Scholar Steven Heder continues his analysis of Cambodian elections: 1966,
Prince Sihanouk's power wanes, and a new force emerges.
The elections of 1962 had brought about the final destruction of the Communist-front
The group's collapse without fielding any candidates confirmed that the only possible
route into parliament for someone who was unhappy with how Cambodia was being run
was via membership in the Sangkum.
In the last Sihanouk-era elections in 1966, this path was left open because the politically
weakened Prince declined to choose the candidates. Although all those elected were
nominally members of the Sangkum, some winning candidates harbored anti-Sihanouk
However, the elections also suggested that more than Sangkum membership and popularity
were needed in order to win a seat.
Having held high office in the state, preferably at the cabinet level, was in most
cases also a prerequisite. This bestowed crucial advantages that outsiders had great
difficulty in overcoming.
Eighty-two seats were contested by 425 Sangkum members, including Khieu Samphan,
Hu Nim and Hou Youn.
Their connections with the underground Communist movement headed by Pol Pot meant
they acted under the influence, if not the direction, of the only organized opposition
still with a semblance of a structure in Cambodia.
Fearing their popularity and politics, Sihanouk published several polemics on Cambodian
communism during the campaign in an attempt to discredit them, and pressures were
successfully applied at his behest against them. These pressures included arrests
and killings of persons campaigning on their behalf.
All three nevertheless won comfortably, and indeed were among the only candidates
to win outright majorities.
Their victories showed that, as before 1955, it was possible to win a popular vote
against the wishes of Sihanouk and local authorities.
The success of the three men reflected the popularity of their critical stance vis-à-vis
the Sangkum regime, even if they were generally circumspect about Sihanouk himself.
It appears that such a stance attracted support especially in rural areas where conditions
generated strong grievances against the political system among a growing number of
peasants who were suffering as a result of socio-economic developments under Sihanouk.
This was true in districts of Kampong Cham, where Hu Nim and Hou Youn ran. The results
also showed that being criticized by Sihanouk could help them with the electorate.
However, their victories also suggested it was very difficult, if not impossible,
to win without significant prior access to the state.
It is questionable whether the three men could have won if they were not already
Assembly members and had not been Cabinet members. Their posts gave them opportunities
to make their views known publicly and thus enhance their popular political reputations,
and this underpinned their success.
For example, as Hu Nim later said in his "confession" to Pol Pot's S-21
("Tuol Sleng") security service, he "utilized overt forms of action",
including "the parliamentary stage, and in particular the Sangkum Reastr Niyum
radio in Phnom Penh," to disseminate his views to the "masses" and
thus make himself and his views much better known".
They were also able to capitalize politically on the contacts they had established
in the civil service while in the cabinet, even though they were out of government
at the time of the election.
For example, one man who had been a junior official of the Ministry of Commerce when
Khieu Samphan was in office there so was impressed by his diligence and probity that
in 1966 he quietly volunteered himself and some subordinates in the ministry to assist
the ex-secretary of state in his campaign. He asserted that "most young civil
servants who had worked with Khieu Samphan, Hu Nim and Hou Youn wanted to help them"
in their efforts to achieve re-election, although "most dared not do so, a few
did" and "helped them win".
In this regard, the position of the three men seems to have been more like that of
the Democrats in the first elections of 1946-1951 than that of Pracheachun group
members in those of 1955-1962.
Other "leftist" candidates who had not been members of the previous assemblies
or cabinets were not elected 1966.
This was the case, for example, with one candidate whose background was in organizing
workers. He ran in a constituency bordering Hu Nim's, where socio-economic conditions
were similar. He, too, enjoyed the distinction of being criticized by Sihanouk. However,
although he obtained a considerable proportion of the vote, he was nevertheless defeated.
This indicated how difficult it was for someone who was an "outsider" vis-à-vis
the state to win, even if other factors were in their favor.
The victories of Hu Nim and Khieu Samphan, at least, were also secured with the help
of underground Communist Party networks based in part on penetration of the civil
service, especially schoolteachers, as well as students in state schools. This gave
them some of the same advantages that Democrat Party candidates had enjoyed in 1946,
1947 and 1951.
Hu Nim's successful campaign in the Kampong Cham constituency of Chrey Vien (centered
on Prey Chhor district) relied on a network of teachers, students and other secret
communist cadre built by Koy Thuon, its secretary for the Party's North Zone.
Like Hu Nim, Koy Thuon began his political life as a Democrat.
In 1955 he campaigned for the Democrats in Kampong Cham and was detained for his
activities. In 1960, he was enrolled in the Communist Party while a student at Phnom
Penh's National Pedagogy Institute by its director, Son Sen, who had studied in France
with Pol Pot.
From then until 1966, he concentrated on building an underground network among students
in Kampong Cham, but in that year he went to study politics at the new Party central
committee headquarters in the North Zone, leaving local party affairs in the hands
of a former student whom he had recruited into the Party in early 1960s.
This acting Zone Party secretary, Seua Vasi alias Deuan, went underground to direct
all Party activities. He was under instructions to confront intensified repression
of Party activities by "giving impetus" to various forms of political struggle
As Pol Pot was at this time out of the country, these instructions evidently came
from Nuon Chea.
Hu Nim, who at this point apparently was still not a Party member, had been in contact
since 1965 with another student recruit and Koy Thuon protégé, Cho
Chhan alias Sreng. Sreng, who in 1966 was appointed by Nuon Chea as a member of the
Zone Party committee of which Deuan was acting Secretary, helped Hu Nim with many
aspects of his campaign, including securing the release of his campaign activists
after they were arrested by the local authorities, and conducting house-to-house
propaganda on his behalf.
Such activities seem to have been particularly important in a campaign in which it
seems that the important issues were those that directly concerned local constituencies,
rather than grander questions of national policy or international affairs.
Samphan's constituency was Prek Ambel, centered in S'ang district in southern Kandal
province, in what was then a part of the Party's East Zone. It bordered directly
on Takeo province in its Southwest Zone. The underground networks of both zones supported
his campaign on the basis of an agreement between their secretaries.
According to one participant, "schoolteachers and students played the leading
role" in communist-directed activities on Samphan's behalf.
The electoral victories of Hu Nim, Khieu Samphan and Hou Youn did not protect them
from what was soon to follow.
By 1967, another wave of intensified anti-communist repression, which included implicit
death threats by Sihanouk against the three men, had driven them out of Phnom Penh
into underground communist base areas in the countryside.
However, Sihanouk, too, was in trouble.
His failure to stage-manage the 1966 elections was an indication of a loss of control
and a growing social and political crisis that reached a peak when he was overthrown
in a coup d'état in 1970.
However, the key coup plotters came from outside the Assembly: army General Lon Nol
and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak.
Although they organized sympathetic members of the National Assembly, it was not
elected politicians who mattered, but the power of the military and the leverage
the two men had built up as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the late
Such muscle meant nobody in the Assembly dared to oppose a motion that dismissed
Sihanouk as Chief of State, and made the coup "constitutional".
It led to the establishment of the Khmer Republic in Phnom Penh.
Sihanouk, abroad at the time of the coup, opted to fight back by lending his support
from exile to an armed struggle led from behind the scenes by Pol Pot and what came
to be called the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
Cambodia's next elections thus took place in the context of a bloody civil war.