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Why I quit the Throne in 1955

Why I quit the Throne in 1955

By 1955, I had been able to keep all the promises made to my people in 1952: our

country was fully independent; and, in Geneva, it had been able to regain its peace

and, contrary to its two neighbors, Laos and Vietnam, it had escaped territorial

and ideological partition.

Being carried during the royal coronation ceremony in 1941, King Norodom Sihanouk takes the throne in royal fashion.

The referendum promised to the people three years before and designed to pass judgment

on the outcome of my "royal crusade" had been held. By secret ballot, approximately

90 percent of voters declared themselves "satisfied"; a certain number

of Thanhistes1 and of Democrats voted also for me, in spite of the instructions given

by their chiefs. Naturally, those in opposition and the communists voted against

me, because of their resentment or jealousy. Interestingly, all through my public

life -and even while in exile, I shall always have working against me this coalition

of the extreme right and the extreme left.

I then announced that, in accordance with my promise, new legislative elections would

take place, in order to re-establish parliamentary democracy but I proposed that

before the legislative elections a new national referendum, asking the people whether

it accepted a number of amendments to the 1947 Constitution.

The proposed amendments were:

ï Granting women the same political rights as men;

ïThe creation of Provincial People's Assemblies, which would have the right to examine

matters being studied by the National Assembly;

ï Adoption of a clause allowing voters in each electoral district to be able to get

rid of the elected representative (deputy) if he did not satisfy by his work a majority

of his electors. If this majority addressed to the King a petition, duly signed,

asking for such action, the sovereign could order a by-election limited to the said

circumscription. In this by-election, the rejected representative (deputy) had nonetheless

the right to present himself as a candidate for election;

These proposed amendments, considered by some to be too progressive, were lambasted

by my adversaries, in particular, the Thanhistes and the Democrats. They were completely

opposed to granting women the same political rights as they were in the majority

loyal supporters of the monarchy. They also felt that the members of the Provincial

People's Assemblies, which only allowed people originating from the concerned province

to be elected as members, because of their peasant origin, were in the majority supporters

of Sihanouk.

Lastly, my adversaries elected to the National Assembly were concerned about their

ability to complete their term of office, if they allowed the peasants to request

to the King new elections.

King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk sit on their thrones in the Royal Palace during an official 2002 visit by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, Goodwill Ambassador of England.

In Phnom Penh, certain country's members of the International Control Commission

(ICC)2 and the ambassadors of other western countries asked me to renounce the proposed

referendum and to quickly organize legislative elections in accordance with the 1947

Constitution. They let me know that the Constitution could not be amended by a referendum

but only by a vote of the National Assembly.

I pointed out that the 1947 Constitution was granted to the people by the King, and

it was not the work of the National Assembly. I offered the ICC to supervise the

referendum but they refused and warned me that the ICC could not supervise the legality

of the legislative elections if the same did not take place under the 1947 Constitution,

without amendments. I kept quiet and my political adversaries, as well as their foreign

supporters, consequently, felt that I had been vanquished.

Suddenly, I exploded my own "atomic device": I abdicated.

On March 2, 1955, I sent an envelope to the Phnom Penh radio station together with

instructions that it be opened at noon, and the recorded tape inside be played during

the midday news. In this way the Cambodian people learned, to their great amazement,

that I had renounced the throne. Members of the royal family and the government were

as astonished as everyone else.

I had made the decision entirely on my own, and taken no one into my confidence.

According to the 1947 Constitution, in such a case the Crown Council should elect

a successor from among the male descendants of King Ang Duong. That is, from the

Sisowath or Norodom branches of the Royal family. They chose my father, Norodom Suramarit,

then aged sixty years old. I was thirty-two at the time, having been on the throne

for fourteen years. In my broadcast statement, I made it absolutely clear that I

would neither seek, nor accept, the throne again.

Why did I take such a step?

There were many factors. Some related to internal, some to external affairs. In 1952,

as I explained before, I had pledged to win total independence for Cambodia within

three years. I had achieved this with plenty of time to spare.

Less than a month prior to my decision to abdicate, on February 7 1955, 99.8 percent

of the population replied 'Yes' to a referendum as to whether the royal mission to

acquire independence had been accomplished to the satisfaction of our people. During

that mission, I had accumulated experience in dealing with world statesmen, to a

degree rare for someone of my age. I had also lost any innocence with regard to the

'disinterested' policies of major powers like France and the United States.

Now that independence had been gained, the next problem was to see that it was maintained.

