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The Eclipse of Norodom

The Eclipse of Norodom

In this fourth instalment of a series on Cambodian history, Australian scholar

Dr. Milton E. Osborne examines the aftermath of the 1885-86 Khmer uprising against

the reigning imperialist French power.

While peace in the countryside had been achieved, French pressure on King Norodom

increased in an effort to wrest power away from the monarch. The French were successful

in their efforts, such that by 1897 no decision of the King had legal standing unless

it was countersigned by the Resident Superior.

Readers will also note the mention of a new secretary, Thiounn, to the Council of

Ministers in 1898 and reference to his role in politics for another thirty years.

It was one of his grandsons, Thiounn Thioeunn, who defected to the Royal Government

in June 1998 along with four other Khmer Rouge "intellectuals".

The following has been extracted from The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia:

Rule and Response (1859-1905) published in 1997 by White Lotus Co. Ltd. in Bangkok.

The book is available in Phnom Penh at Monument books.

The restoration of calm after the1885-1886 rising left King Norodom in a position

of temporary strength. There was little immediate French inclination to force the

king to the wall once more. The reports sent home to Paris expressed reservations

on the degree of security achieved and about Norodom's intentions, but the policy

followed immediately after 1886 aimed at preserving calm through a policy of reconciliation

with the king.

When the French resident general reported on the first quarter of 1888, he pictured

the four main geographical regions into which the country had divided itself during

the rising as largely untroubled by opposition to French control. Si Votha, lurking

on the northeastern boundaries of the kingdom, was a nuisance but nothing more.

Absence of major incidents meant there was calm in Cambodia; it did not mean there

was stability. Indeed, there were basic factors at work that ensured that the closing

years of Norodom's life would be marked by disputes and disagreements with the French.

At the same time, the king's declining health led to increased maneuvering within

the royal family to circumvent the apparent French desire to place the obhareach,

Sisowath, on the throne when his half brother died. This maneuvering was traditional

in the Cambodian court, and the kingdom's declining power seems to have been a spur

to dynastic quarrels. The conflict between Norodom and the French was a new element

in Cambodian history. Norodom, with little more than the conviction of his own rightness,

attempted to block greater and greater French interference in his control of affairs.

French recognition of the dangers of pressing the king too far, and some understanding

of Norodom's motives, did not prevent severe criticism of the king's actions. In

the post-rising period Norodom became very much concerned with securing the future

well-being of his family and sufficient current funds to live in what he judged to

be appropriate regal splendor. French control of two-thirds of his former revenue,

resulting from the assumption of tax collection duties by the French, left Norodom

very dependent on the protecting power. To meet the expenses of his household, both

for the present and for the future, the king relied heavily on the gifts of men who

sought appointment to high official posts.

Cambodia's long history of warfare and internal rebellion had severely damaged whatever

established procedures had existed for the administration of provincial areas. King

Ang Duong's vigor and prestige appear to have provided a tenuous basis for control

from the center, but there is no reason to suppose that even during his lifetime

provincial governors were under much royal restraint. When Norodom assumed the throne,

control became even less certain. The problem of administering the troubled region

of Kompong Svai has already been described. By the eighties, provincial administration

was very weak. Siamese incursions into Cambodian territory south of Angkor had been

reported to the capital by local officials. From 1875, however, there had been no

instructions from the court to these officials, who had to be content "to note

the progress of the Siamese." If there was not defiance of royal authority,

there was a general lack of contact between the center and the provinces.

No set system existed for selecting provincial officials. Some service in the court

was a normal requirement, and usually an official began his career as a page. These

pages were almost always the sons of families that had long been associated with

the monarchy. This background, or the performance of some personal service for the

ruler, could lead to nomination as governor of a province, but there was no certainty

and no fixed system of promotion. Such an arrangement, under ideal circumstances,

could have had advantages. It offered the possibility of quick promotion for a man

of talent. In a weak kingdom, however, the system encouraged abuse. Norodom's increasing

alarm over the loss of his wealth made financial gifts for the king the essential

qualification for appointment.

The earliest French observers of Cambodia seem agreed that it was traditional practice

for the king to consult with his ministers on the appointment of provincial officials.

