won its first election, but he finished at Collège Sihanouk in 1947, and enrolled as a carpentry student at the Ecole Miche Technique in a northern suburb of Phnom Penh.

Now, the timeline here gets a bit confusing. According to Sar’s brother he went straight from Collège Sihanouk to the Ecole Miche Technique. There was a more prestigious school – the Lycée Sisowath – that several of his friends went to instead. Later, in 1978, Sar claimed he took and failed the entry exam for the Lycée in 1948. David Chandler suggests that he went to the Ecole Mich Technique because he failed the entry exam to the Lycée, which means he couldn’t have been at the Ecole Mich Technique in 1947 if we trust Sar himself that he sat the entry exam in 1948.

Despite not going there himself, Sar does still make friends with a student from the lycée – a boy named Ieng Sary. It’s a friendship that lasts. Both boys worked for the Democratic Party in late 1947 (Chandler 1999: 23). Given that Sary was already very politically aware and active, and Sar had not, as far as we know, displayed any real interest in politics at this point, I suspect that Sar might have worked there because of his friendship with Sary.

So Sar’s at the Ecole Mich Technique in 1948 when Sihanouk dissolves the assembly at the request of Sambaur. In 1949, Sar bags one of a very limited number of scholarships to go and study in Paris. Since the program had started in 1946, only around 100 men and women had been granted bursaries (Chandler 1999: 24).

Sar and his fellow scholarship recipients set sail for France on August 31st 1949. They arrived just under a month later, in late September.

In his first year, he takes a room at the Indochinese Pavillion of the Cite Universitaire – student accommodation at the edge of the city. His first year is pretty quiet in terms of things that are of interest to this story, but back in Cambodia things are not at all quiet. The political situation is still tense, and it gets even more tense when, on the 14th of January, 1950, Ieu Koeuss, head of the Democratic Party, is assassinated. Someone rolled a grenade into the headquarters of the party whilst Koeuss was in the building. A neighbour chased after the assassin and caught him and he was handed over to the authorities. But they failed to find out who had hired him, and suspicion, rather unsurprisingly, fell on the French, or Sihanouk, or Sambaur, or some combination of those. For their part, the French blamed the Issarak (Chandler 1991: 44).

The assassin made, and then retracted, a statement that he was a member of the Liberal Party. Koeuss had been a popular man – 50,000 people attended his funeral, and prince Norindeth, the head of the Liberal Party, fled to France, fearing reprisals (Chandler 1991: 44-45).

By early March, under pressure from the French, Sihanouk dismissed Sambaur (Lentz 2014: 135). He was replaced with Prince Sisowath Monipong, who formed a new still non-political cabinet. By this point the National Assembly had been dissolved for five months, with elections still indefinitely postponed. Neither the Democratic Party nor the Liberal Party were happy about this (Chandler 1991: 45). Monipong and his cabinet set about trying to figure out how to proceed.

Meanwhile, out in the countryside, conditions are deteriorating further as fighting continues between the French-led forces and the Issarak and other rebel groups. At the same time Monipong is replacing Sambaur, the ICP – the Indochina Communist Party – held a meeting where they decide they haven’t formed enough committees, and really should make some more. In April the first ‘national congress for Khmer resistance’ is held in Cambodia. That congress ratified the establishment of the United Issarak Front, based on the recommendations of the Liberation Committee – the one that the Viet Minh formed in 1946 and put Son Ngoc Minh in charge of.

The congress also does something else rather important – it establishes a proto-government: the People’s Liberation Central Committee (PLCC). Son Ngoc Minh is made president of this group, with three vice-presidents for different regions under him. Two of those were Sieu Heng and Tou Samouth (Kiernan 2004: 79-80). This proto-government undertakes a serious effort to educate its Khmer fighters, both in things such as military tactics, and things like certain political ideologies (Kiernan 2004: 81).

By September of 1951 they’ve settled on a name of ‘Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party’ (KPRP). Technically the ICP had dissolved at this point, but actually what happened was they just… renamed it the Vietnamese Workers’ Party, and made separate groups for Cambodia and Laos. The KPRP’s statutes were essentially directly translated into Khmer from those written by the Vietnamese. The party would grow in strength over the next few years, as more people in favour of independence, and willing to fight for it, joined their ranks (Chandler 2008: 222).