The role of monarch, while suited for the Royal crusade for independence, would not

be suitable for the tasks ahead.

Furthermore, the International Control Commission was beginning to act as some sort

of super-government. The Poles, considering me as an aristocrat, and therefore a

sworn enemy of progress as well as the left-wing parties, were taking advantage of

this. The Canadians, protecting US interests, from the beginning turned a blind eye

to violations of our frontiers. The warring political factions within Cambodia wanted

to make of me a mere figurehead who could be ignored in their wrangling. At least

that is how I saw things at the time, and this was the reason for my decision to

renounce the symbolic role and step straight into the political arena.

Meeting General Giap in Hanoi in the early 1970s. From left to right: Prince Sisowath Chittara, Queen Monineath, Madame Vo Nguyen Giap, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the late Norodom Narindrapong and Prince Norodom Sihamoni.

On the external front, pressures were already building up for Cambodia to accept

the SEATO 'umbrella'.3 Some of our rightists saw this 'umbrella' as convenient protection

for their own political ambitions. Dulles had made it clear that he was prepared

to send officers to help train the Cambodian Army 'provided they had full responsibility

and would not be hampered by the French'. In that proviso was the clearly implied

threat that US aims were to take advantage of the French departure to move in and

replace them.

I also wanted to stand on my own feet politically and measure myself against my opponents

in the political arena instead of basing my authority on my heredity.

The Democratic Party, supported by the US, wanted to introduce Western, essentially

French-style parliamentary democracy. The Poles in the ICC wanted to protect the

interests of the Pracheachon (People's) party4.

In 1947, I had transformed the absolute monarchy as it then existed into a constitutional

monarchy ruling through parliament. I considered later that the new system did not

work well, mainly because our people had no experience of that formal type of democracy

which consists of dropping ballots into boxes in favor of whomever had made the most

attractive promises.

When I dissolved the first elected parliament in 1952, in exchange for my promise

to achieve independence within three years, I got a very critical letter from a fiery

student, denouncing me for having destroyed our infant democracy. The student was

Hou Youn.5 The truth is that we were all very inexperienced on how to create a viable

democratic system in those days, one that really worked and could be maintained.

We were not the only newly independent country to have such problems.

The example of the near-anarchy into which the French parliamentary system had degenerated

in the postwar period, with governments falling every few months, was hardly an incentive

to copy the same system in Cambodia. France had a well-established bureaucracy which

functioned whether or not there was stability at the top. Cambodia, with its infant

civil service, formerly staffed by French or Vietnamese, had no such institutional

stability. I decided to halt what I considered a drift towards chaos by giving Cambodia

an original system of a democracy, under which power could be exerted with a minimum

premium on demagogy - the chief weapon of Son Ngoc Thanh, who by then was one of

the leaders of the Democratic Party.

The opposition parties criticized the proposal, and even protested to the International

Control Commission that it violated the spirit of the Geneva Agreements. The violence

of their attacks, and the base motives imputed to me, were such that I felt it impossible

to maintain my status as monarch. Either I had to maintain a politically aloof position

as sovereign or step down and move straight into the political arena.

In the explanations I gave some two weeks after my abdication, I dealt with the difficulties

of being a monarch and still having a real contact with the people, for which I had

always yearned. I wanted to convince our youth, especially the students, that my

efforts for the country had nothing in common with any desire to remain 'His Majesty

the King' or to luxuriate in the pageantry and privileges of the royal palace. I

explained that as long as I remained on the throne I was not taken seriously by state

officials when I exhorted them to abandon their pursuit of power and riches.

A new king was corronated in 1955 when then-King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated and was succeeded by his father King Norodom Suramarit, pictured here sitting on the throne during the ceremony. To his right, Sisowath Monireth, president of the Council of the Royal Family looks on while Penn Nouth, former Prime Minister of Cambodia, adjusts the King's ceremonial pair of golden slippers.

When I was confronted by the great powers in the struggle against foreign domination,

my royal authority was essential. I needed my title as the legally qualified representative

of my country. Had I not spoken as King, they could always have replied that I did

not represent the whole of Cambodia. If I remain on the throne, locked up in my palace,

I would never really know the true situation or the abuses of which the people are

the victim.

I knew only too well that people with grievances were afraid to speak up openly in

audience with me. There were too many officials around to reproach them afterwards,

and even take reprisals if they spoke of things unpleasant for the officials concerned.

How could I know what happened to them after they left the palace?

