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The Sangkum teeters: the enpowerment of the extremes

The Sangkum teeters: the enpowerment of the extremes

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

"storming attacks".

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.


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