Back in Paris, in November of 1950, Saloth Sar was joined by his buddy from the Lycée Sisowath, Ieng Sary. Sary quickly goes about getting in touch with a former tutor of his who was also in the country, Keng Vannsak, and introduces him and Sar to each other at the start of 1951. Sary’s arrival marks the beginning of increased political awareness and activity among Sar and his cohort (Chandler 1991: 51). They set up informal reading groups to discuss various literature, which included a lot of communist texts. Sar probably attended these reading circles initially because of his friendship with Sary, but Vannsak later recalled that Sar spent a lot of time reading on his own (Chandler 1999: 31).

Meanwhile, in February 1951 Prince Monipong dissolved his cabinet. He had been trying to get the parties to agree on how to proceed in selecting a new government, and had failed to get them to reach an agreement. The Democratic Party and the Liberal Party wanted the National Assembly of 1947 restored. But smaller parties who hadn’t won any seats in that election, and parties formed after that point want there to be a new election (Chandler 1991: 56). A new still non-political interim party replaces them. The Democratic Party refused to join.

In July of that year, Sary and several other students went to a festival in East Berlin. They returned with pamphlets and news about what was happening in Cambodia - news about Son Ngoc Minh, and Cambodian support of the Viet Minh.

The reaction among the students was split: some wanted to return to help with the fighting; some wanted Cambodian independence, but without any involvement from the Viet Minh. Others wanted Son Ngoc Thanh – who was still in exile in Paris – to return as head of the Democratic Party and lead a political struggle against the French and Sihanouk (Chandler 1991: 55). Despite their reading in communist literature, most students still supported democracy rather than communism, and many supported Thanh, including both Sar and Sary.

In fact, Sary and some friends actually approached Thanh to ask him to pursue that last idea, but he remained politely disinterested. Sihanouk had been pressured by his father and people within the Liberal Party into pressing the French to allow Thanh’s return, and by the time Sary and his friends approached him, Thanh had already been invited to return (Chandler 1991: 55). He did this a few months later, hoping to be able to reach a political compromise with Sihanouk. His departure left the students in Paris without a national political figure for them to rally around and respect, and rather disillusioned (Chandler 1991: 56).

Back in Cambodia, on the 9th of September, 1951, elections were finally held. Around 300 voting booths failed to open due to unsafe conditions (Chandler 1991: 57). Once again, the Democratic Party won the majority of the seats. Neither the party of Lon Nol – the Khmer Renovation Society, nor Sambaur’s Liberal Party win any seats.

On the 29th of October, Son Ngoc Thanh finally returns. A huge crowd turned out to welcome him back, hoping that he would be able to bring change to the country and make progress with independence (Chandler 1999: ch2). He’s offered a cabinet position in the Democratic Party’s government – a cabinet which, by the way, included his friend from the Nagara Vatta days: Pach Chhoeun. Thanh declines the offer, and instead spends several months touring the country.

Now on to 1952. On the 11th of February, Thanh established a new paper, the Khmer Krauk! (Chandler 1999: 36). It managed to last a whole month before the French pressured the government to shut it down due to its anti-French stance (Kiernan 2004: 98).

Then, on the 9th of March, Thanh pulled a disappearing act, and vanished into the forests in Siem Reap, where he joined up with a group of anti-French non-communist guerrillas. A handful of loyal followers join him and more trickled in over the subsequent months.

For some reason, this move makes Sihanouk and the French nervous and distrustful. They suspect, mistakenly, that the Democratic Party had been helping Thanh, and turn on them, leading to Sihanouk pulling a coup on the 14th of June. He dismisses the Democratic cabinet, declares himself Prime Minister and forms a new cabinet with no Democrat representation. He outlines two particular goals for his government: they will defeat the rebels in the countryside within two years, and gain independence within three years. A few days after the coup, he bans all political gatherings (Chandler 1991: 63).

Meanwhile, among the rebels, Sihanouk’s declaration that he will achieve independence within three years was greeted with a mixed response. Some were pleased to hear it, and later would even join him in Siem Reap. Others simply didn’t trust the guy who’d spent his entire rule collaborating with the French to actually achieve independence from the French (Kiernan 2004: 99).