My broadcast continued: "The palace is stuffed full of a hierarchy of court

mandarins and intriguers. They are like the blood-sucking leeches that attach themselves

to the feet of elephants."

Being a prisoner of protocol, fawned on by all sorts of servers awaiting my favors,

was something I detested. And if I wanted to travel about and see things for myself,

word was always sent in advance, so that anything disagreeable was hidden from sight.

I saw only impeccably dressed citizens amidst banners and welcoming arches, and a

wall of officialdom was raised as a barrier against social reality. I hated this

but, as a God-King, I had to submit to it.

As more than forty states had recognized Cambodia after independence, most of my

time was henceforth taken up by audiences with ambassadors and visiting dignitaries,

organizing receptions, banquets, royal ballet performances, and so many official

functions that I hardly had a moment free to visit the interior of the country. I

remained the traditional 'God-King'. I summed all this up in my broadcast, adding:

"This is why I took the definite decision to abandon the throne, its pomp and

pageantry, in order to devote my whole time and energies to serve the people and

their well-being".

To set at rest rumours that my abdication was a political maneuver, and that I would

pick up the crown again when it suited me, I stated that: "I categorically refuse

to return to the throne no matter what the turn of events." Many who should

have known better did not believe this, although I stated it as clearly as possible

as a "promise made before the nation, before history, before our religion, and

before the world".

About a month after the abdication speech, I announced my intention of forming a

new political group, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People's Community), which would be

the chief instrument in forging the national unity which I had set as my goal. I

invited existing parties to bury their differences and put themselves inside the

new organization, which I conceived as a front or movement, rather than a political

party. The aim, I said, was "to give birth to a truly democratic, equalitarian,

and socialist Cambodia, to restore the past greatness of our motherland". Many

of my loyal supporters promptly forgot the words "democratic, equalitarian,

and socialist" and began to dream up ways to use the Sangkum to further their

own private ambitions.

Within two months, the leadership of three right-wing political parties; the Khmer

Restoration Party of Lon Nol, the Populist Party of Sam Sary, and the National Democratic

Party of Oum Chheana Sun, dissolved their organizations and advised their members

to join the Sangkum. The Democratic Party, the Pracheachon, the Liberal Party, and

a few others announced they would contest the elections, scheduled for September

11, 1955, as completely autonomous entities.

The elections, supervised by the ICC and held in accordance with the terms of the

1954 Geneva Agreements, resulted in the Sangkum winning all ninety-one seats. I had

never expected a victory of such embarrassing magnitude. The Sangkum received 83

per cent of the votes, the Democrats 13 percent, and the Pracheachon only three percent.

The Liberals and four other small parties received a total of less than one per cent,

and vanished from the political scene. Six months after I had abdicated, I found

myself in the political forefront of the country as Prime Minister for a political

grouping which held all the seats in the National Assembly!

Because the Sangkum, to all appearances, was comprised in its entirety of three right-wing

parties, and because the Pracheachon had been so soundly defeated, Washington rejoiced

in my victory - somewhat prematurely. Firstly, the Sangkum was by no means composed

only of the three parties that had rallied to it; secondly, I had no intention of

pursuing reactionary policies. I had been impressed by the popular support the left-wing

groups had received in advocating neutrality, and opposition to American neo-colonialism.

These were much closer to my ideas than the policies of the others.

I had visited Nehru just two weeks after my abdication. The Indian leader was enthusiastic

that I had taken such a step, and strongly advised me to pursue a neutral course

in foreign affairs, something which I had been turning over in my mind anyway.

Earlier, Son Ngoc Thanh had contacted Nehru seeking support for his policies, approaching

him secretly during a visit by the Indian Prime Minister and his daughter, Indira,

to the Angkor temples. Nehru apparently took the measure of this intriguer immediately.

He advised Son Ngoc Thanh to forget his differences with me and cooperate in the

interests of national unity. Thanh replied with a diatribe against me. Among the

reproaches was that I was "anti-American", which did not impress Nehru,

who informed me of the whole affair.

The outcome of my eight-day visit to India had been an agreement to establish diplomatic

relations between our two countries at legation level and, as set forth in a joint

communiqué, to base our relations on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence

which had been formulated less than a year earlier during Zhou Enlai's visit to New

Delhi. Nehru and I got along well together, and he influenced me in opting for neutrality.

