Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Strong is the Sangkum; the stirrings of discontent

Strong is the Sangkum; the stirrings of discontent

Strong is the Sangkum; the stirrings of discontent

Prince Norodom Sihanouk's triumphant 1955 Sangkum Reastr Niyum was ruthlessly consolidated

in the elections of 1958 and 1962 - polls to which Steven Heder now turns

his attention, in the third part of his series.

Three more elections were held before those of 1966, which preceded the overthrow

of Sihanouk in 1970. The elections of 1958 and 1962 completed the triumph of 1955,

but those of 1966 set the scene for the Prince's fall. The elections of 1958 were

used by Sihanouk to install a hand-picked group of delegates chosen from circles

then enjoying his favor. Further pressure on the Democrats brought about the dissolution

of the remnant party on the eve of the 1958 voting. To make sure of again creating

the appearance of overwhelming popular support for him and his policies, the Prince

and his security forces also used the campaign period for multi-faceted repression

of the residual legal activity by the Pracheachun group, which was able to put up

only a handful of candidates. The elections of 1962 brought about the final destruction

of the Pracheachun, which collapsed without fielding any candidates. This 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.

The 1958 elections

By 1956, the provisional Central Committee of the Cambodian Communist movement was,

according to a later offical history, "foundering" due, among other things,

to a weakening of revolutionary fervor on the part of its secretary, Siev Heng. His

deputy, Tou Samuth, formally became chairman of a four-man committee responsible

for covert and overt Communist activites in urban areas, including parliamentary

and journalistic struggle. Two of its members were almost certainly Pol Pot and Nuon

Chea. Under its aegis, Kaev Meah and Non Suon endeavored to resume publication of

party-controlled newspapers starting in 1956 with a view to revitalizing overt legal

struggle, despite the results of the 1955 elections. And Ieng Sary, recently returned

from France, pushed strongly for parliamentary and political struggle, arguing against

several senior veterans of the armed struggle who favored a return to violence. Ieng

Sary responded that violence would mean a return to reliance on Vietnamese support,

and thus Vietnamese domination of the Cambodian Communist movement, which had only

just receded as the result of the withdrawal of the last covert Vietnamese "advisers"

in 1956. As a result of such an emphasis on legal work, the number of Communist-controlled

newspapers was increased with the approach of the prospect of new elections, which

in the normal course of events would have been held in 1959. Those published included

a reborn Pracheachun plus several new outlets: Meatophum (Motherland), Kammakar (Worker),

Mittapheap (Friendship) and Kapheap. The latter three were created on instructions

from Pol Pot, who was evidently continuing to act as the link between Tou Samuth

and the Pracheachun group. By 1958, these newspapers enjoyed a wide circulation.

In the event, in January 1958, Sihanouk called early elections, and they were held

in March. The snap ballot was precipitated by conflict between the Assemblymen elected

in 1955 and Prime Minister Sim Var, the one-time Democrat and nemesis of the Democrat

radicals in 1955. However, another apparent factor in Sihanouk's decision to hold

elections sooner rather than later was his desire to pre-empt Communist preparations

for the contest. The Prince was also taking advantage of the decision by the Executive

Committee of the Democrat Party in late 1957 to "cease all opposition to Sihanouk

and cooperate with the Sangkum" in the hope of obtaining seats in a future cabinet.

This followed a concerted campaign of harassment earlier in the year which had effectively

destroyed the party and left the Pracheachun group as the only overt political alternative

to the Sangkum. In an article outlining his concept of democracy, published during

the campaign, Sihanouk rebutted suggestions made by "some elements" that

the Sangkum should allow a few opposition representatives to win seats in the Assembly.

He declared that the will of the people must be respected, and that all of them wanted

a complete Sangkum victory. Within this context, Sihanouk used the new elections

as an opportunity to replace figures chosen by the elements who had organized the

Sangkum on his behalf in 1955 with figures he chose himself to run, he hoped, unopposed.

In this sense, the polls were merely a royal coup from above within the ranks of

the ruling Sangkum. To ensure the proper result, the Sangkum leadership was replaced,

Sihanouk himself vetted the candidate lists, and an election government in which

former Democrats played a significant role was formed to oversee the balloting and

counting processes. The Prince also used the elections as an opportunity to launch

a re-intensified campaign against the communist movement in Cambodia. As one historian

has put it, "he became preoccupied with suppressing communism in Cambodia, and

the elections of 1958 were fought on anti-communist lines." At a Sangkum congress

in January, Sihanouk appeared to be obsessed with a communist threat to his rule

and determined to cower the Pracheachun group into the same stance of inaction and

silence as that recently adopted by the Democrats. He complained that it was "stirring

up resentment among ordinary people" against voting for its candidates, stressing

in particular that workers and laborers should not be fooled into supporting it.