Sihanouk’s coup also prompted a response from the Cambodian students over in Paris. A manifesto was produced, demanding that Sihanouk abdicate, and blaming him for all of the recent troubles. It accused him and his predecessors of collaborating with the French (Chandler 2008: 225). The student magazine, Khmer Nisut rushed out a special issue addressing the matter. (Chandler 1999: 37) In it is an 8 page article, titled ‘Monarchy or Democracy?’. The article was written by hand in Khmer, since there were no Khmer typewriters yet (Galway 2017: 140). It was one of two articles in the issue written by the same author, under the pseudonym ‘Khmer Doam’ – ‘the Original Khmer’. The student behind the name was Saloth Sar. This would not be the only time Sar would assume a different name, he would use several throughout his life. To some he would be known as ‘Brother Number One’ or ‘Uncle Secretary’. By 1976, he would be known to the world as Pol Pot.

Shockingly, the articles are pro-democracy, and anti-monarchy.

I could only find full transcripts of the ‘Monarchy or Democracy?’ article that were translated into English from the French, which had in turn been translated from the Khmer, but the starting argument is that it was only under Democracy that the Khmer people had a chance to breath, and for real democracy the French must be ousted. By dissolving the cabinet and threatening to dissolve the assembly, Sihanouk was siding with the French rather than his people. And his actions prove that Cambodia does not have a constitutional monarchy, but an absolute monarchy.

He goes on to call monarchy an ‘unjust doctrine, as infectious as a putrid plague’. He claims that monarchy is both the enemy of the people and of religion. The fact that he presents religion as good confirms what the title already suggests – at this point, Saloth Sar is still very much a democrat, not a communist. He also calls monarchy the enemy of knowledge. By which, he means monarchies suppress people gaining the knowledge that would allow them to understand that monarchies are unjust and democracy is better. As we’ll see eventually, this claim will be profoundly, and miserably ironic. He also claims that monarchies and democracies cannot coexist. Sihanouk’s coup has proven that.

The penultimate point of his article, after claiming that the French supported the coup, is a comment about what Sihanouk is likely to do in the future. Again, with bitter irony, it will turn out to be an accurate statement of Sor’s own regime. He claims that Sihanouk’s plan:

aims only to gag the people, to arrest and expel those who dare to oppose the policy of the King. Second, it aims to dissolve political parties that oppose the interests of the throne, because political parties do not remain silent. Finally, the king's policy is to provoke a civil war which will burn everything, even the pagodas. The monks, the people, the civil servants will experience painful family separations, they will see their parents, their wives and their children crushed by the tanks, burned by napalm; the crops will be destroyed.

He ends by stating that, since the king will have used colonial armies to supress the rebels, he will be indebted to France, who will continue to rule as colonial overlords.

That’s Sar’s contribution, But the centrepiece of the issue was by Keng Vannsak, in which he praised Son Ngoc Thanh and accused Sihanouk of treason (Short 2004; ch2). So, despite the fact that many of these students have been reading communist literature, and despite the fact that many of them, including Sar, had joined the CFP – the French Communist Party, the tone of the issue is definitely still democratic rather than communist.

Now, according to Philip Short copies of the special issue of the Khmer Nisut was sent to leading groups in the Sangha, the palace, the National Assembly, the Cabinet, and the prominent newspapers. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give a source for this, and he’s the only person I found giving that detail. But regardless, Sihanouk did know about the writings of the students in Paris, and was not at all impressed. He sent over his advisor, Penn Nouth, who arrived in Paris in August. He talked to the unrepentant students, and informed them that their bursaries were being withdrawn (Chandler 1999: 38).

This action wasn’t a particular punishment for Sar, who had already lost interest in his studies and withdrawn.

In October the students hold a meeting to discuss which of the rebel organisations they should support, whether anything could be done to unite the various groups, and whether the time had come for them to all return to Cambodia. Ultimately, they decide they just don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. And so they decide that someone should go back to scout things out and report back. Sar volunteers for this, and leaves France on the 15th of December. So ends 1952.

In January 1953 things came to a head between Sihanouk and the Assembly. He asked for special powers, claiming that the kingdom was in danger. The assembly refuses, so he dissolves it, and decided martial law was the way to go (Chandler 2008: 225). He also had 17 members of the Democratic Party arrested. They would be held without trial for 8 months (Chandler 1991: 66). Sar arrived back the day after the assembly was dissolved, and found a country scarred by conflict.

In the countryside, the fighting had got brutal. Skip ahead 15 seconds or so if you don’t want to hear how brutal. The Issarak are slaughtering people, disembowling them, dismembering them. (Short 2004: ch3). The colonial army were no better. They raped, burned, and pillaged, subjecting even babies to brutal deaths simply as demonstrations of their strength. The Viet Minh were not much better – they were torturing people for information, and sending in squads to assassinate village leaders and assume control (Short 2004: ch3). And the peasants in the countryside are just… helplessly caught in the middle, surrounded by these groups supposedly fighting for what’s best for Cambodia, whilst happily slaughtering them.