Two weeks after the elections, the first Sangkum National Congress was held. This

was in line with my concept of giving the people a direct role in what the social

scientists now like to call the 'decision-making processes'. Some historic measures

were decided: the vote for women; the Khmer language as the only one to be used in

public institutions. This had long been a bone of contention between the French and

myself. (Gautier - the same Resident Superieur who had tried to marry me off against

my wishes - had gone as far as to suppress the Khmer script in favor of a Latinized

version, solemnly assuring me that Cambodia would never become a modern state unless

we did so.) The mandates of deputies, it was decided, could be withdrawn if a majority

of voters in their electorate so desired. From that historic moment until December

1969, there were regular, twice-yearly sessions of a National Congress, with supplementary

extraordinary sessions in case of a national crisis.

In the space of eight years, Cambodia had moved forward from an absolute monarchy

to a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and on to an original form

of guided democracy via the National Congress of the Sangkum. The role of the monarch

had been reduced - at my initiative- to a symbolic one. Power of decision was in

the hands of the Prime Minister and his cabinet, reinforced by the direct participation

of the people. The system worked smoothly for the next five years.

My Father's Accession to the Throne

It has often been written that "Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father".

Such a statement does not correspond with the reality of events in 1955. Certainly,

I abdicated, but I never had the right to appoint my successor, because our monarchy

is elective. In effect, the Constitution of 1947 clearly stated that the selection

of a new monarch must be made by the Council of the Crown among the descendants of

King Ang Duong, who was the father of both King Norodom, whose family is known as

the "senior branch", and of King Sisowath, whose family constitutes the

"junior branch".

According to the Constitution, the Crown Council was composed of the Prime Minister,

the chiefs of the Mohanikay and Thammayut Buddhist Orders, the chief of the Brahman

priests (Bakus), the president of the Council of the Royal Family, the president

of the National Assembly and the president of the Senate, all together seven senior

personalities of the kingdom.

I had no need to pressure these seven senior personalities in order that they choose

my father; they were all already in agreement about him. My uncle, Prince Sisowath

Monireth, president of the Council of the Royal family, who adored my mother, his

sister, was delighted that she would become queen.

A crisis arose on April 3, 1960, when my father, King Norodom Suramarit, died at

the age of sixty-five, six months after the lacquer-bomb attack in the Royal Palace.

Should the Crown Council choose from one of the 180-odd princes who were male descendants

of King Ang Duong's two sons, and thus qualified as successors? (Although at the

first National Congress we had taken the initial step towards equality of the sexes

by giving the vote to women, there was no such equality in regard to the succession.

Had there been, my mother would almost certainly have been chosen Queen.)

At the first meeting of the Crown Council, I pointed out that one of the great merits

of the monarchy was that the throne was the highest symbol of national unity, but

that there was now "a group doing everything it can to weaken, and evidently

destroy, the Royal family and establish on the ruins a republic with Son Ngoc Thanh

as president."

As a forecast of what was to happen almost exactly ten years later, I was not far

off, except that in 1970-71, Son Ngoc Thanh was kept waiting in the presidential

ante-chamber far longer than he had expected. There were strong pressures for me

to take the crown again, but my decision was irrevocable.

Many thought the choice should be from one of my sons, but I was against that, too.

I told the Crown Council:

"Nothing in the world will persuade me to permit one of my sons to ascend the

throne. From my own experience, I know only too well the terrible servitude and crushing

responsibilities of a ruling monarch. On top of this, he has to endure intrigues,

greed, and jealousies. I was spared none of these during my own reign, so I think

you will appreciate why I want to save my children from the same fate."

The last thing I wanted was to see the country torn from top to bottom by a sordid

scramble for power within the Royal Palace, with overtones of civil war. I knew in

my own mind that in taking this stand I was, in effect, abolishing the monarchy in

everything but the form. I had faced up to this with my own abdication. But the monarchy

continued to be the greatest single unifying influence in the country, and a too

sudden break would only benefit our enemies. I later said that the day the monarchy

ceases to be "a harmonious and effective framework for national unity and progress,

I would not hesitate to take the initiative myself in doing away with it, and guiding

the nation along other roads, helping it to accomplish in peace, and without blood

the revolution of its choice."6

The time had not yet come for this. For the people, the monarchy and Buddhism equaled

the nation. Thus, while fighting to retain the monarchy, I opposed choosing a new


In the end it was decided, as a temporary solution, to set up a Regency Council presided

over by my uncle, Prince Sisowath Monireth. He pledged his oath to the National Assembly

on April 4,1960. This did not end the crisis. There were floods of requests for me

to propose a more permanent solution and renewed demands for me to reclaim the throne.