By the late 1880s, Norodom no longer did this. Ignoring the great court officials,

he named and revoked governors by himself. Before he would provide a provincial official

with the tratang, or diploma of office, Norodom expected a substantial gift of money

or jewels. An official could suddenly be replaced by a wealthier contender for his

post. The over-all result was a lack of continuity in the provinces and, consequently,

poor administration. Once appointed, moreover, the governors sought to recoup the

financial outlay that had gained them the position - at the expense of the inhabitants

of the province. Governors were ill equipped to deal with resistance to central authority

if it should arise. In the face of any real threat, they fled back to the capital.

By the end of the eighties, the French resident general, Champeaux, reported that

it was a common saying in Cambodia that only the governor had no authority in his

own province.

The situation was offensive to French standards of administration, but the fear of

a further armed resistance made them hesitate before acting to bring change. More

than ever before, they counted upon Norodom's early death and the succession of Sisowath,

a prince who, they believed, would lend himself to all their plans. Following the

end of the Cambodian rising, there was increased consideration of the role of Vietnamese

immigration into Cambodia. The possibility that these alien newcomers could supplant

the Cambodians in their own land was present in the thoughts of many French officials.

Such a "peaceful conquest" was seen as providing a surer means of achieving

true French control in Cambodia than any further resort to armed force. In the meantime,

French officials were content to negotiate minor agreements with the king, such as

one providing for the sale of land within the Phnom Penh city limits.

While the French counted on Sisowath's future loyal cooperation once he was on the

throne, his succession was not readily accepted either by Norodom or by his sons.

In 1888 the French resident general in Phnom Penh reported his belief that Norodom

had still not clarified his own mind on the succession. If he showed favor to any

one son, it appeared to be towards Prince Duong Chacr, who had been active against

the French in the rising of 1885-1886.

Two years later, a new French representative in Cambodia, Vernéville, regarded

Duong Chacr as a "dark cloud on the horizon." Duong Chacr's talents and

intelligence were the source of Vernéville's concern. The prince's mother,

Khun Sancheat Bopha, had earlier been a member of Ang Duong's female household and

was, again according to Vernéville, a supporter of Siamese interests in the

court with considerable influence over Norodom. Apparently in response to Vernéville's

urgings, Norodom abandoned his support of Duong Chacr and placed the prince in chains.

Alienated from his father, the prince fled to Bangkok, from where he addressed a

letter of complaint to Le Myre de Vilers, the former governor of Cochinchina. Next

he travelled to France to further press his case, alleging mistreatment both by his

father and by Resident Superior de Vernéville. At the same time he argued

that a financial subvention, promised to him by the French government, had not been

paid. Within a few months of his arrival in Paris, in June 1893, Duong Chacr was

an embarrassment to the French government. His father was persuaded to authorize

the prince's exile, and in August 1893, Duong Chacr was arrested after a violent

scene in the Left Bank area of Paris. He was interned in Algeria, remaining there

until his death in 1897 despite his pleas for exile, in a climate similar to that

of his own land. The vigor with which the French countered Duong Chacr's possible

threat to an orderly succession clearly indicates their anxiety to replace the intransigent

old monarch with a willing puppet. Today in Cambodia, Duong Chacr's name is largely


Even before Duong Chacr's internment, another threat to stability had passed from

the scene. After a lifetime of dissidence, Prince Si Votha died in December 1891.

After the failure of his efforts in 1885 and 1886, his followers became fewer, dwindling

to a few close companions by the time death finally came. In the closing years of

Votha's life, he entered into hesitant and inconclusive negotiations with the French.

Tired of long years of retreat in the forests of northeastern Cambodia and of living

among the less civilized hill tribe people, Si Votha offered his submission to the

French. At all costs, he emphasized, he wished to avoid either submitting to Norodom

or having to rely on his half brother's word. Although discussions took place sporadically

during 1891, the old rebel never submitted to the French. Almost totally abandoned

by his followers and quite without resources, he died on the last day of 1891. His

long life of dissidence had never brought him within certain reach of toppling Norodom

from the throne. Backed by the French, the king had always been able to resist his

half brother, whatever the latter's popular appeal and gifts of oratory.