The Minister of Labor responded to his pronouncements by organizing an anti-communist

demonstration of laborers and office workers in Phnom Penh, while the governors of

Kampot and Takeo responded by arresting Pracheachun group members for "propaganda

activities". In three articles on communism in Cambodia published before the

elections, the Prince asserted that Cambodian communists were dependent on Vietnam

and that communism was unfeasible for Cambodian society. Sangkum electoral propaganda

became increasingly anti-Prach-eachun, and during the last week of the campaign it

focused on characterizing its members as enemies of the Cambodian people and servants

of foreign interests.

Pracheachun candidates for the 1958 elections were selected by Kaev Meah and Non

Suon, who also formulated the group's "immediate political program" for

the occasion. Only five candidates were put forward by the deadline for registration

in late February. They included Kaev Meah himself,who stood in Phnom Penh, with the

others set to stand in Kampot, Battambang, Svay Rieng and Takeo. This slate was many

fewer than the 20 to 30 candidates the group was originally expected to run. This

reduced electoral effort was apparently in part a reflection of discouragement within

the party ranks about the possibilities for political gain via the parliamentary

road in view of what had happened in 1955 and since. As one cadre involved later

put it, Sihanouk's intimidation in 1955 had "demoralized a number of revolutionaries",

as a result of which some of them had ceased political activities even in areas where

the party seemed to have significant potential. This cadre also wrote that although

"the Pracheachun group had a number of candidates standing again" in 1958,

the perspective among those who had lost heart remained negative. This resulted in

opposition to Pracheachun group participation in the elections and defiance of instructions

from "the Party" - presumably emanating from Tou Samuth and conveyed by

Pol Pot - to "agitate the masses to support the candidates". Early Pracheachun

campaigning activities were limited to the distribution of leaflets in Svay Rieng

and Prey Veng provinces. Later, while avoiding open campaign rallies, it engaged

in house-to-house campaigning in some areas. Sihanouk himself visited the districts

in Kampot and Takeo where it was feared Pracheachun group candidates might run relatively

strongly, and launched vigorous verbal attacks on them. Meanwhile, in Svay Rieng,

more than 200 police officers and members of the Sangkum youth wing were assigned

to follow the Pracheachun candidate around, and the official press mooted threats

to deploy police in Kampot to conduct the kind of intimidation against the communists

that had been used successfully there in 1955, supposedly in the name of ensuring

"full liberty of vote". Government authorities reportedly seized on technicalities

to refuse to issue voting cards to known Pracheachun sympathisers. In the end, all

Pracheachun candidates except Kaev Meah effectively withdrew from the contest. Meanwhile,

the closely monitored communist media had been compelled to tread a fine line between

agitating the masses to support Pracheachun candidates and praising the Prince. For

example, shortly before the elections, a Kapheap editorial urged people to "give

their support without reserve to the candidates who have no connections with the

imperialists'", but pleaded that such advice "must not be interpreted as

a refusal on our part to accord complete confidence" in Sihanouk. In general,

the media professed to support Sihanouk and Sihanouk policies against the "tactics

of division employed by the imperialists", while urging voters to discuss candidates'

qualifications and vote for the best of them "without distinction as to political

parties". Pracheachun candidates were caught in the same bind. Before he withdrew,

the group's man standing in Battambang claimed to be running as a member both of

the Pracheachun and the Sangkum with Sihanouk's full support.

The vote count gave Kaev Meah 396 votes, while the Pracheachun candidate in Kampot

was credited with having received 13 votes "by mistake" because ballots

for the group were made available to voters despite the absence of any group representative.

While the 1958 elections shut the Pracheachun group out more than ever before from

the possibility of engaging in overt and legal political struggle, Sihanouk's selection

of "intellectual" personalities considered to be "known leftists"

as Assembly members opened another possible channel of influence for the communist

movement in the assembly. These included the former Democrat and future Communist

Party member Hu Nim. They also included the one-time member of the Parisian "Marxist

Circle" Hou Youn, an independent-minded Marxian political analyst and activist,

who would later become a member of the communist Youth League but never a full-fledged

party member.

