The history of Cambodia is a pulsating story in which for well over 1000 years the Khmer people have both embraced and occasionally repulsed the influence from outside kingdoms. Even today Cambodia sits uncomfortably with Thailand to the west, and Vietnam to the east: uneasy bedfellows in south-east Asia.
Visitors to Cambodia reflect chiefly on three historic periods from Cambodia’s past: the most recent being the rise of Pol Pot.
But tourists also focus on the great Angkor empire from 10 centuries ago. Historically, apart from the stone inscriptions and carvings found on the temples themselves there is little written evidence of the life or politics of Cambodia at the time. Historians can only bravely guess at what society must have been like 1000 years ago. There were royal families, and there was the patronage which even today is a hallmark of Cambodian life. There were slave owners, but evidence also that some slaves themselves owned slaves. All that remained certain of this era is the glory of the temples themselves. They embrace mystery, and they suggest a very sophisticated society. The temples themselves also reflect a collision of cultures including Hindu as well as Chinese.
Then in the mental map of the tourist in a hurry, we skip forward several centuries to the end of the 19th century when the French colonised Cambodia.
Ahh! The romance of the French influence! We see traces of it in the grand hotels, and we taste remnants of the French influence in the fresh and fluffy French bread as baked by locals. Older generations are still fluent French speakers.
But just as the British in the late 19th century absolutely plundered the wealth of China, so to the French plundered Cambodia for its riches. Priceless statues from Angkor Wat still reside in Paris, I think, to the shame of modern France. Historians suggest that there was little real resistance to the French rule however, and the bureaucracies and governance imposed by France appears to have added a layer to society, rather than to have directly challenged the Cambodian way of doing things. Cambodia might be said to have absorbed French rule.
However in World War II the story changes abruptly. For a start, back in France, the government was overthrown and France was put under Vichy rule: a government that was compliant and sympathetic to the objectives of the Nazi government of Germany. In Cambodia the French control changed hands similarly. And the new Government was nominally sympathetic to Japan. It was in the interests of France, as well as in the interests of Japan to do a deal rather than to fight. Colonial authorities signed over the rights for Japan to use Cambodia as a highway to other battlegrounds.
Meanwhile the Thai government, which itself was now also pro-Japan, decided to use this moment to recapture lands that had historically been in dispute with Cambodia. The Thais, under the strongly nationalistic Prime Minister Phibul Sangkram had been hostile to French colonial forces already and, abetted by the Japanese who turned a blind eye, the Thais first conducted random border attacks in late 1940, then more daringly invaded Cambodia’s Western provinces in March 1941 following a brief war with the French. The Thai PM, a military man, had visions of creating a unified Thailand that included Laos and Cambodia. The French were outraged and, despite being short of resources conducted strong counter-attacks and executed a remarkable naval victory, with four shabby gin-boats sinking the pride of the Thai naval fleet.
Historian C. Peter Chen sums up the military casualties of this Franco-Thai conflict:
The war saw the French suffering 321 dead or wounded, 178 missing, and 222 captured; the majority of the losses were French, Vietnamese, Lao, or Cambodian, with a small number being North African. The greatest loss suffered by the French was in the domain of the air force, which saw 30 of the already small 100-aircraft fleet being destroyed. Thailand suffered 108 killed, 374 wounded, and 21 captured.
War histories seldom assess the civilian losses. The war included aerial bombing and strafing raids on cities and villages by both the Thai and French colonial air forces. The Thais bombed Stung Treng, Battambang, Siem Reap, Sisophon, Ream and Mongkolborey. Offers of money were used by the Thais – largely unsuccessfully – to encourage Cambodian troops to desert with their weapons and defect: to join Thailand. Much of the fighting took the form of bloody skirmishes along the Thai-Cambodian border and echoes of these disputes flare-up from time to time, decades later. Accounts are mixed over which side emerged victorious. In the end it didn’t matter because Japan had it’s own agenda to roll-out.
The Japanese mediated negotiations in Tokyo in May 1941 and French Indochinese colonial officials, who did not have the available resources sufficient for a military vistory, were compelled, despite their erstwhile victories, to sign over roughly one third of all of Cambodia to Thai rule. This included Battambang, Siem Reap, Koh Kong an extension of land between the 15th parallel and the Dangrek Mountains in Stung Treng Province. The number of Cambodian citizens who were now under rule from Thailand were in excess of 500,000. The annexed provinces were now called (at least by the Thais,) Phibul Sangkram Province. What Thailand gained was the bulk of Cambodia’s rice harvest as well as fishing resource of Tonle Sap. In return for the favour Sangkram pledged loyalty to Japan, though privately he was willing to side with whichever force was going to win WW2. “Whoever will lose: that is our real enemy,” he once confided.
This signing-over of land to Thailand inflamed Cambodians, and ultimately gave birth to the modern Cambodian government, free from foreign rule. Thai troops recall the uneasy time they had – receiving much verbal abuse from Khmers.
As World War II ground on, the Japanese found themselves stretched too thin, militarily, and they began doing deals with local leaders. By 1945 Japan removed the French control from Indochina, and French military forces were disarmed forcibly. The objective of the Japanese was to put countries such as Cambodia back into local hands, and thereby win the loyalty and support for the rest of the Japanese war effort. So it was that on March 9, 1945 the young King Norodom Sihanouk became the head of the new Kingdom of Kampuchea. He was expected to be a puppet leader, but a few months later, by August 1945 Japan had surrendered to the Allied forces.
The political landscape of Southeast Asia was now quite different to that prior to World War II. However with the ending of the war, the French government – aided by allies who refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Thai annexation – reimposed control over Cambodia, and punished heavily, those protesters who had been so inflamed by the sell-off of the western provinces to Thailand. In forcing Thailand to hand back the western part of Cambodia the French facilitated what they imagined would be a welcome return of French rule by the general Khmer public. Again, they probably saw Sihanouk as a puppet figure. By now Cambodians, in increasing numbers, were beginning to think of independence.
It would take just another decade for Cambodia to truly become independent, and part of this process, utimately, involves the story of the Khmer Rouge and the rise of Pol Pot. But that’s another story, and one I’ll write about later.
The point of this piece, however, is to alert readers to the idea that there is a rich and complicated history to Siem Reap before Pol Pot ever came to power, and well after the French first arrived.
Siem Reap today welcomes visitors from all over the world, and it exercises a pride for its past, and a sense that whatever happens in history, the Cambodian people are able to absorb the impact and weather the storms. I should very much like to interview locals who lived through the world war two years. What was the impact of Thai rule? What was the reaction of locals when the citizenship was signed over to neighbouring Thailand? These aspects of history need to be captured while survivors are still alive. The monuments and temples of Siem Reap are staggering to see, but do they speak as loudly or as clearly as the voices of people who there to witness history take place?