Age, death, and exile all operated to make the years between 1890 and 1895 ones of

relative calm. Norodom turned sixty in 1894. Recurrent ill health and personal indulgences

had sapped his vigor. Duong Chacr was in exile, Si Votha dead. Norodom's mother,

a staunch supporter of traditional forms and probably an important supporter of the

rising, died in 1895. Her own small court of officials was broken up and integrated

with the main court at Phnom Penh. Norodom was still free to select and dismiss officials

as he pleased, but the protectorate continued its efforts to gain control over the

finances of the kingdom. From 1892 the French administration assumed responsibility

for collecting all taxes within the kingdom, doing away with an earlier division

of duties which had led some direct taxes in the king's hands. The protectorate,

in return, guaranteed the king's civil list, without exercising any real control

over the way in which he disposed of the funds ceded to him. For the moment the question

of slavery was allowed to die.

The right of the French resident superior (his title had been changed from resident

general in 1889) to sit with the Cambodian council of ministers had not been enforced.

But in the provinces, there were ten French residents by 1894 in contrast to four

in 1888. From both the Cambodian and French points of view, the situation was far

from perfect, but it had the virtue of a minimum of conflict. That calm did not mean

stability became abundantly clear in 1897.

The seeds of difficulty had always been present, and they only required the right

combination of circumstances to spring forth in renewed and bitter confrontation

between Norodom and the French. The occasion was provided when Norodom fell ill in

1897. During the previous year, Resident Superior de Vernéville had devoted

increasing attention to the perennial problem of Norodom's successor.

To the uncertain nature of the kings health was added the fear that Norodom might

force the succession issue by abdicating in favor of his own selection for the throne.

In July 1896, Vernéville underlined the dangers of such a development, for

it was certam that whomever Norodom should select, it would be a prince hostile to

France. The resident superior's fears, in this regard, were a contributory factor

in the maneuvers that he undertook in January 1897. Arguing that it was necessary

to act because of the deterioration of Norodom's physical and mental health, Vernéville

persuaded the council of ministers to agree to carry out business without consulting

the king.

Norodom was ill during January 1897, but it is questionable whether his illness was

as grave as Vernéville reported. In telegraphic correspondence with acting

Governor General Fourès in Hanoi, Vernéville described Norodom as close

to death. In his turn, Fourès instructed Vernéville to take all steps

to ensure that Sisowath assumed the throne when Norodom died, but only after the

obbareach had signed agreements further reducing the power of the king in Cambodia.

Paris, in response to Fourès' urgent telegrams, approved all the measures

he proposed. The king did not die, however, and when Governor General Paul Doumer

paid a courtesy call on the Cambodian ruler in February 1897 he reported that, contrary

to his expectations, the king appeared in reasonably good health and displayed complete

mental lucidity. It is through Doumer's dispatches that a clearer picture of what

took place during January 1897 emerges.

Writing in November 1897, Doumer described the events in January as a coup d'etat.

This is an overblown description, but it emphasizes the conspiratorial aspect of

events. Vernéville did not act alone. It was necessary for a number of senior

Cambodian officials to acquiesce in his plan to strip Norodom of most of his remaining

control over affairs in the kingdom.

Doumer believed that Prime Minister Um was an active participant in events as well

as Sisowath. Prince Yukanthor's particularly strong dununciation of Um three years

later appears to support Doumer's view. The governor general also noted Norodom's

extreme reserve towards his former confidant, Col de Monteiro, after 1897 because

of his belief that Monteiro had been a willing ally of the resident superior.

What Vernéville did was simple. He proclaimed that Norodom was too ill to

act on his own behalf and that in these circumstances full powers would be exercised

by the council of ministers and the resident superior. In one stroke the king's power

was reduced to the point where his authority scarcely extended beyond the palace.

The year 1897 is thus an extremely important one in the history of relations between

the Cambodian court and the French.

Not only did the resident superior succeed in gaining executive power and in instituting

a series of administrative reforms. From this year there is also, for the first time,

a detailed record of the discussions between the chief French official in Cambodia

and the Cambodian ministers. In carrying out his "coup d'etat," Vernéville

placed himself firmly in position as chairman of the meetings of the council of ministers.