The 1962 elections

The only possible route into parliament for someone who was unhappy with how Cambodia

was being run was via membership in [Prince Sihanouk's] Sangkum.

Like previous contests, the 1962 elections were less an opportunity for the expression

of opposition views or organization of opposition activites than for the intensified

repression of both. The Democrats having already been destroyed, the Pracheachon

now felt the full brunt of Sihanouk's repression. It indeed appears that the 1962

elections were not only the occasion but the reason for repression by Sihanouk and

his security forces that constituted the final coup de grace for the Pracheachun

Group. They were also followed by a very serious blow against the covert communist

party that was reorganized at a congress in September 1960, at which Tou Samuth became

Party Secretary, Nuon Chea Deputy Secretary and Pol Pot an "under-secretary"

and the third-ranked party figure in its day-to-day leadership body, the Standing

Committee. It appears that these three men had increasingly dominated Party affairs

in the late1950s, particularly after Siev Heng, the secretary of the provisional

Central Committee formed in 1954, finally gave up revolutionary activity and started

cooperating with the security forces. Thereafter, Tou Samuth's Party Committee in

charge of urban and overt work had become "the committee in charge of... general

affairs" for its activities throughout the country. Since 1957, its members

had been involved in preparations to hold a Party congress, including drafting statutes

and key policy documents, and had become increasingly predominant in this process.

Moreover, Tou Samuth, Nuon Chea and Pol Pot formed a "Party Purge Committee"

in which the latter played the most active role in ridding the party of what the

three saw as unreliable elements, and otherwise "rectifying" its composition

in preparation for the Congress. The Congress did not reject in principle further

participation in parliamentary struggle or mass media work. Indeed, according to

Pol Pot, the stance adopted was that "the parliamentary struggle was a struggle

in which the Party must engage", and that "the newspaper struggle was a

struggle to stir up mass public opinion immensely and broadly". They were part

of the open and legal forms of struggle which the Party had to conduct, although

they were secondary and subordinate to covert and illegal organization of the peasantry

in order to overthrow the existing regime with "revolutionary political violence

and revolutionary armed violence".

In the meantime, many Party organs in urban areas and some in rural areas continued

to be tasked to lead "the people in the struggle against the enemy secretly

or overtly" in the up-coming elections, just as in 1955 and 1958. In late 1961

the Pracheachun Group received instructions from Tou Samuth via the underground Communist

municipal party committee about the program it should adopt in relation to this struggle,

and Kaev Meah and Non Suon held meetings with three other potential candidates to

discuss campaign activities. By this time, however, Sihanouk was already well into

a campaign to villify the Pracheachun. At a special Sangkum national congress session,

he had openly intimidated Non Suon, who was surrounded by several thousand jeering

supporters of the Sangkum who threatened to assault him. In January 1962, Sihanouk

announced that the elections would be held in March. Wholesale and highly public

suppression of the Pracheachun Group and other Party organizations involved in overt

or covert preparations for them came almost simultaneously. Sihanouk revealed the

arrest of 14 Pracheachun activists in Kampong Cham province, who he claimed were

in possession of documents revealing a plan for general subversion. He threatened

to have them shot. Meanwhile, Non Suon and the Pracheachun newspaper editor Chou

Chet were detained, and more arrests of alleged Group operatives were carried out

in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces. Responding in what appears to have been a

state of some panic to the arrests, the Pracheachun newspaper asserted that what

had happened in Kampong Cham was the result of "fabrications" by US imperialism

aimed at destroying national solidarity, and said that the 14 were US agents. In

its assessment of the crackdown, the US Embassy commented that the "coincidence

between the forthcoming elections and discovery of a juicy plot formented by the

only recognized oppostion to the Sangkum appears a little too convenient", adding

that "despite considerable public noise on [the alleged] plot, no details have...

been published". It characterized the arrests as part of a "campaign to

whip up issues and interest" in the elections, and noted that the intensified

pressure on the left had achieved the result of engendering a "cringing tone"

in the "leftist press". Thus, while Sihanouk continued to attack the Pracheachun

group and characterize it and all other political party-type organizations as "traitors"

in speeches in the provinces calling on people to vote for Sangkum candidates, Pracheachun

newspaper continued to deny that the Pracheachun group had ever opposed the government

right up to the time that it suspended publication in February. In fact, the arrests

in Kampong Cham were the result of intensified police surveillance of the Pracheachun

group and its communications with the underground party leadership and with covert

rural organizations. Those detained were part of a district Party network, and under

interrogation they told police that they had held a meeting under Non Suon's leadership

to prepare for elections in the province. This precipitated Non Suon's detention.

