The French historian Alain Forest has described French colonialism in Cambodia as
"painless" (sans heurts). This is an over-simplification, of course. Under
the French, Cambodians were heavily taxed and the French spent very little time or
money improving the Khmers' education, judicial system or health. Nonetheless relations
between France and Cambodia were generally painless, and certainly far less troubled
(or from the French perspective, less troublesome) than relations were between France
Cambodia's gaining independence was also relatively painless, compared to the process
of gaining independence in Vietnam.
Franco-Khmer relations were friendly from the start. When the Protectorate was established
in 1863, French officials struck a bargain with King Norodom (reigned l860-1904).
In exchange for French protection against Cambodia's neighbors, Norodom granted France
trade preferences, allowed Catholic missionaries to work in Cambodia and accepted
French patronage in place of the disdainful treatment he was receiving from the Siamese
court. The bargain left the monarchy intact and had little effect at first on the
kingdom's small elite. Ordinary Cambodians, whose views were never sought, were probably
glad that several decades of war and invasions from Vietnam and Siam had come to
Norodom, however, soon irritated the French and in the 1880s they tightened their
administrative control. Norodom's powers were sharply reduced. A pro-French urban
elite gained economic power at his expense. Norodom's pro-French brother, Sisowath
(reigned l904-1927) was more pliable and so was his son, Monivong, who reigned from
l927 to l941. During these two reigns, the kingdom was at peace. As it modernized,
its population doubled and its agricultural economy prospered. Cambodians exerted
no pressure for independence, and granting it was never a French priority.
Toward the end of World War II, however, Cambodia enjoyed a brief period of independence
under Japanese sponsorship. When the French returned in force, they exiled the leader
of this interim government, Son Ngoc Thanh, but felt they should allow Cambodians
to draft a constitution, to form political parties and to conduct elections for the
National Assembly. There was still no talk of independence.
A mildly pro-independence party, the Democrats, won Assembly elections in 1947 and
l951. Pro-French parties performed poorly. The Democrats attracted the loyalty of
idealistic Khmers who saw few merits in semi-permanent French control, and who wanted
to loosen Cambodia's ties with the French concoction of Indo-China, which was dominated
by Vietnam. Unfortunately, the party suffered from factionalism, from Sihanouk's
growing hostility toward it, and from its inability to influence French policy. Some
Democrats grew impatient with French delays in granting independence, and joined
the Communist-dominated resistance.
In l949 France granted what King Sihanouk later called "50 percent independence"
to Cambodia, retaining control over defense, finance and foreign relations. Over
the next four years, the Democrats were marginalized from Cambodian political life
while King Sihanouk, crowned by the French in l941, emerged to play a much more active
role in Cambodian political life. The King, like his French mentors, had little respect
for the existing political parties. He also had come to believe that he was uniquely
situated, as the political parties were not, to gain independence from France.
In early 1953, Sihanouk dissolved the National Assembly with French encouragement
and proceeded to govern Cambodia by decree. Soon afterwards he left for a trip to
France and other countries. During this "vacation", in a move that surprised
the French, he embarked on what he called a royal crusade for independence. This
well-timed, courageous and non-violent campaign consisted of speeches, veiled threats
and ceremonial activities designed to gain mass support inside Cambodia and sympathy
overseas while putting pressure on France without resorting to armed resistance.
Although the French thought Sihanouk impulsive and even temporarily deranged, it
is clear with hindsight that the royal crusade had been well planned. It was also
nicely timed to take advantage of political disarray inside Cambodia and of French
military setbacks elsewhere in Indo-China.
After several months of procrastination, France caved in and granted almost complete
independence to Cambodia in November 1953. They departed through the same door that
they had used to enter Cambodia in l863, namely, by coming to mutually agreeable
terms with the ruling monarch.
Granting independence, like establishing the Protectorate, served a range of French
and Cambodian interests. France was unwilling to alienate the King, one of its staunchest
allies, or to embark on armed conflict in Cambodia, which was the most peaceful sector
of Indo-China. The French also wanted to retain their cultural and economic presence,
and the King, an ardent Francophile, had no objections. He believed that Cambodia
was a poor, weak, isolated country that needed all the friends it could get. He was
also able to outmaneuver those on the left, and Communists in Vietnam, who wanted
Cambodia to embark on armed struggle, as well as other politicians, as committed
to independence, as he was, who had been unable to deliver it to the Cambodian people.
In the medium term, the relative painlessness of colonialism and the success of Sihanouk's
royal crusade paid great dividends to Cambodia. As the "Father of independence",
Sihanouk outmaneuvered other political figures and cemented his own position, while
for many years France maintained its cultural hegemony in Cambodia as well as its
substantial economic interests. French remained Cambodia's official language and
French advisors played crucial roles throughout the Cambodian government. For the
last decade of his years in power, Sihanouk's foreign policies closely resembled
those of Gaullist France, a country that he deeply admired. In return, France treated
him with a level of affection and respect that was not forthcoming from several other
foreign powers. This state of affairs, pleasing to France and to Sihanouk, and largely
beneficial to Cambodia, persisted until the coup of 1970. The costs and pains of
more far-reaching forms of independence, some of which have been enormous, came later