Forty years on, former participants reflect on the country’s star-crossed republican experiment

FORTY years ago today, the National Assembly convened in Phnom Penh and voted to replace then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk as head of state. The “coup” of March 18, 1970, though it involved no immediate shedding of blood, paved the way for the country’s first experiment with republican government.

The regime that came into being four decades ago was headed, and later personified, by two men: General Lon Nol, a close ally of Sihanouk who became prime minister in August 1969, and Sihanouk’s cousin Prince Sisowath Sirikmatak. During their five short years in power, which ended with the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, the two men attempted a bold experiment in Khmer democracy. On October 9, with much pomp and ceremony, they presided over the founding of the Khmer Republic, bringing Cambodia’s centuries-old monarchy to an end and installing a US-style presidency.

Caught between the velvet-gloved authoritarianism of Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime and the horrors that came after under the Khmer Rouge, the Khmer Republic remains a blind spot in many accounts of Cambodian history. But the event was in its own way a historical watershed, shattering Prince Sihanouk’s royalist consensus and opening up a political rift that led the country into civil war and the more muted political conflicts of the present day.

“One could say that the events of 1970 did polarise the Cambodian population more so than ever before, and transform the system of political accommodation that Sihanouk had practised so well during the late 1950s and early 1960s into one of confrontation,” said Justin Corfield, historian and author of Khmers Stand Up: A History of the Cambodian Government 1970-75.

The final tally of the vote on March 18 – 89 votes for and three against – was a surprising indictment of the Prince, who claimed (and was given) credit for leading Cambodia to independence and uniting the country under his Sangkum regime. Ros Chantraboth, the author of another history of the republican era, said that Sihanouk’s neutralist Cold War balancing act, performed so successfully since the mid-1950s, took a “suicidal” turn at the end of the following decade. By tacitly allowing Vietnamese communist troops to use Cambodia as a staging ground for their operations inside South Vietnam, Sihanouk inflamed local sentiment, something that was only worsened by the corruption and economic mismanagement that plagued the Sangkum regime.

Ros Chantraboth said that the faults of Sihanouk’s regime continued under the Khmer Republic. “For two years, the corruption and injustice were controlled, but started to reassert themselves in 1973 when old officials came to power,” he said last year. “The March coup just changed the image of the regime.”

Nearly from the moment of its inception, the republic started coming apart at the seams. Sihanouk, informed of his overthrow by Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin on the way to the airport in Moscow, raged against its “traitorous” architects and plotted his revenge. He found a comfortable exile in Beijing, where, on March 23, he broadcast a call to arms against the republican government and formed a broad-based alliance that included the Khmer Rouge, his erstwhile enemies in the maquis.

Meanwhile, the new government struggled with student protests, constitutional legitimacy and the steadily approaching maelstrom of civil war. Corruption was especially rife in the Khmer National Armed Forces (FANK), which, thanks to US largesse, expanded from a force of 35,000 into a bloated legion of more than 200,000. A common practice among commanders was to overreport the number of troops in their units, siphoning the salaries of these “phantom soldiers” into their own pockets. Others, bent on self-enrichment, sold arms directly to the enemy.

US President Richard Nixon, encouraged by the new regime in Phnom Penh, sent US troops over the border from South Vietnam in April 1970 to capture the Vietcong “headquarters” that was assumed to be directing the communist insurgency from inside Cambodia. The battle lines of this new proxy war quickly settled into place: As Lon Nol threw in his lot with the Americans, eating up economic and military aid, the Vietcong and their Cambodian apprentices turned their fire on the new government.

Despite the reported bravery of its rank and file, the army wilted under repeated insurgent attacks during 1971 and 1972. Only a few effective units, and the indiscriminate US bombing of communist base areas, prevented the republic’s premature fall. But even this had its own tragic aspect: Just a week before the US congress ordered a bombing halt in August 1973, an American B-52 bomber accidentally dropped its payload on the Mekong ferry town of Neak Leung, killing some 200 civilians. Journalist Elizabeth Becker writes in her book When the War Was Over that in 1973 alone, the US dropped 257,465 tonnes of explosives on Cambodia – around 50 percent more than the amount dropped on Japan during the Second World War.