Despite the repression, the Pracheachun group was reportedly still planning in early

March to run four or five candidates in the elections, but there was little manifestation

of real activity by it. The election date, meanwhile, was delayed until June, and

the deadline for registration of candidates and the date for the official commencement

of campaigning activities by candidates were set for April. As the date approached,

the police arrested the editor of the Communist-dominated Panhcha (Five Pillars)

newspaper, which then ceased publication. While proceeding toward prosecution of

Non Suon and the Kampong Cham detainees, the government tried and sentenced the editor.

This was clearly done to maintain pressure on the communist movement while at the

same time removing this symbol of overt opposition on the eve of the electoral period.

Finally, taking no chances, the Ministry of Interior reapportioned electoral districts

to ensure that Phnom Penh was under-represented. This would minimize the impact if

the Pracheachun managed to repeat its 1958 feat of getting a significant number of

votes there. In the end, the date for registration of candidates passed without anyone

from the Pracheachun group coming forward. Two weeks later, a special military tribunal

sentenced Non Suon and the 14 people arrested in Kampong Cham in early January to

death for "assembly with treasonous intent". It appears that the sentence

was imposed at Sihanouk's bidding to provide an object lesson to anyone considering

open opposition during the remainder of the election period, although it was commuted

after the election. As the US Embassy reported, "the failure of [the Pracheachun

group] to put forth candidates [was] not surprising, given [the] intensive campaign

against [it] in recent months." The group itself said it had not participated

because of the "difficult situation" and because it did not want to "play

into the hands"of the "imperialists". Ten years later, Non Suon declared

more forthrightly in a public statement that "the Pracheachun group was compelled

as of 1962 to halt its activities" because Sihanouk's security forces had "arrested,

tortured, secretly killed and liquidated" its members and "many other genuinely

progressive persons and patriots". It appears that the decision to reverse the

Communist position and put forward no Pracheachun candidates was made by Tou Samuth

in March or April, after he returned to Cambodia from a visit to Hanoi, where he

seems to have gone in the latter part of 1961. While he was away, Pol Pot was the

top Communist leader inside the country because in 1961 he had become its Deputy

Secretary, thus displacing Nuon Chea from the post. He was well-placed to observe

the setbacks inflicted on his old Pracheachun contacts and the threat of further

repression if the KWP continued to expose its cadre via overt and legal work. Pol

Pot probably concurred in Tou Samuth's decision, and may even have urged withdrawal.

In any case, once back in Cambodia, Tou Samuth reportedly sent a message to the Pracheachun

group, which was later obtained by Sihanouk's intelligence services. According to

a paraphrase made public by the Prince after the elections, part of the message read:

"In the upcoming elections, there is no need for us to present candidates, since

the results of these elections are known in advance and cannot evidence the power

of our movement, given the fact that the people are undergoing the oppression of

Sihanouk's police and army and will be unable to clearly demonstrate their support.

Our interest, therefore, is to make the confidence of the young intellectuals who

sympathize with our movement, who have been successful in introducing themselves

into the Sangkum and who will be chosen to be their 'deputies'." Even before

this document fell into his hands, Sihanouk had begun turning his fire on those whom

he described as subversive infiltrators among the Sangkum ranks, above all the "leftist

intellectuals". Before the election campaign began, he had delivered ultimatums

aimed at "leftist deputies" in the old Assembly like Hou Youn and Hu Nim

to close ranks and cease criticisms of Sangkum failings. One French language journal

associated with them responded by printing grovelling editorials and affirming loyalty

to the Sangkum and to Sihanouk. Almost all "leftist intellectuals" quickly

censored their critiques of the regime. Hou Youn was an exception, but only for the

time being. As opening day of the campaign approached, Sihanouk again warned "intellectuals"

against opposition activities, and a senior Sangkum official proclaimed that demanded

that they make individual public professions of political loyalty. This produced

a cascade of petitions from them, and at a public meeting at the end of the month,

Hou Youn and other leftist members of the Assembly appeared to be competing with

each other for Sihanouk's approval. The procedure for the selection of Sangkum candidates

had been laid out in late March. Sihanouk announced that he and the Sangkum Central