And these are the kind of groups Sar has to report back about. He spends the first half of 1953 making contacts with different groups, and around the middle of that year, reports his impressions to a fellow student who had returned to Phnom Penh a few months after him. The two options, as far as the students were concerned, were Son Ngoc Thanh’s Serei Issarak group, or Son Ngoc Minh’s group. Sar recommends Son Ngoc Minh’s group (Short 2004: ch3). The students in Paris take his advice, and decide that Minh’s group is indeed the one they should support, hoping that it will lead to less bloodshed overall (Short 2004: ch3), and by August, Sar had left Phnom Penh to join Minh’s group.

But Sar’s not the only one who was busy that year. Sihanouk was busy taking some decisive action to fulfil his promise to gain independence. The French had assumed that Sihanouk wasn’t really going to push that hard for it, given his track record of working with them, but they were wrong. Sihanouk wasted no time in setting about this mission. In February of 1953, the month after dissolving the assembly, Sihanouk had gone to France on the pretext of a ‘rest cure’. He was actually there to negotiate for independence with the French – not that they knew that until he showed up to do it. Sihanouk quickly realised that the French weren’t going to take him seriously or work towards any real progress. So he left. He took the scenic route home, stopping off in Canada, the US, and China. (Chandler 1991: 67), giving talks and trying to meet with officials to get them to support his quest.

In America, he’s told by officials that independence for Cambodia would be meaningless because if the French left they’d immediately get taken over by the commies (Chandler 1991: 68). For some reason, this irritates Sihanouk, and he gives an ‘explosive’ interview to a journalist named Michael James. The story is published on the front page of the New York Times on the 19th of April.

In the interview he proposes that the French grant commonwealth status to the countries in the Indochina bloc, and warns that if they didn’t, the Cambodian people might rise up and ally with the Viet Minh. I.e.: America is worried that they’ll get taken over by communism if the French leave, and Sihanouk’s reply is ‘hey, if they don’t leave, we’ll join the communists to make them’ (Chandler 1991: 68).

The interview has the desired effect, and the French reopen negotiations, and Sihanouk arrives back in Cambodia in May, on a wave of popular support.

But by June, little progress had been made in the negotiations, due to the French dragging their feet and still being super reluctant to stop doing colonialism. In response, Sihanouk went into voluntary exile, and moved his headquarters to Siem Reap. He refused to speak to the French officials in Phnom Penh (Chandler 2008: 227), but also started welcoming any Issarak who wanted to join his cause (Chandler 1991: 68).

So France’s assumption that Sihanouk wasn’t going to seriously pursue peace is looking pretty foolish at this point. And his bargaining position is strengthened by the fact that the Indochina war is becoming increasingly unpopular in France. They wanted to be doing less fighting, not more (Chandler 2008: 227).

Sar had gone to join Son Ngoc Minh in August, but by this point the fighting was dying down, and it continued to die down in October, when the French caved to Sihanouk and turned over control of the police, judiciary, foreign affairs and many aspects of military operations. But they kept a hold of economic affairs (Chandler 2008: 227). So it’s not a total withdrawal, but it’s still a huge victory for Sihanouk, who returns to Phnom Penh cheered by welcoming crowds.

In May 1954, the Geneva Conference was convened by the British and the Soviets, in order to have negotiations to end the Indochina war. It’s attended by representatives of the South Vietnam government set up by the French, but also representatives of the Viet Minh. Laos and Cambodia are there, too. But there are only representatives of Sihanouk’s government when it comes to Cambodia. The Issarak and other rebels groups weren’t present.

The end result of the Geneva Conference was that the French would fully withdraw from Cambodia and completely hand over power to Sihanouk. Without the focus of fighting for independence, the rebels groups in Cambodia are left in general disarray, but the Viet Minh welcome over 1,000 of the rebels to the northern territories they’d been granted by the Conference (Chandler 1991: 74).

But the leaders of the Viet Minh also suggest that a few of Son Ngoc Minh’s rebels stay behind, go underground, and try to engage with the political system. Sar is one of those who stays behind. He moves to Phnom Penh and lives there under a different name. Back in Vietnam, the Vietnamese had appointed new leadership for the KPRP: Sieu Heng became secretary, Tou Samouth was his deputy, and Son Ngoc Minh, stuck in Vietnam, was third in command. Heng was in charge of the movement in Cambodia’s countryside; Samouth was in charge of the urban side.