A legacy worth defending

But 40 years on, those who took part in Cambodia’s republican experiment have defended the regime’s legacy, arguing that the toppling of Sihanouk was unavoidable despite the failures that followed. For General Dien Del, as for other future republicans, the winds of change began blowing through Sihanouk’s Cambodia as early as 1968, when the Prince started turning a blind eye to Vietnamese incursions. Two days before the coup, Dien Del, then a major in the army, was recalled from the front in Ratanakkiri province to a meeting with Lon Nol, in which he was briefed on the plan to seize power. Dien Del said the prime minister, who enjoyed close relations with both Sihanouk and his mother, Queen Kossamak, appeared nervous at what might eventuate. “Lon Nol was eager, but seemed worried about the consequences, worried about the country and the monarchy,” he said.

Now 79, the laconic Dien Del – whom British journalist Jon Swain described as the army’s “best general, a man with a merry sparkle in his eyes” – said he still admires Lon Nol for standing up to the Vietnamese, as did many Cambodians at the time. “He was very popular as a civilian official and a military commander,” he said.

Brigadier General Dien Del (left) watches a military parade in Phnom Penh during Independence Day celebrations, November 9, 1974.

Chhang Song, who served as Lon Nol’s minister of information during 1974-75, said the events of March 18 were inevitable due to the Prince’s tacit support for the “silent invasion” of the Vietnamese, who treated eastern Cambodia virtually as “conquered territory”. Chhang Song, then one of Sihanouk’s personal advisers, said he was unsurprised when the coup was announced on national radio.

“We didn’t want to lose Sihanouk; but at the same time, if we didn’t lose him we were going to lose the country,” he said during a recent interview in Phnom Penh. “If we didn’t do it, we would have been blamed by our children, because we would’ve lost territory without fighting a battle. The coup was a decision – right or wrong – for Cambodians to stand up to defend our territory. We didn’t just let [the invasion] happen and then go and complain in Long Beach.”

Chhang Song said the republican regime, for all its failings, also heralded the “spread of liberal ideas and principles” into Cambodia for the first time. “Cambodian society was previously very closed – nobody outside knew what was happening – but it was republican ideals that opened it up. These things were possible.”

In its early years, the regime drew on a “spontaneous” outpouring of patriotic support from students and progressive intellectuals, the latter of whom depicted the republic in terms redolent of revolutionary France, said Son Soubert, the son of Son Sann, who served as prime minister under Sihanouk’s Sangkum regime. The National Assembly’s famous 1792 declaration “La patrie en danger!” – originally made in response to Prussia’s alliance with Austria against France – was resurrected by the regime to depict the impending threat of communism.

“There was a lot of evidence of communist involvement in our internal affairs, so students and progressives – even before the coup – came to offer their services to defend the country,” Son Soubert said. “When the regime overthrew Prince Sihanouk, they based their support on these young students.” Indeed, an enduring image of the immediate post-coup period is of overladen Coca-Cola lorries filled with dozens of teenage youths in baggy army fatigues – later dubbed “24-hour soldiers” for the perfunctory training they were offered – trundling off to the east to fight the communists.

A republic for the Khmers

The Khmer Republic’s dark flipside – its demonisation of Cambodia’s half-million-strong Vietnamese population – also quickly asserted itself. “Lon Nol was an echo before he was a voice,” William Harben, a US political officer, wrote in a cable from Phnom Penh in 1972. “The deep inferiority feelings of the Khmer towards their Vietnamese neighbours and the Chinese commercial caste calls for a myth of their descent from the imperial temple builders of the past.”

Becker describes how the focus on countering Vietnamese communism took the form of a quasi-mystic campaign of racist violence against Vietnamese civilians. In April 1970, Cambodian troops rounded up some 800 Vietnamese Catholic labourers living on the Chroy Changvar peninsula, shot them and then dumped the bodies into the Tonle Bassac. The bloated corpses that floated past on the current in the days afterward, she wrote, were “an open, hideous warning” to all Vietnamese living in Cambodia.

