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1955 polls: the Sangkum takes hold

1955 polls: the Sangkum takes hold

In this second part of academic Steven Heder's journey through 50 years

of Cambodian elections: a critique of 1955 - the birth of Prince Norodom Sihanouk's

Sangkum Reastr Niyum, and of repressed opposition, including a man called Pol Pot.

The success of Norodom Sihanouk's 1953 Royal Crusade for Independence did not put

an end to the armed opposition activities of Cambodia's Communist Issarak and their

Vietnamese allies and tutors. They continued to use military means to oppose a residual

French presence in the Kingdom, to denounce what they described as Sihanouk's reactionary

and feudal regime and to attack the growing United States role in supporting it.

The war in Cambodia only ended as a result of the 1954 Geneva Conference and Agreements

on Indochina, which provided for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of French and Vietnamese

forces from the country, the demobilization on the spot of armed Cambodian opposition

forces and elections in which all parties could participate.

In the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Cambodia, Sihanouk's government

promised "to take the necessary measures to integrate all citizens, without

discrimination, into the national community and to guarantee them the enjoyment of

the rights and freedoms for which the Constitution of the Kingdom provides",

and in particular "that all Cambodian citizens may freely participate as electors

or candidates in the general elections by secret ballot". The government also

promised to ensure that "no reprisals shall be taken" against members of

the former armed opposition, and that they would enjoy "all constitutional guarantees

concerning the protection of... democratic freedoms". The Final Declaration

referred to the Cambodian Government's undertaking that the elections should "take

place in the course of the year 1955, by secret ballot and in conditions of respect

for fundamental freedoms."

The agreement provided for an International Commission for Supervision and Control

(ICSC) comprising representatives of India, Poland and Canada. The ICSC was supposed

to "fulfill the functions of control, observation, inspection and investigation

connected with the implementation of the provisions of the agreement on the cessation

of hostilities." However, the agreement said it would perform these functions

particularly with regard to military matters, and the Final Declaration mentioned

no role for the ICSC vis-à-vis elections in Cambodia. Sihanouk and his supporters

questioned whether the ICSC had a full mandate to supervise and control the elections.

In practice, it mostly limited itself to general observation and not supervision

of the electoral process. It used this "observation" to discourage major

changes in the constitutional and legal system that would have greatly disadvantaged

the opposition, to facilitate registration by opposition parties and to deter crude

repression of them. However, it did not attempt to involve itself in the actual electoral

process or ensure the neutrality of the state apparatus in it.

In part as a result, the crucial post-independence elections of 1955 were much less

free or fair than those of 1946, 1947 and 1951, and this ballot set the pattern for

all four held before the monarchy was overturned in 1970. Each put in place an assembly

in which all of the seats were held by the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Popular Socialist

Community), the political organization formed by a coalition of high-ranking government

officials, ex-Democrats and unpopular politicians to support Sihanouk and put an

end to political party contestation.

Although Sihanouk's political popularity was a major element in the victory of the

Sangkum in 1955, the complete nature of that victory can only be understood as a

indication of the strength of his control and that of the Sangkum over the post-independence

state apparatus. The elections took place in a situation where the grip on the state

by Sihanouk and those politically loyal to him was much stronger than before independence.

This made possible a coup de force via the ballot box that cleared the organized

opposition from the political decks in a way that helped make inevitable the string

of repeat total ballot box victories that followed.

In the absence of serious international control, the opposition's lack of any foothold

in the state left it highly vulnerable in 1954-55. By the time of the elections,

many of the original Democrat Party leaders had joined the Sangkum. The Democrats

were dominated by a new generation, who had much less access to the state than their

predecessors. The other main opposition, the Communist front Pracheachun (People's)

Group, enjoyed no such access. This made it possible for the Sangkum to use the electoral

process to eliminate any chance that the opposition would obtain seats in the assembly

from which they could challenge Sihanouk.

The key to success in this regard was control of the government's security and information

services. Of course, the constitutional coup of 1952 had already taught the population

a lesson in the futility of voting for the Democrats, and this helped channel votes

by those resigned to power realites toward the Sangkum. But extensive state violence,

intimidation and repression seriously undermined the ability of the Democrats and

the Pracheachun to campaign, and ballot fraud denied them many of the votes they

nevertheless managed to obtain and ensured they won no seats. Moreover, ex-Democrats

who had attached themselves to Sihanouk certainly knew from the Democrat Party experiences

how to help the Sangkum to ensure overwhelming victories at the ballot box. Sihanouk

thus turned the tables on the post-Geneva Democrats, taking away from the party the

advantages it had enjoyed in 1946, 1947 and 1951 and monopolizing them for himself.