The Geneva Conference also stipulated that an election had to be held in Cambodia at some point during 1955. Sihanouk wasn’t a big fan of this stipulation. The Democrat Party was still super popular, and communists had recently formed their own new party – the Krom Pracheachon, or ‘The People’s Group’. Sar had helped set it up, and formulate its policies (Dy 2007: 7). Its public chair was a man called Keo Meas. Meanwhile, other students had joined the Democratic Party, including Keng Vannsak. Their presence pushed the overall line of the party towards a more anti-royalist and anti-American slant (Chandler 1991: 75).

Sihanouk didn’t want these parties to win.

So he proposed legislation that would prevent anyone who hadn’t been resident in Cambodia for the last three years from standing in the election. This would basically have excluded all the rebels who’d been hiding out along the borders, as well as all the students who’d been in France (Jacobsen 2018: 119). So like… the most prominent sources of opposition. The legislation doesn’t pass.

A fellow former student and teacher of Sar’s, Thiounn Mumm collaborated with Sar to coordinate the tactics of the two parties, and many observers at the start of 1955 though that these two parties would win the majority of seats in the election (Chandler 2008: 230).

Then, in a dramatic move, Sihanouk appoints his father as king and abdicates, making him a private citizen. And as a private citizen, he can form his own political party. Which he does: The Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or ‘the People’s Socialist Community’. Several of the smaller conservative parties just fold and join Sihanouk, leaving the Democrats and Pracheachon as the only real competition (Chandler 2008: 230).

Between May and September of 1955 (when the election was held) several opposition newspapers – i.e. those that were very pro-Son Ngoc Thanh, or pro-Pracheachon, were shut down. One paper would be shut down, and another would spring up in its place. Their editors were arrested and imprisoned without trial. This included one of Sar’s brothers, Saloth Chhay, who was editor of a newspaper called Sammaki, or ‘Solidarity’ (Chandler 1991: 77; Kiernan 2004: 158). The Pracheachon group had its own newspaper, which managed to last for 19 issues, from the 1st of April to the 10th of June before the editor was arrested and imprisoned (Kiernan 2004: 158).

The candidates for the two parties were harassed, especially the Pracheachon candidates. At least one Democrat candidate spent most of the campaign in jail, as did three Pracheachon candidates. The day before the election, Keng Vannsak was shot at by government agents. The day of the election, he was in jail. Their party headquarters in Battambang were ransacked; in Phnom Penh, it was surrounded by police (Kiernan 2004: 159).

Voters were intimidated. There were instances of former Issarak members going to vote, and instead being shot at (Kiernan 2004: 160). Every newspaper that was still running, and didn’t belong to the Sangkum ran stories on electoral abuse. Several campaigners for the Pracheachon group were shot and killed (Kiernan 2004: 159). And when all else failed, Sihanouk’s allies simply falsified the results.

So like, this was a super duper fair election.

There was an international committee there to oversee the elections and theoretically make sure they were fair. But they were understaffed, and most considered Sihanouk’s unfair win a better outcome than a fair win by communist elements that might succeed in making the whole country communist (Chandler 2008: 231).

Something else happens just after the election. In November, the Vietnam War breaks out. Which of course means Cambodia is going to get dragged in at some point. So just remember that that situation is boiling away close by.

The next decade and a half under Sihanouk’s rule was characterised by… ineffectual actions and politics. The Democrat Party disbanded before the next election, in 1958, leaving only the Pracheachon group. Pracheachon ran a handful of candidates, but all bar one of them withdrew before the election. The one who didn’t – Keo Meas – went into hiding immediately after to avoid reprisals (Chandler 2008: 234). Sihanouk remained really rather popular among most of the citizens, with the exception of a handful of radicals, secret communists, intellectuals, and certain groups within the sangha (Chandler 2008: 240). Around this time, Sihanouk started to refer to the Pracheachon group, which he portrayed as out and out evil communists, as the ‘Rouges’. It was 1960 when the first references appeared to them using their now infamous name, the Khmer Rouge.

