Independence Day recalls the triumph of King Norodom Sihanouk as a charismatic leader
who waged a bloodless fight for Cambodia's independence. For a time, he reigned over
a relatively peaceful, prosperous and independent nation.
Giant photos honoring the King are on display around Phnom Penh.
Today, traveling through the capital, the bigger-than-life portraits of Sihanouk
gazing over parts of the city almost bring back those days again.
King Sihanouk in full regalia during his coronation in 1941.
The billboards portray the King in his early days as he led a one-man campaign to
wrest autonomy from France, beginning on June 15, 1952, just a year before Cambodia
succeeded in breaking away from the colonial power. On that day, Sihanouk announced
his demand for full independence from France.
"The King thought it was going to take three years to gain independence,"
said one Palace official. "But it took him only one year. He is a great man."
The independence campaign began after Sihanouk traveled to La Napoule, France, where
he sent a letter to Vincent Auriol, president of France at the time, asking for Cambodia's
sovereignty. Rebuffed by the French authorities, Sihanouk later traveled to the US,
Canada, Belgium and Thailand to raise awareness for his cause. While the King was
abroad, Penn Nouth, an advisor to the King, prepared Sihanouk's campaign for independence
by organizing the Royal Force behind the crusade.
King Sihanouk then mobilized people in Siem Reap, Battambang, and Kampong Thom-the
three provinces which already administered their own affairs-to rouse activists to
challenge the French. Citizens rallied to the cause and joined a non-violent, pacifist
campaign where only wooden guns were used.
The King on his throne receiving foreign diplomats a decade after his coronation, with his crown on the table beside him.
It proved to be an unprecedented success.
Sihanouk in fatigues accompanied by Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers, crossing a river on his way back to Phnom Penh.
Cambodia finally won independence on November 9, 1953, by dissolving the treaty signed
by King Norodom I and Napoleon III in 1863 proclaiming Cambodia a French Protectorate,
as well as a convention signed in 1884 making Cambodia a colony of France.
"It is the greatest achievement of the King, for the love of his people and
his country, no one can match it," said the Co-Minister for the Ministry of
Defense, Prince Sisowath Sirirath.
To commemorate the event, the government has planned ceremonies on the extended holiday
during the first two weeks of November. At least one million people are expected
to arrive in the capital, said Khieu Kanharith, spokesperson for the government.
He speculated that even more people could come because of the Independence Day celebrations
on November 9.
"The pictures are to show the people from the provinces who come for the Water
Festival," said a Royal Palace official. "It's a day of liberation from
colonization. All Khmers are happy."
The photographs, reproduced from the archives of the National Library, mark the occurrence
of a host of important events for the nation: the King's 81st birthday, the tenth
anniversary of the King's re-coronation after the arrival of UNTAC, and the 50th
anniversary of independence.
"It is a big event," said an official with the Ministry of the Royal Palace,
which organized the display of the King's photographs.
He said 36 images of Sihanouk had been erected in more than a dozen places around
the city, accompanied by bouquets of flowers at certain sites. The black-and-white
photographs were taken before and after Cambodia won its independence in 1953.
The posters are located at busy tourist and commercial sites throughout the city
including Hun Sen garden, the fountain near Samdech Sothearos Boulevard, the intersection
near the Phnom Penh airport at the intersection of National Road 3 and 4, and at
The King meeting his people.
One poster commemorating the King's role in winning independence depicts a young
Sihanouk in military uniform with the Independence Monument and an unfurled Cambodian
flag behind him. It was produced especially for this year, said a palace official.
The King on his Royal crusade travelling around the countryside mobilizing his people for independence.
But the majority of the photos on display are of Sihanouk during his crusade across
"The King's crusade for independence was a way for [Sihanouk] to have contact
with the people," said an assistant to the vice-president in the country's ceremonial
organizing agency, POCNIC. "The King is a symbol of Cambodia. That is the reason
why we put his pictures up and to celebrate the 50th year of independence."
The photographs will remain up until the end of the year and be stored in the Royal
Palace for safekeeping. Smaller versions will be available for visitors to see while
visiting the Royal Palace.
City dwellers have noticed the images above strategic locations in the capital. Most
said they think the signs are great reminders of the King's achievements, even if
their own happiness was dampened by the fact they could not join in the festivities
due to a lack of money.
Kun Sathea, 37, a farmer from the provinces, gazed at the display on October 29.
"I like the king like Buddha," he said, admiring the preparations of the
King's picture and flowers near Independence Monument. He said he has never seen
anything like it in the countryside.