This reversal in the polarity of the position of the state helps explain how election

results were also turned around. The 70 or more percent of the vote that had gone

to the Democrats in two of the three previous ballots was transformed in 1955 into

an even better vote for the Sangkum. In those cases where the balloting went against

it, the results were simply altered. Under these circumstances, the Sangkum won every

seat, supposedly with more than 80 percent of the popular vote.

It appears that Sihanouk and his entourage originally pursued three tactics with

regard to the elections. First, they tried to use a combination of legal and extra-legal

means to cripple the Democrat and ex-insurgent opposition. Second, they maneuvred

to postpone or perhaps cancel the elections. However, domestic and international

protests mitigated somewhat the effects of both tactics, and as a result Sihanouk

and his entourage finally also pursued the third tactic of using the opportunity

of the elections to organize a movement opposed to political parties. Intensifying

their use of the first tactic, they took every advantage of their control of the

state to make sure that this movement swept the elections and the opposition suffered

from its efforts to make political gains via the electoral process.

The Sangkum brought together politically ambitious civil servants whose political

parties had failed in previous contests against the Democrats and former senior Democrats

who had been co-opted by Sihanouk or impressed by his successes vis-à-vis

the French, such as Son Sann, one of the original leaders of the first generation

of Democrats. They were united with Sihanouk against a new generation of Democrat

Party activists who had joined it relatively recently and were influenced less by

the socialism that had inspired Prince Youthevong than by the communism that was

by this time much more au courant among students and young intellectuals in France.

The older generation of politicians was also united with Sihanouk against the Communist

Pracheachun, which as the overt manifestation of Cambodian veterans of the armed

opposition was precisely the group that the Geneva Agreement was supposed to allow

to engage legally in political activity.

The idea for the Sangkum seems to have germinated at the upper reaches of the civil

service, and then to have been enthusiastically pursued by Sihanouk. He was prepared

to see many of the first generation of Democrat Party leaders reabsorbed into the

state apparatus if they would work for, rather than against him. These men, who had

been young civil servants of 1946, were now seasoned politicians - at least

some of whom believed that Sihanouk's moves since 1952-1953 meant that in the next

elections the Democrats' slide in 1951 might well become a rout.

The older Democrats thus found themselves faced with two choices. They could ally

themselves with the radical young Democrats and with former advocates of violence

and alliance with Vietnam, or they could ally themselves with Sihanouk and compete

with their old rivals inside the upper ranks of the civil service and the cabinet

for power and influence. Many opted for the latter course. As a result, the post-Geneva

Democrat Party was significantly different from the organization that had won elections

between 1946 and 1951. Most of its original leadership had by 1955 either been co-opted

by Sihanouk or had ceased to be active in the party. Its leadership was increasingly

in the hands of the young radicals, whose connections with the state did not reach

as high or as deep as those of the older generation. Much more than before Geneva,

therefore, the Democrats were competing from outside the system and not from within.

Building on pre-Geneva purges of opposition elements from the civil service, Sihanouk's

entourage used the state to enroll members in the Sangkum both on the mass level

and in the state bureaucracy. The greatest attention was paid to the latter. Pressure

was applied to members of all civil service ranks to join, and civil servants at

the local level were then used to sign up members among the ordinary population at

the provincial and district levels. The Ministry of Interior played a particularly

important role in ensuring that the elections went for the Sangkum and against the

Democrats and other opposition groups. In one province, a Sangkum official reportedly

declared simply "it is the law that everyone must enroll," and according

to allegations published by the opposition, some villagers were coerced into accepting

Sangkum membership cards.

During late 1954, Sihanouk and government officials embarked on a series of efforts

to take full advantage of the political muzzling of opposition groups by a state

of emergency dating from before Geneva to present Sihanouk's case that he was the

Father of Cambodian Independence to the people and solidify his already predominant

position on the Cambodian scene. In some locations, the muzzling included arrest

and detention of former insurgents. For example, in November 1954, 36 inhabitants

of a village in Pursat province who had been members of a Communist-led group were

imprisoned for "forming an association of malefactors, offenses against the

king, and the spreading of false news". At the end of the year, a government

reshuffle affecting mainly the Ministry of Interior was carried out in order to ensure

prevention of anti-Sihanouk "political agitation". As 1955 began, Sihanouk

provided himself with more time to suppress opposition by delaying the elections,

which had originally been scheduled for March 1955. A caretaker "government

for elections" was then formed headed by a figure close to Sihanouk and including

members of various political parties other than the Democrats.