Over the next few years Sihanouk’s attitude towards the left mellows a bit. Several politicians of a leftist persuasion join the Sangkum, including Sar’s brother, Chhay – one of the newspaper editors who had been arrested before the election. Sihanouk also adopts several policies that the left approved of, such as an international stance of neutrality adopted in 1957. These actions, coupled with the fact that many rebels had seen their only cause as achieving independence, meant that the KPRP saw reduced membership and enthusiasm. Many of the rebels, both leaders and normal members, had settled back down to their previous lives, or legal, harmless, pursuits by 1958 (Kiernan 2004: 178).

At the same time, more and more of the students in France had been trickling back into the country, becoming teachers (as Sar himself did), or joining parties – including the Sangkum, and getting themselves government or administrative positions. Sar’s bestie, Sary, had returned in 1957, shortly after Sar had married a woman called Khieu Ponnary, who had also been in France at the same time as Sar. The match takes everyone by surprise – Ponnary was five or six years older than Sar, so it was unusual for the time. I mention this primarily – and when I say ‘primarily’ I actually mean ‘for literally no other reason’ than to be able to mention the fact that Ponnary was considered rather plain, and not particularly pretty, because… her face had the scars from having had smallpox as a child (Short 2005: ch4). And apparently, if I can mention smallpox, I gotta do it.

Sihanouk also continues to encourage and foster nationalist sentiments during this period, but his idea of nationalism differs rather radically from that of the communists and left wing radicals. Sihanouk based his nationalism in the former glory of the Angkor Empire. But for the communists, this era, rather unsurprisingly, evokes ideas of slavery and exploitation, and plays into the communist idea that history is a series of struggles that take society from the feudalism of the past toward communism (Chandler 1991: 88).

There was sporadic repression of left wing groups, ideas, and newspapers during this era, but it wasn’t a brutal crackdown (Kiernan 2004: 176). Left wing newspapers sprang up, and by the end of 1956 there were 26 different newspapers in print in Khmer, French, Vietnamese, and Chinese. By 1958, the Pracheachon newspaper had a circulation of around 3,200 copies, and two related papers had a combined circulation of 4,500 copies per week (Kiernan 2004: 179).

Weirdly, crackdowns tended to happen in the run up to elections. For instance, before the election in 1958, two editors of a left wing journal were arrested in mid-July of 1957, just a few days after Sihanouk had had two members of the Democratic committee arrested (Chandler 1991: 92).

In August 1959 several left wing newspapers had been shut down, and in October the editor of the Pracheachon was shot dead, probably by the police (Chandler 1991: 112).

And during this period in the late 50s, things were pretty okay for the peasants in the countryside. There’s plenty of land available for cultivation; most people have enough to eat; infant mortality and rates of malaria were dropping; education was improving. Hundreds of thousands of previous illiterate citizens learned to read, and their children attended school. Sanitation and healthcare improved.

But after this, things start to escalate. In February 1959 a plot was discovered involving our local neighbourhood warlord, Dap Chhuon. The plot had the backing of South Vietnam, and probably the US too. Chhuon was assassinated that same month, probably on the orders of Lon Nol (Chandler 1991: 101-105). Sihanouk knew by September of that year that the US and South Vietnam had been involved in this plot, and it didn’t do much for his opinion of them.

But just before that, in August a second assassination attempt was made against Sihanouk. Two suitcases were delivered to the palace. One contained a bomb. But Sihanouk wasn’t in the room when the suitcases were opened and the bomb went off. Turns out, South Vietnam was behind this one, too (Chandler 1991: 106-107).

Also in 1959, on the communist side, Sieu Heng – the KPRP guy in charge of the situation in the countryside in Cambodia, defected to Sihanouk’s government, resulting in a huge disruption of communication between the communist groups in the city, and those in the countryside.

In April, 1960 Sihanouk’s father, the king, died. Sihanouk doesn’t want anyone else to be king (or queen – his mother was an option, but he was very against it). But Sihanouk needs to be a private citizen to maintain his position as Leader of the Sangkum. So he stirs the situation to such an extent that a referendum is held on what policy the country should follow (Chandler 1991: 115). To the surprise of no one ever, the referendum is a total sham. But it allows him to force through a constitutional amendment that allowed him to become Head of State for life (Short 2004: ch4).

At the end of September 1960, a secret congress is held by the KPRP, attended by 21 members. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn that at this congress, they reorganised the party and changed the name to the Worker’s Party of Kampuchea (Dy 2007: 8). Tou Samouth is the secretary, Nuon Chea is his deputy, and Sar is third in command. In 1961 he becomes second in command. And in July of 1962 Tou Samouth disappears. This leads to an emergency congress being held in February of 1963, and Sar becomes secretary – i.e. he’s number one now (Dy 2007: 8).

