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Young Sihanouk's struggle for independence

Young Sihanouk's struggle for independence


While Cambodia's independence from France was achieved on 9 November 1953, it is

not well understood that His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk's efforts to obtain independence

for his country began as early as 1946.

Signing the agreement transferring judicial, police and security responsibilities to Cambodia on 29 August 1953: Cambodian Prime Minister Penn Nouth and French High Commissioner Risterucci.

In March-April 1945, the French Protectorate established over Cambodia was terminated

by the invading Japanese Army with most of the French officers arrested or interned.

On 9 March 1945, King Sihanouk declared unilaterally the independence of Cambodia.

However, in 1946, following the Allied victory in the Second World War, the French

came back to Cambodia and informed the King that France did not approve of his unilateral

declaration of independence and that, consequently, the Protectorate Treaty of 1863

and the Convention of 1884 remained valid.

King Sihanouk replied to France that he and his people felt that the French Protectorate

was finished following the events of March-April 1945, and that he would, therefore,

continue to state publicly that Cambodia did not recognize the validity of the Treaty

of 1863 and of the Convention of 1884, which had been revoked after Japan put an

end to the French Protectorate.

On 7 January 1947, the King's uncle, HRH Samdech Krom Preah Sisowath Monireth, President

of the Council of Ministers, signed with General Alessandri, French High Commissioner,

a provisional "Modus Vivendi" establishing the transitional statute of

Cambodia as envisaged in the letter of 13 November 1945 of Admiral d'Argenlieu, High

Commissioner of France for Indo-China.

The document had been drafted in the framework of the texts of 1863 and 1884 and

reconfirmed the institutions already in place since 1897. In brief, the Cambodian

administration was endowed with a parallel French administration, which jointly took

care of the administration of the country.

At the end of April 1946, King Sihanouk travelled to France, arriving at the port

of Toulon, where he was received by the French Secretary of State for Information,

Gaston Deferre, and taken by special train to Paris.

During his stay in France, he was officially welcomed, the same morning of his arrival

in Paris, by President Felix Gouin, accompanied by the most senior members of his

government. This was followed by the usual series of meetings, receptions, dinners

and official ceremonies that took place at the Quai d'Orsay (French Foreign Ministry),

l'Hotel de Ville (City Hall), at the Ritz Hotel and the Arc, on the occasion of the

commemoration of Jeanne d'Arc. During those festivities, King Sihanouk was able to

meet and discuss developments in Cambodia and in Indo-China with senior ministers,

officials and parliamentarians of the French Republic.

While Cambodia's position vis-à-vis Indochina, the French Union and France

in general was already known to the French authorities through the King's exchange

of letters with the High Commissioner of France in Indo-China, the King did not hesitate

to confirm that position during his meeting with the French Minister for Overseas

Territories, Marius Moutet.

It should be pointed out that the King's unilateral declaration of Cambodian independence,

made after the Japanese push, was imperative both juridically and pragmatically.

Legally speaking, it defined the juridical situation, according to international

law, of Cambodia vis-à-vis the Japanese military and civilian authorities.

Without this (unilateral) declaration, the Japanese would have forthwith taken over

the place of the French authorities that they had arrested and interned. A new Japanese

administration could have been installed in place of the French Protectorate overnight.

Pragmatically, the King's declaration granted the power to the Khmer government and

administration to govern and administer the country in the fullness of their prerogatives,

of which a substantial part had been delegated to the French Protectorate's administration.

Also, it should be pointed out that while the Japanese installed themselves in Hanoi

and Saigon and took over most, if not all, of the general services of Indo-China-for

instance they took control of the Bank of Indo-China and printed millions of five

hundred piastre notes for their military needs-in Cambodia, their presence was kept

to a minimum and apart from their military occupation they only established a liaison

body known as the "Senior Counsellor" composed of four diplomats and a

Consul in Phnom Penh.

In brief, the internal sovereignty of the country was almost intact, notwithstanding

the military demands of requisition of the occupying forces.

At the end of the King's visit to France, he called on General Charles de Gaulle

at Colombey-les-deux-Eglises. This visit was the origin of a long-standing personal

friendship which linked King Sihanouk to the General until the latter's death in


The King's visit to France did not produce the expected outcome and was followed

by other meetings in Dalat (southern Vietnam) in August 1946 and in Paris to discuss

technical rather than political issues.

In November 1946, agreements were signed by which Thailand returned to Cambodia the

provinces it had taken in 1941: Battambang, Siemreap, Kampong Thom and Stung Treng.

On 7 May 1947, the King signed a decree proclaiming the first Cambodian constitution,

which had been drafted after arduous work by the Constituent Assembly of the Kingdom.

Following the arrival of the new French High Commissioner for Indo-China, Emile Bollaert,

in November 1947, King Sihanouk again raised the issue of Cambodia's independence

while pointing out that as an independent nation Cambodia would remain a member of

the French Union.

A year later, President Auriol advised King Sihanouk that "France recognized

the independence of Cambodia and this independence has no other limitations than

those that are imposed by its membership of the French Union". This was the

formula that had been used earlier with Vietnam and led to the signing of the Franco-Vietnamese

Treaty of 8 May 1949.

Here it should be said that the Franco-Khmer problem was purely a political, diplomatic

problem, as Cambodia did not face the issue of "reunification" to be settled

like in Vietnam and there were no hostilities between French and Cambodian forces.

However, there were the problems of insecurity which were increasing because of the

Vietminh, coming from southern Vietnam and those caused by the Issaraks (or Free

Khmers), from bases inside Thailand.