Since the second half of 1954, the young radicals who had been returning from France

had become increasingly influential in the Democrat Party, especially in Phnom Penh.

They included former members of the same Marxist study circle of which Ieng Sary

had been key leader and Pol Pot a peripheral participant in Paris. The associates

of Ieng Sary and Pol Pot achieved predominance within the party executive committee

in late January 1955, at which point older and more conservative leadership figures

denounced what they described as a "communist" takeover. The radicals'

ascendency was symbolized by the selection of the leftist Prince Norodom Phurissara

as party secretary-general. The conservative backlash was led by Sim Var, one of

the members of the original Democrat executive committee of 1946 who had opted to

join the cabinet formed by Sihanouk after his coup of 1952 and had been a minister

in five of the seven subsequent cabinets. As figures like Sim Var distanced themselves

from the radicals, Sihanouk's aides considered attempting legal proscription of the

Democrats, and an anti-communist law was also drafted for quick promulgation. In

the meantime newspapers associated with the Democrats were shut down and their staffs

arrested. When the old Democrat leadership intensified their criticism of the new,

the latter took advantage of their positions to expel their chief critic, thus further

solidifying their control. However, Sihanouk then announced that candidates for election

in Phnom Penh must have been resident in the capital for at least the last three

years. This provision aimed to disqualify those Democrats who had recently returned

from France. At the same time, his aides orchestrated a campaign of public petitions

to the King suggesting that elections should not be held at all. Then, amidst strong

indications that at the least elections would be postponed again, Sihanouk suddenly

announced on 2 March 1955 that he was abdicating the throne. Among the reasons he

cited for his decision was unhappiness at foreign and domestic criticism of his anti-opposition


Meanwhile, Cambodian Communists acting under the instructions from their secret provisional

Central Committee had since late 1954 been entering Phnom Penh to try to set up an

overt political organization grouping selected veterans of its armed struggle to

contest elections and publish newspapers while at the same time surreptiously purusing

the longer term goal of communist revolution. In early 1955, the Pracheachun thus

emerged under the public leadership of Kaev Meah, Non Suon and Paen Yut. Kaev Meah

was secretary both of the Pracheachun Group Committee and of the covert cell of the

Communist cell which operated through it. Its first newspaper, Pracheachun, began

publication on 1 April. The key link between Kaev Meah and the covert Communist organization

was Pol Pot, who had left Ieng Sary behind in Paris and joined the Communist Issarak

insurgency in 1953. He was also the Communists' key link to the radical Democrats,

and through work with them he managed to achieve the kind of the infiltration about

which older Democrats were so worried.

Sihanouk's closest political associates simultaneously began asserting that the new

Sangkum political movement loyal to the ex-King was emerging in the form of a "rally

of the people" opposed to political parties. While they portrayed it as an almost

spontaneous mass organization already enjoying 150,000 members, in fact it was being

put together from the top down starting by regrouping the leaderships of parties

that had been defeated at the national level by the Democrats in earlier electoral

contests. The stage had been partially set for the formation of the Sangkum in the

latter part of 1954. In October-November that year four parties with little or no

representation in the Assembly announced the formation of a political alliance called

the Sahapak (Uni-Party), which they proclaimed was "rightist, monarchist, traditionalist

and in principle opposed to party politics". The four included the Khmer Renovation

Party of then Battambang Governor Lon Nol, the Victorious Northeast Party of Dap

Chhuon, the former non-Communist Issarak who had established a strong military grip

on Siem Reap and Kampong Thom provinces after he was put in overall charge of them

as a reward for rallying to Sihanouk. The Sangkum was formally launched on 6 April

in his fiefdom in Siem Reap. It became more and more obvious that the goverment apparatus

was being used to recruit its membership, which was now claimed to have reached 450,000.

While Sihanouk successfully wooed additional senior Democrats to the Sangkum, further

efforts were made to ensure that the Democrat oppositionists were not in a position

to use the state for electoral purposes. For example, party secretary-general Norodom

Phurissara was summarily fired from his government job as an executive in the National

Railroads service. Moves were then made to indict him for allegedly having cast "public

discredit upon [the] government". At the local level, sub-district chiefs known

to have opposition sympathies were also dismissed. At the cabinet level, indications

emerged that those ministers who had not applied for Sangkum membership or who appeared

to have joined it only out of expediency would be reshuffled out of their posts.

The Sangkum took full advantage of its increasing monopoly of access to the state

to engage in campaigning activities long before the official campaigning period opened.