In any case, the initial flood of euphoria was quickly stemmed by events. Despite the use of French revolutionary slogans to buoy up morale, Son Soubert said, the republic – as venal and corrupt as its predecessor – could not maintain the momentum of these initial enthusiasms. “The leadership was not up to the task. They were corrupt – they benefited from this kind of regime, and they did not sustain the enthusiasm of the young people,” he said. Even the abolition of the monarchy in October, Chhang Song said, was motivated less by ideology than by the need to solve a glaring problem of state legitimacy. With Sihanouk still the nominal head of state, but an irreconcilable enemy (the Prince repeatedly threatened to hang the “traitors” who overthrew him), it was necessary to proclaim the republic as a way of, as he put it, putting the regime’s “papers in order”.

Decision-making started to take on a vague, improvisatory quality. General Sak Sutsakhan, the last republican head of state, wrote in 1980 that the regime’s main leaders, especially Lon Nol, operated “in what can best be described as a dream world”, forging plans “based on unreality, or interpretations of history”. Lon Nol’s health also started to take its toll on the republic. After suffering a stroke in 1971, he became increasingly isolated from the outside world, prey to the predictions of astrologers, his information filtered through a small coterie of advisers.

“He knew nothing,” Dien Del said. “He didn’t know how much a packet of cigarettes cost.… His knowledge and the reality were very different.” He added that plans were in the offing for a second coup to topple the ailing president, but that they foundered upon the apparent lack of US interest in overthrowing a leader who still, despite (or because of) his mystical reveries, enjoyed considerable support among the rank and file.

By 1972, with the US seeking an “honourable” disengagement from Indochina, the other pillar of the regime’s support had also started to crumble. “I’m sorry that they miscalculated the timing,” Son Soubert said of the regime’s leaders. “They had good intentions, but the timing was not appropriate.” One former FANK army captain agreed that the republic’s promising start was compromised by its proxy role in the Cold War. “I blame the Americans,” he said, referring to the US invasion of April 1970. “They came to make Cambodia pregnant – if we can say that – and did not take care of the infants.”

The collapse of the republic

The end, when it came, was swift and unrelenting. Unhindered by US bombing sorties, the Khmer Rouge made rapid gains during the 1974-75 dry season, encircling the capital by March. On April 1, with FANK units mounting a last-ditch defence of the capital, Chhang Song accompanied the president as he was evacuated by air to Thailand, and thence to the US Pacific Command Headquarters in Oahu, Hawaii. He said Lon Nol was surprisingly composed during the weeks following the fall. Even when informed that his brother, intelligence chief Lon Non, was killed by the Khmer Rouge and dragged through the streets in Phnom Penh, he remained impassive. “He didn’t say much of anything,” Chhang Song said. “He was very stoic – there was no sign of tears, nothing.”

David Chandler, historian and author of The Tragedy of Cambodian History, said that in hindsight, the regime – at least in its early years – appears better than it is sometimes depicted. “It’s hard to talk sensibly of a regime that lost control of so much territory so quickly, and was so swamped by US military aid,” he said. “When I visited Cambodia in 1970 and 1971, however, I was impressed by the vigour and optimism of many people in Phnom Penh, after the smothering closing years of the Sihanouk era.”

Even after 1975, the former FANK captain said, the republican spirit lived on, migrating up to the Thai border where many former republicans, including Dien Del and Sak Sutsakhan, took up arms against the Vietnam-backed government. “Many people carried on that spirit to liberate the country from the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge and corruption. That spirit has continued from the Lon Nol times,” he said.

But for Lon Nol himself – the man whose name will probably be eternally linked with the doomed regime – exile would be a reminder of lost opportunities. Chhang Song, who read Lon Nol’s eulogy at his funeral in California in 1985, said that he had never felt much sympathy for the revolutionary ideas that captivated Sirikmatak and other intellectual supporters of the Khmer Republic. “Lon Nol was a Cambodian nationalist,” he said. “He wanted this country to be unified, he wanted the people to be independent from the Vietnamese.”

He recalled an incident shortly after fleeing the country, when he and Lon Nol visited a fast-food restaurant in Hawaii, Lon Nol’s teenage son Rith in tow. As they walked into the restaurant, tears suddenly welled up in the ex-president’s eyes. The two men sat down, and Lon Nol gestured around at the diners. “‘Look at the American people – they are so equal. Everybody eats with everybody else, they are happy, and they continue to build their country,’” Chhang Song recalled him saying. “‘I wanted Cambodia to be like that, and I missed my chance.’”

WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA AND NETH PHEAKTRA

[Published in the Phnom Penh Post, March 18, 2010]

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