Committee would choose one Sangkum candidate for each seat after consultations with

provincial Sangkum organizations. The candidate list was made public in mid-April,

and included a mix of "leftist" and "rightist" figures. The public

obsequiousness of the "leftists" had evidently succeeded in keeping them

on the list and thus eligible for Assembly membership. Sihanouk now began touring

the provinces urging people to vote for the candidates he had chosen, and the candidates

themselves began preparing to campaign in their respective districts. With the Sangkum

running unopposed, the state apparatus was geared up to try to obtain a large voter

turn-out despite evident popular disinterest in the elections. In the event, a turn-out

of more than 90% was claimed, with votes for individual candidates reported as ranging

between 76% and 100% and most candiates about the 90% mark. The rapidity with which

the results were published was characterized by observers as "being too good

to be true". Although the 1962 ballot showed just how impossible it was for

Communists to gain access to the Assembly from outside the Sangkum, the situation

indeed suggested it still might be possible for it to infiltrate the Assembly and

even the state from the inside. Thus, in accordance with the path recommended by

Tou Samuth, it might be possible to recruit elected officials and even government

officials into the party and have them pursue its goals inside the assembly and inside

the state. However, before this potential could be realized, the party secretary

was secretly killed on 27 July 1962. The perpetrators of his murder have never been

definitively identified. One set of circumstantial evidence suggests that the party

purge process which he had begun together with Nuon Chea and Pol Pot had ended for

Tou Samuth when Pol Pot decided to get rid of his long-time mentor and seize the

top Party job for himself, perhaps because the two men disagreed about how the Communists

should relate to the Vietnamese communist movement. Other evidence suggests that

he was killed by elements of Lon Nol's security forces, probably acting on the basis

of information from his predecessor Siev Heng and perhaps also information obtained

during the repression of the Pracheachun group earlier in the year. On balance, the

latter conclusion seems more plausible. Tou Samuth's death can thus be seen as the

crowning blow in the campaign against communism for which the 1962 elections were

the occasion. Among the National Assembly members with whom the Party could work

after Tou Samuth's death were the re-elected Hu Nim and Hou Youn. There was also

a prominent newcomer, Khieu Samphan, the only one to survive Pol Pot-directed purges

when the Communist Party was in power. After earning a doctorate in economics in

France, Khieu Samphan had returned to Cambodia in mid-1959. Instead of going into

government service, as was expected of degree-holding intellectuals, he had opened

a French-language newspaper, l'Observateur. His doctoral dissertation was a reformist

document, and he has insisted that it was a personal project which had nothing to

do with communist party activities. His newspaper, however, was reportedly the result

of an initiative of the urban wing of the Communist movement, and specifically of

Pol Pot. This was apparently the beginning of a relationship between the two men

which eventually resulted in Khieu Samphan's seemingly total subordination to Pol

Pot's political will. The newspaper was closed after Khieu Samphan was assaulted

and detained in 1960 along with the editors of several Khmer-language papers controlled

by the Communists. He was released just before its secret 1960 congress. After much

prodding from Sihanouk during 1961, he had agreed to run as a candidate in the 1962

elections. Hou Youn and Hu Nim had held posts as secretaries or under secretaries

of state in four successive Sangkum governments formed after the 1958 elections,

and although they had been excluded from the cabinet since 1960, their prospects

for such office were good after the 1962 ballot. They became members of the immediate

post-election cabinet, and in October they were joined in the next one by Khieu Samphan.

However, by mid-1963, the three were all out of office, having been dismissed or

put into positions giving little choice but resignation. They nevertheless remained

in the Assembly and were able to continue political activities.

By 1964, Khieu Samphan is quoted as privately counselling fellow intellectuals to

adopt the Marxist-Leninist approach rather than the reformist approach to political

change. It may be that he had by this time already been enrolled in the Communist

organization. However, Pol Pot's emphasis on the primacy of preparations for violent

rural revolution prompted him and other senior Communist leaders to leave Phnom Penh

for the safety of Vietnam in 1963 in the face of what they saw as implicit threats

by Sihanouk and his security forces that they were about to be arrested or killed.

Ieng Sary argued against the move, and the over-all Party consensus did not reject

continued use of parliamentary struggle. Indeed, Nuon Chea remained mostly in Phnom

Penh to help oversee such activities, among others. However, while taking advantage

of the sanctuary offered by theVietnamese Communists, Pol Pot dreamed of breaking

loose to create conditions for a peasant uprising under Communist leadership.


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