In the meantime, the opposition was compelled to lie low. In mid-May, it was reported

that there was "no... evidence of open opposition" to the Sangkum "in

provinces outside of Phnom Penh, and even in [the] capital [the] opposition is still

highly circumspect". Those who were not circumspect paid the price. At the end

of May, the government shut down the left-wing Democrat paper Tov Muk and detained

its editor for having criticized the conclusion of a military aid agreement with

the United States. In mid-June, for the same reason, it shut down the left-Democrat

Samakki, the Prach-eachun newspaper and a third publication, Khmær Niyum. The

editor of the first went into hiding, while those of the latter two were both detained.

At the same time, the Sangkum held its first national congress. The gathering revealed

that it already comprised an organizational structure reaching via the provinces

and districts into the sub-districts, and it was claimed that it had now enrolled

more than half the voting population as members. The congress confirmed the formation

of a Sangkum central committee, the leading members of which were evidently hand-picked

by Sihanouk and his closest associates. The committee's secretary was veteran former

Democrat Sim Var, who had been ousted by the party's leftists after he denounced

them as "communists". In an address to the congress, Sihanouk reiterated

his intention to abolish political parties and vigorously denounced the Democrats.

In the meantime, the government was still considering formally disallowing the Pracheachun

Group participation in the elections. It finally agreed to do so only under strong

prodding from the Indian chairman of the ICSC. The Pracheachun Group put forward

35 candidates to run in districts where the Communist Issarak insurgency had been

strongest. At Pol Pot's suggestion, the Democrats avoided fielding candidates in

these areas, but several covert Communists whom he had placed within the Democrat

Party ran on its ticket.

Shortly after the campaign period officially opened, a cabinet reshuffle put Dap

Chhuon in charge of Cambodian police nationwide. Reporting on this move, the US Embassy

commented that the "concentration [of] all potential repressive forces"

in the hands of this "ruthless... zealot" had intensifed the oppositions'

fear of the consequences of engaging in campaigning activities. Some meetings were

being held in secret in Phnom Penh, and more open opposition activities were noted

in some provincial capitals. However, at the "all-important" sub-district

level, "government intimidation in favor of [the] Sangkum" appeared "to

be the rule", and the chances of the opposition appeared to be "diminishing

due to intimidation of the electorate". In some districts, Sangkum workers told

officials that "their future depended on obtaining at least an 80 percent vote"

for the movement.

Opposition accounts asserted that people were told that if they voted for any other

party they would face punishment, possibly including death. One alleged technique

was to force villagers to take an oath and swear before groups of monks on the grounds

of Buddhist monasteries that they would vote for the Sangkum. At the end of July,

a candidate was formally detained for the first time when a Democrat was arrested

for alleged lesé majesty. By late August, he had been joined in prison by

three Pracheachun Group candidates, and a large number of ordinary party workers

from both organizations had been arrested. Particularly intensive intimidation of

the opposition was apparent in Siem Reap, Kampong Thom and Battambang. To clear the

way for repression in Siem Reap, the governor of the province was summarily dismissed

after it became obvious that he had not abandoned his historical sympathies for the

Democrats. He was replaced with a Sihanouk loyalist. At the same time, Battambang

Governor Lon Nol was rewarded for his vigorous repression of the opposition there

by being promoted to chief of staff of the armed forces for the whole country. One

local Democrat supporter arrested in Siem Reap for reciting poems that were interpreted

by some to be insulting to Sihanouk died in prison. In Battambang, the Democrat Party

office was ransacked, and two Pracheachun activists campaigning on behalf of the

group's candidate there were shot to death by government soldiers. Another center

of repression, particularly against the Pracheachun, was Kampong Cham province, where

there were numerous arrests and several shooting incidents, although no fatalities.

As August ended, the incidence of arrests of Pracheachun Group and Democrat Party

candidates and activists for alleged criticisms of the throne and "slanderous"

attacks on the government increased sharply, and intimidation by the Sangkum and

the government aimed at the most prominent Pracheachun and Democrat leaders was stepped

up. With only two weeks left before the ballot, it was clear that in many localities

no representatives of opposition parties would dare to come forward to observe the

conduct of the elections. Indeed, by this time, most Democrat candidates, fearing

for their lives, had taken refuge in Phnom Penh, and the situation prompted at least

one leading party radical to flee to France. In early September, the government reneged

on an earlier undertaking that it would allow teams of the ICSC to directly observe

balloting, and instructions authorizing them to enter polling places were withdrawn.

