Norodom Sihanouk in 1956

Norodom Sihanouk in 1956

Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk. When French Indochina was given independence, Cambodia lost official control over the Mekong Delta as it was awarded to Vietnam. The area had been controlled by the Vietnamese since 1698 with King Chey Chettha II granting Vietnamese permission to settle in the area decades before.

In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father in order to be elected Prime Minister. Upon his father’s death in 1960, Sihanouk again became head of state, taking the title of Prince. As the Vietnam War progressed, Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality in the Cold War although he was widely considered to be sympathetic to the Communist cause. While visiting Beijing, he was ousted in 1970 by a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak with the back-up support of the United States. The King urged his followers to help in overthrowing the pro-United States government of Lon Nol, hastening the onset of civil war. Soon the Khmer Rouge rebels began using him to gain support.

Between 1969 and 1973, Republic of Vietnam forces and U.S. forces bombed and briefly invaded Cambodia in an effort to disrupt the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge. Some two million Cambodians were made refugees by the war and fled to Phnom Penh. Estimates of the number of Cambodians killed during the bombing campaigns vary widely, as do views of the effects of the bombing. The US Seventh Air Force argued that the bombing prevented the fall of Phnom Penh in 1973 by killing 16,000 of 25,500 Khmer Rouge fighters besieging the city. However, journalist William Shawcross and Cambodia specialists Milton Osborne, David P. Chandler and Ben Kiernan argued that the bombing drove peasants to join the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia specialist Craig Etcheson argued that the Khmer Rouge “would have won anyway”, even without US intervention driving recruitment although the US secretly played a major role behind the leading cause of the Khmer Rouge.

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