At the same time, the proceedings of these council meetings were recorded to provide

one of the most interesting contemporary records of the exercise of French power

in Cambodia. It is noteworthy that in some of the earliest sessions recorded in these

minutes, the Cambodian ministers still showed themselves concerned about offending

the king. When judicial reforms were discussed in a session held on 30 June 1897,

the prime minister asked the resident superior not to expect ministers to act on

an issue without the king's approval. He begged the new resident superior, Ducos,

to understand the "difficult position in which we find ourselves." Hesitancy

dissipated when it became apparent that the French held the upper hand.

The French position was strengthened by the important Royal Ordinance of 11 July

1897. Prince Yukanthor later asserted that Norodom only agreed to sign this measure

because Governor General Doumer threatened to dethrone him. The degree of coercion

used on this occasion is not revealed in the archival sources. What is clear is that

the July ordinance regularized the position that Vernéville had assumed at

the beginning of the year. Some of the provisions of the ordinance, such as the abolition

of slavery and the institution of a system of real property, were not fully enacted

until after Norodom's death in 1904. Nevertheless, the fundamental provision of the

ordinance did take effect. Under Article 2, no decision of the king had legal standing

unless it was "countersigned and rendered executorial by the Resident Superior."

With the council of ministers under the chairmanship of the resident superior, and

sitting apart from the king, the ruler's control over official appointments was effectively


The minutes of the council of ministers' meetings make very clear the extent to which

the council's chief order of business was the appointment and dismissal of officials.

Since this part of official life had provided Norodom both financial gain and control

over personnel, his resentment at Vernéville's usurpation of power is understandable.

There was a general pattern to the selection of officials. After a vacancy had been

made known, several names were put forward. Usually these nominations were presented

by the minister within whose general jurisdiction, or apanage, the vacant office

fell. At first, there was little French inclination to make nominations. Control

was exercised by the resident superior's veto of those candidates whom he considered

unsuitable. But once the first two or three years had passed, there was an increasing

tendency for French officials to provide alternate nominees for vacant positions.

In March 1900, for instance, the French commissioner of police nominated a candidate

for the vacant governorship of the province of Barai; but the French usually limited

their nominations to less important officials, at least during Norodom's lifetime.

More typical of the deliberations of the council of ministers was the discussion

over the appointment of an assistant to the kralahom, the minister of the navy, in

April 1898. On this occasion there were two candidates: Mey, at this time secretary

to the council; and Ouk, secretary to the protectorate's superior tribunal. Both

were the sons of balats, the provincial officials ranking after governors, and were

related to senior members of the Cambodian administration.

In this instance, the fact that Ouk had been active in fighting against Votha in

1877 and later against the insurgents in the Pursat region in 1885 seems to have

influenced the council in his favor.

In almost every case, the influence of the French resident superior was preponderant.

During the first year that the council of ministers met under his chairmanship the

Cambodian ministers occasionally expressed some fear of acting directly against the

probable wishes of Norodom. More often, however, they did not. When, in September

1897, the resident superior urged the council to approve a reduction in the costs

of administration in the Cambodian judicial services, Prime Minister Um said, "Since

it concerns balancing the budget, we can only conform to the views of the Resident

Superior, who is our chief and to whom we owe devotion and obedience." Yet,

initially fear of the king remained, and when, in October 1897, there was discussion

about the slaves attached to the royal household, the ministers hesitated to act

against Norodom's wishes. They emphasized that abolishing the royal slaves would

undermine the king's prestige. Not even the resident superior's mocking comment,

"How scared the ministers are," could bring them to raise the issue with

Norodom. From 1898 onwards, however, there is little evidence to suggest that the

council of ministers feared to act with the resident superior against the king.

The ministers' consistent support for the French position inevitably resulted in

clashes between Norodom and his chief ministers. These began in 1898 and 1899 as

Norodom tried to maintain his control over official appointments. On 6 April 1898

the council of ministers, at the request of the resident superior, approved a measure

providing that the council had the right to appoint and dismiss all Cambodian officials

who earned a salary of less than sixteen piastres a month, without any reference

to the king. This decision was presented to Norodom for his approval twice, and on

each occasion he refused, arguing that it further diminished his power. When Resident

Superior Ducos brought the king's refusal before the council, all ministers concurred

in maintaining their decision.