The solution was found in a proposal to amend the constitution so as to empower the

Crown Council "in accordance with the expressed will of the people, to confide

the powers and prerogatives of Head of State to an incontestable personality expressly

designated by popular suffrage."

On June 5,1960, there was a nation-wide plebiscite, and the proposal was approved

by over two million votes against a few hundred. The amendment - Article 122, providing

that once elected, the Head of State acquires "the powers and prerogatives of

a sovereign" - was approved without dissent by the National Assembly on June

9 and, five days later, on June 14, 1960, I was unanimously elected to the newly-created

post. The Queen Mother remained as the symbol of the monarchy while I exercised the

"powers and prerogatives" of a sovereign Head of State. The dynastic crisis

was thus ended - as was the power of the monarchy.

In relation to what happened after March 1970, it is worth noting that Article 53

of the amended constitution states that "the person of the Head of State is

sacred and inviolable", which means, among other things, that the National Assembly

cannot depose him. The same article stipulates that all deputies must swear loyalty

to the Head of State at the beginning of each legislature, and before assuming their

functions. All those deputies who voted to depose me in March 1970 had sworn this

oath. The provision that the Head of State was sacred and inviolable was transgressed

not only by the act of my deposition in the coup of March 18 but even more crudely

in later condemning me to death for high treason.

Such flagrant illegalities did not prevent Washington from hastening to recognize

the new régime and endorsing the 'legality' and 'constitutionality' of the

methods by which it had seized power. Article 95 of the amended constitution provides

for a referendum in case of important constitutional crises. It is difficult to imagine

a more important one than that of deposing a Head of State, and switching from a

monarchic to a republican régime. Obviously, Lon Nol and his team never dared

to consult the people.

Article 115 of the Constitution specifies that "dispositions relating to the

monarchic form of state cannot be the object of any proposal for revision."

Article 92 provides for biannual sessions of the National Congress. As mentioned

earlier, any question which the National Assembly and the National Congress could

not solve between them should become the subject of a referendum. There have not

even been any sessions of the National Congress since the coup.

All the democratic processes and safeguards that I so carefully built into our political

institutions have been trampled underfoot to the accompaniment of approving cries

from the "free world" which applauded when I was overthrown in the name

of "democracy".

An ironic footnote is that, having plunged republicanism into discredit in record

time, the plotters were advised by the Americans, in 1972, to restore the monarchy.

The reasoning was that the 'republic' had become synonymous with corruption, an unprecedented

assault on democratic rights, and above all for military and political catastrophes.

Thus the new "king-makers" of the world's strongest democracy started looking

for a royal candidate for Cambodia. First choice was Prince Sisowath Monireth, but

it seemed my uncle had no stomach for the job. He was probably wise enough to know

there was little future in it. The "king-makers" then looked towards Monireth's

eldest son, Prince Sisowath Retnara. The French had created the precedent, they argued,

in choosing Sihanouk rather than his father Suramarit, so why not choose Retnara

instead of his father Monireth?

As the disagreeable - for them - prospect of having the Khmers Rouge in Phnom Penh,

in the shape of Khieu Samphan, Hou Youn, Hu Nim and their comrades, the Americans

frantically sought a nice, constitutional monarchy - without Sihanouk of course.

But Lon Nol was not likely to give up easily, and waiting in the shadows for his

turn was that inveterate would-be usurper of power, Son Ngoc Thanh.


1 "Thanhistes" were the followers of the former Cambodian Prime Minister,

during the Japanese occupation, Mr. Son Ngoc Thanh, whom later became again PM of

the "Khmer Republic" of Lon Nol.

2 ICC (International Commission for Supervision and Control) established in 1954,

after the Geneva Conference on Indochina, to supervise the execution by the parties

of the provisions of the Geneva Agreement. It was composed by Poland, India and Canada.

Ceased to operate in 1970.

3 SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization), established in 1954 under Western

auspices following the French withdrawal from Indochina and to oppose further Communist

gains in the region. Its principal role was to sanction the US presence in Vietnam.

Disbanded in 1977.

4 Pracheachon Party (People's Party) the name given to the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

5 HOU YOUN; later to become one of the three key ministers leading the resistance

struggle inside Cambodia until late 1975 when he was executed under horrendous circumstances.

6 See "Realites Cambo-dgiennes, Phnom Penh, 3 August 1962.

These two chapters from Samdech Sihanouk's memoirs were translated into English by

H.E. Julio Jeldres, Samdech Sihanouk's official biographer.


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