We don’t actually know what happened to Tou Samouth. He was definitely assassinated, but we don’t who dunnit for sure, but it was probably Sihanouk’s police (Chandler 2008: 241).

In January of 1962 Sihanouk, who was totally unimpressed with the fact that the Pracheachon group continued to exist, had had the spokesman of the party and 14 rural party workers arrested and held without charge. Two week’s later, the editor of the party’s paper is… also arrested. (Chandler 1999: 60). The paper was shut down, and never reappeared. In May, the spokesman and the 14 arrested with him were sentenced to death, though this was commuted to a lengthy stint in prison (Chandler 1999: 60). This finally leads to the public aspect of the Pracheachon group disappearing, though their secret KPRP branch did not.

On the international politics side of things, in 1963 Sihanouk broke off the military aid program he was getting from America, but there’s no one to replace the funding he was getting, resulting in a decent hole in the budget. He also nationalises the import-export trade sector, and closes the banks. This also does not have a positive effect on the country’s bottom line, and leads to a dramatic increase in rice being smuggled out of the country to Vietnam, where traders could get more money for it. Which in turn, leads to a big loss of money from taxes (Chandler 2008: 245).

Also in 1963, Sihanouk decided to launch another distinctly anti-left campaign. He made public a list of 24 names that Lon Nol had collected for him, accusing them of trying to overthrow the government. Saloth Sar and Ieng Sary were on the list. In a highly dramatic display (‘cause, if you haven’t noticed it yet, Sihanouk loves theatrics), he summons them for an audience and offers to hand over the government to them. Weirdly, they politely decline this amazing offer, and instead pledge their loyalty to him (Chandler 2008: 242). Sihanouk allows most of them to return to their jobs. Had he known who Sar and Sary were, he definitely wouldn’t have let them go. But despite Sihanouk not recognising their importance within the communist movement, Sar and Sary take the hint about the situation, and flee to the border with Vietnam (Chandler 2008: 242).

In 1964, Sihanouk breaks off diplomatic ties with the US altogether (Chandler: 2008: 236). The whole breaking-off-ties with America thing isn’t a popular move with the more conservative, right wing elements of his government, but it probably helped Sihanouk maintain relationships with the other anti-American factions in surrounding countries, which he probably saw as necessary to prevent Cambodia getting dragged into the war (Chandler 2008: 245).

In 1966, Sihanouk had also formed a secret alliance with the North Vietnamese, who at this point he thought were pretty much guaranteed to win the war. In exchange for leaving Cambodians alone, avoiding contact with the Cambodian army, and respecting Cambodia’s borders, Sihanouk allowed the North Vietnamese to transport weapons and supplies through the country, and to station troops in North Cambodia (Chandler 2008: 236-7). As David Chandler points out, this was probably a rather sensible thing to do – if he hadn’t reached an agreement, it’s likely that the North Vietnamese would have used Cambodia anyway, without any of the promises that would protect his people from the violence and war. They would have devastated Cambodia’s army (Chandler 2008: 239).

There’s also another election in 1966, and Lon Nol became the Prime Minister. Despite being conservative, Lon Nol was also known for his loyalty to Sihanouk (Chandler 2008: 238). Spoiler alert: he’s not that loyal.

Meanwhile, on the Khmer Rouge’s end of things, Sar had become increasingly frustrated with the Vietnamese leadership, which wanted the Cambodians to dedicate their energy to helping them, rather than doing anything significant in terms of revolution in Cambodia. When Sar visited China in 1965, on the other hand, he was warmly greeted, and became more acquainted with their brand of communist revolution (Chandler 2008: 247). By the end of 1966 the party had changed its name once again, becoming the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), to reflect that shift in alignment. Both Saloth Sar and Ieng Sary are members of its central committee.

By early 1967 the whole situation with the illegal rice trade had become a big enough problem in Cambodia that Sihanouk decided that the army should go to several places to collect any surplus rice, pay the standard government price for it, and take it to government warehouses. This move sparked a peasant uprising in Battambang, which was brutally repressed by Sihanouk’s forces, under the command of Prime Minister Lon Nol, leading to the deaths of many farmers and rural peasants (Chandler 2008: 245). It took a few months for Lon Nol to fully stamp out the rebellion. Hundreds were displaced and fled into the forests. The government decided to offer bounties for every rebel head a soldier brought them (Chandler 1999: 78). And like, since you can’t ask a decapitated head whether it was actually a rebel or not, you can guess what happened. After this, Lon Nol resigned as PM and buggered off to France for six months to get some medical treatment (Chandler 1991: 166).