This stance by the Cambodian ministers provided Ducos with a point d'appui in his

relations with Norodom. Writing to the king in November 1898 he observed that Norodom's

refusal to approve the official appointments made by the council of ministers was

"injurious" to the conduct of the kingdom's business: "I had the honor

to inform the Governor General of this state of affairs. The Governor General has

given me instructions to pass beyond your approval and to interpret your silence

as equivalent to that approval in cases where I have not received a reply in twenty

days." This did not mean, Ducos wrote, that Norodom's wishes would not be taken

into consideration. If he objected to an appointment, the council would be glad to

take his objections into consideration, but if the council continued to approve its

original choice, the king's approval "would have to be given." The resident

superior read this letter to the assembled ministers before sending it to the palace.

The minutes record the ministers as observing, "We approve this letter, which

has been written in the interest of the affairs of government."

The letter was a blunt challenge to Norodom and when, shortly after, the council

of ministers made a number of appointments with which he did not agree, he made a

strong response. Very much at the behest of the resident superior, the council of

ministers in December 1898 elevated the secretary of the council, Thiounn, to the

new rank of secretary general with membership of the council. This was a fateful

appointment, for Thiounn continued to serve in important positions for more than

thirty years and earned the bitter enmity of the Cambodian royal family. Norodom

opposed the promotion, but he was overruled.

When Prince Yukanthor made his sweeping denunciation in 1900 of the French role in

Cambodia, Thiounn's name figured prominently among those Cambodians whom he denounced

as straw men for the French. In contrast to most of the prominent Cambodians of the

period, he was not from an official family. His official experience had been entirely

in the service of the French, for whom he had become an interpreter in 1883.

The embattled Cambodian king next refused to accept the council of ministers' decision

to appoint his former confidant, Col de Monteiro, as minister of the navy, a position

he had filled on an acting basis since 1895. In his refusal, Norodom appealed to

the traditions of the state, arguing that Col de Monteiro did not possess the customary

qualifications that had always been expected of the chief ministers of the Cambodian


"In order to be a minister, a great official, a man is moved by these three

virtues; Puthamon, that is, to be the possessor of knowledge and wise intelligence;

Sayamon, the necessity to know the intentions of the stars and of Phendey (the earth,

the kingdom); that is to say, it is necessary to know the spirit and the affairs

of the capital and the outside world; it is to say, one must know the importance

or the gravity of issues and the concerns of the people and seek to develop the interests

of the kingdom; Reach Montrey, one must know the laws and know the articles by heart

in a precise manner. One must have these three virtues to be an official of the royal


Monteiro, Norodom stated, had served the court for many years, but he did not have

the necessary knowledge for the post to which the council of ministers wished to

appoint him. The minutes record that Monteiro was "visibly irritated" and

replied, "Who are the officials who are endowed with these three virtues! I

studied astronomy in Singapore, and in English."

Few officials, indeed, possessed virtues of the sort that Norodom outlined in his

letter. Pushed to the wall and unable to assert his will, Norodom clung to his traditional

view of the state. His letter is of great interest as a record of the ideal that

could still be held of a qualified official, but Norodom must have known that it

would have no effect in the existing situation. The council prevailed once again,

and Col de Monteiro was instated as kralahom.

This rebuff to Norodom was followed by others in the same year. The minister of the

palace, the veang, Poc, was appointed minister of justice, youmreach, over Norodom's

strong objections; and two officials who appear still to have enjoyed a measure of

the king's favor were dismissed from office. One was Minister of Justice, Ouk, the

other a senior Cambodian judge, Nguon. Even when Norodom wrote to the resident superior

in unfamiliarly humble and plaintive tones there was no result. That he could bring

himself to adopt such a tone must be taken as a measure of his desperation:

"His Majesty loves the French Government very much and has always conformed

to its desires in everything which it has asked of him, without opposition. It asked

him for all the country's taxes; it asked him for control over the Chinese and the

Annamites, who have always been under royal authority, so that they could submit

to French tribunals; also in the administration of the kingdom His Majesty has given

his consent, and this, indeed, was a major matter. It is desirable that the French

Government also love His Majesty, who asked to have the Khmer Kingdom placed under

French protection. It was not that the French Government conquered it, as was the

case with Saigon and Cochinchina."

From the point of view of Cambodian law, the master of the kingdom must have authority

over the Cambodians, the inhabitants. If, being king, His Majesty does not have authority

at all over the officials and public servants, and the people, how can he continue

to exist?"


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