Three days before the elections, the government neutralized the most popular left-wing

Democrat candidate, the party's Deputy Secretary-General Keng Vannsak, a former Paris

student who had been brought under Communist direction. He was drawing crowds in

his Phnom Penh constituency after having decided to risk outspoken criticisms of

what he characterized as political absolutism and economic underdevelopment and exploitation.

Security forces and Sihanouk political loyalists disrupted his campaign rally and

the scene ended in bloodshed as shots were fired and a Democrat chauffeur was killed.

Vannsak was was arrested for allegedly inciting the violence and then detained without

charge or trial for the next two months.

In the absence of close observation by impartial observers, it is impossible to have

a precise idea of the extent of fraud perpetrated in the actual ballotting and vote-counting

processes. However, it seems reasonable to give considerable credence to opposition

allegations that this was massive and blatant in at least some locations, allegations

which are supported by circumstantial evidence of various kinds. Shortly after the

elections, a senior veteran Democrat who had stayed with the party bitterly complained

that "in one constituency... the Democrats obtained zero votes because they

were not allowed to provide Democrat ballots. In most other cases, the Sangkum ballet

was so heavily printed that it showed through, which meant that anyone discarding

it... was known to have voted against the Sangkum. In one case the [armed militiaman]

standing with his eyes glued to the discard box whistled when he saw a Sangkum ballot

being put there, whereupon the voter was beaten to the ground after leaving the polling

place." In interviews years after the event, several Communist cadre or Pracheachun

sympathizers insisted that ballots were tampered with to eliminate candidates of

the left. Describing the elections in Tbaung Khmum district of Kampong Cham, the

candidate there and another Communist cadre said that the government district chief

simply stuffed the ballot box with Sangkum ballots, and that those who had evidence

of the fraud were imprisoned when they tried to protest. The candidate claimed that

he had in fact obtained 35 percent of the vote, but the official count gave him none.

Another source who said he witnessed a similar procedure in a district of Prey Veng

province declared that the local authories "in control of the voting booths

decided to select the ballot slips. They threw out the Pracheachon slips. ...[T]he

counters were not just, and they declared that the Sangkum had won." In a second

district of Kampong Cham where the Pracheachun Group could reasonably have been expected

to make some showing, the Sangkum registered 6,149 votes, compared with 99 for the

Democrats and zero for the Pracheachun.

Where fraud was less overwhelming, some Democrat and Pracheachun candidates received

significant, although always losing, proportions of the vote. In his Phnom Penh constituency,

Keng Vannsak was listed at 25 percent, and two radical Democrats were said to have

achieved comparable results in their constituencies in Kampong Cham and Kampot provinces.

As for Pracheachun candidates, Group leader Kaev Meah was listed at 20 percent in

his district in Svay Rieng, and in Kampot, Non Suon and Penn Yuth received 23 percent

and 34 percent, respectively, in their districts. One Pracheachun candidate running

in a Battambang constituency achieved a count of 41 percent, the highest opposition

tally in the country. Elsewhere a Pracheachun candidate who had been detained got

24 percent in a district of Kampong Cham and another the same proportion in a district

of Prey Veng.

In at least five electoral districts, however, intimidation and fraud during the

actual balloting and counting processes proved insufficient to prevent opposition

victories. Copies of a newspaper report based on initial official figures showing

the Sangkum candidates defeated were subjected to crude pre-publication censorship

and amendment in a clumsy attempt to cover up the real results with manufactured


Thus, the official overall Sangkum victory was made total. The doctored preliminary

official returns gave the Sangkum all the 91 seats with some 600,000 votes. The Democrats

were granted 90,000 votes, whereas the Pracheachun was said to have obtained 25,000

in the 31 constituencies in which it was able to run. In such former Democrat strongholds

as Phnom Penh and Battambang, the Sangkum margins of victory over it were 3:1 and

11:1, respectively. The final official count confirmed the Sangkum sweep with a total

vote of 630,625 for 82 percent of those cast. The Democrats were listed at 93,919

for 12 percent, and the Pracheachon at 29,509 for four percent.

Privately, the three members of the ICSC engaged in a bitter debate about whether

the elections had been "free". A ruling that they had not been was apparently

averted by the threat of the Canadian member to publicly disavow the Polish and Indian

members if they so ruled. Behind Canada stood the United States, which preferred

an unfree election to an assembly that would incorporate Communists or other leftists

who had campaigned against interference in Southeast Asian politics by American imperialism.

Cambodian politics were frozen in place for the next 15 years, even if Sihanouk,

the big winner of the 1955 electoral process, soon turned increasingly against the

United States for the kinds of reasons raised by those whom the elections had crushed.


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