After Lon Nol’s resignation, Sihanouk made himself president of what he named an ‘Exceptional Government’, installing his own cabinet of cronies. He blamed communist forces for the recent revolt, and became increasingly suspicious of the left, and tried – not successfully – to renew relations with the US. The loss of US military aid, the impact of the rice trade, and the knock-on effects of the Vietnam war were starting to seriously destabilise the Cambodian economy, and Sihanouk really wasn’t doing much to address the situation (Chandler 2008: 246). Instead, he was busy making a bunch of nationalist films, which he wrote, directed, and acted in, and which were basically just thinly veiled propaganda for his political positions (Chandler 2008: 248). Meanwhile, lack of farmable land, and food shortages, coupled with violence in the countryside, forced hundreds of thousands of refugees into the cities, leading to crowding, unsanitary conditions, and growing unemployment and poverty. Sihanouk’s a good leader, y’all.

The next year – 1968 – Sar’s CPK initiated an armed struggle against Sihanouk’s government. It was small at first, but grew over the next two years (Chandler 2008: 247), and led to frequent and increased clashes between armed rebels and Sihanouk’s forces.

In March 1969 a bombing campaign by America begins. We’ still don’t know whether Sihanouk authorised this campaign, known as ‘Operation Menu’, or whether it was something that happened, that Sihanouk was then forced to accept rather than condemn, because by this point he really wanted American military aid again, though officially he continued to deny that there were any Viet Minh forces in Cambodia. He officially reopened diplomatic relations with America in June.

The bombing campaign had two effects: it pushed more refugees into the cities, and radicalised others to join the Khmer Rouge because bombing people, or approving of bombing them, generally doesn’t make them like you.

In mid 1969, Sihanouk reappointed Lon Nol as Prime Minister, as head of what he termed ‘the Government of Salvation’. General resentment of Sihanouk’s rule is growing amongst pretty much everyone at this point. By late 1969, people were plotting against him.

In January of 1970 Sihanouk went off to France on his annual holiday. And he’s still on holiday in March, when, on the night of the 17th, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak – one of Sihanouk’s many cousins – broke into the home of Lon Nol with three army officials, and forced him at gun point to sign a document allowing a vote against Sihanouk the very next day (Chandler 2008: 249). The assembly voted almost unanimously to withdraw confidence from Sihanouk, and he is replaced as Chief of State with a guy called Cheng Heng (Chandler 2008: 250). Lon Nol remains as Prime Minister, with Matak as an assistant. Which, like… to be fair, if you’re essentially a dictator and you bugger off on holiday for three months… what did you think would happen?

The coup was popular among educated citizens in the cities, and with the army, but not among the people in the countryside, who, despite everything, still liked Sihanouk, and were therefore inclined to oppose Lon Nol’s regime (Chandler 2008: 250).

Sihanouk heard about the coup whilst he was in Beijing. Unfortunately for Cambodia, he decided that the best way for him to regain power was to start working with the Khmer Rouge.

And that’s where we’re ending for this episode. Next time: the profoundly miserable story of the Khmer Rouge’s reign.

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


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

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

--- (1999) Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, Silkworm Books.

Galway, M. (2017) ‘From Revolutionary Culture to Original Culture and Back: “On New Democracy” and the Kampucheanization of Marxism-Leninism, 1940–1965’ Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review. Vol 24: 132-158).
Jacobsen, T. (2018) ‘Independence to Disaster, 1945-2975’ in Olsen, T., O. (Ed.) Cambodia and the West, 1500 – 2000, Palgrave Macmillan.

Dy, K., Chandler, D., & Cougill, W. (2007) A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), Documentation Centre of Cambodia.

Kiernan, B. (2004) How Pol Pot Came to Power (2nd Edn), Yale University Press. Lentz, H. M. (Ed.) (2014) Heads of States and Governments Since 1945, Routledge.

Martin, M. A. (1994) Cambodia: A Shattered Society (trans: McLeod, M. W.), University of California Press.

Saloth, S. (1952) ‘Monarchy or Democracy?’ Khmer Nisut. Translated into English from a French translation: Muller, R.

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