Cambodia wanted to settle her problems with France independently of the Franco-Vietnamese

problems. However, the French authorities wanted to settle the issue by linking it

to the question of an Indo-China Federation.

That is why Cambodia was obliged to wait until the settlement of the Franco-Vietnamese

issue, allowing the French authorities to pay attention to Cambodia and Laos but

based on their settlement of the issue with Vietnam.

In early 1949, a joint Franco-Khmer commission began meeting but it was clear that

the French authorities wanted to gain time while waiting for the outcome of their

own negotiations with the Vietnamese. And Cambodia's request to obtain a status similar

to that of India in the British Commonwealth was rejected by the French authorities.

The King again travelled to France, accompanied by his parents, but his discussions

in the French capital did not achieve any success. The discussions that followed

led to the signature of the French-Khmer Treaty of 8 November 1949 which abrogated

the Treaty of 11 August 1863 and the Convention of 17 June 1884 as well as putting

an end to the "Modus Vivendi" of 7 January 1946.

This Treaty, however, restricted in many ways the exercise of Cambodia's internal

and external sovereignty, but by abrogating the Treaty of 1863 and the Convention

of 1884 it constituted a first step towards full independence.

On 15 June 1952, King Sihanouk, having dissolved the government and assumed the functions

of Prime Minister, made a promise to the Cambodian people that he would obtain full

independence in a period of three years at most.

On 9 February 1953, he again went to France to plead his country's case. He established

his headquarters at La Napoule (in southern France) from where he addressed on 5

March 1953 a letter to the French President reiterating his request for full independence

for Cambodia. On 25 March 1953, President Auriol received the King at the Elysee

Palace, but the outcome of the discussions was not positive for Cambodia.

The King decided then that it was necessary for him to undertake a public relations

campaign at the international level to inform the world of Cambodia's aspirations

for independence and the constant refusal of the French authorities to grant that

independence to his country.

Before leaving France, the King had a dramatic meeting with the French Minister in

charge of "Associated States", Mr Letourneau, which had no positive outcome.

On the contrary, the minister told the King that his request for independence for

his country "was inopportune".

Before leaving France, the King informed the minister's cabinet of his departure

for Canada and the USA, prompting the latter to summon the King's uncle, Prince Monipong,

then High Commissioner of Cambodia to France, to ask what was the purpose of the

King's visit to those countries.

When Prince Monipong answered that he did not know, the French minister asked Prince

Monipong to convey the minister's good wishes for His Majesty's trip and his counsel

of "prudence" during the King's discussions in Canada and the USA "as

his crown was at risk".

In Washington DC, King Sihanouk had a long meeting with John Foster Dulles, US Secretary

of State, who did not conceal from the King the feelings of the American government,

which were contradictory.

On the one side, the US believed that France should have granted promptly independence

to her former "protected" states and, on the other, the US did not share

the King's conviction that the peoples of Indo-China once given complete freedom

from France would be capable to confront the Communist forces active in the region.

Dulles assured the King that the US understood and sympathized with Cambodia's legitimate

aspirations and promised the King that once the Communist threat had been completely

annihilated, the US would work to induce France to grant complete independence to

Cambodia. The American Secretary of State felt that were France to withdraw from

Indo-China, the countries of the region would be taken over immediately by the Communists.

Profoundly disappointed by the result of his discussions in Washington DC, King Sihanouk

decided to enlist the help of the American press to present the case of Cambodia's

independence to the American people and to the world.

He moved his headquarters to New York, where he gave a long interview to Michael

James of the New York Times, who, on 19 April 1953, wrote a lengthy article which

caused quite a stir:

"Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, one of the three associated States of Indo-China,

warned in an interview yesterday, that unless the French give his people more independence

in the next few months, there is a real danger that the people of Cambodia would

raise against the current regime and form part of the Vietminh movement lead by the


Publication of this article prompted the French authorities to call the King's representatives

in Paris-HE Penn Nouth and HE Sam Sary-to a meeting scheduled for 23 April 1953.

These negotiations led to the signing on 9 May 1953 of several proposals to be submitted

to both the French and Khmer governments concerning the modifications to be made

to the status of Cambodia.

However, upon examining these proposals, King Sihanouk realised that they constituted

nothing but hybrid solutions to Cambodia's problems and if they were accepted they

would tend to deteriorate relations between the two countries rather than improve


Convinced that through ordinary means Cambodia would never get France to grant major

concessions, something which HE Penn Nouth personally confirmed to the King, he decided

to exile himself to Thailand.

From Siem Reap City, on 12 June 1953, King Sihanouk made a statement in which he

stated, among other things, that he "was sad at having to break provisionally

his relations with France, a country which he sincerely loved, but that he wanted

to avoid war and also a massive revolt against France, to which many of my compatriots

were very much inclined".

From Bangkok, the King addressed messages to many countries informing them that his

presence in Thailand did not mean that Cambodia was breaking its discussions with

France but to avoid a general revolt against France which would cause the shedding

of both Khmer and French blood.

As the Thai government restricted the King's activities in Bangkok, he decided to

return to Cambodia where, on 28 June 1953, he called on his people to mobilize. Four

hundred thousand Cambodians of both sexes responded to his appeal and joined the

King in Battambang to be trained for military duties.

This caused the French government to rethink its position and on 3 July 1953, it

declared that it was ready to grant independence to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

After further negotiations Cambodia was finally granted independence on 9 November


* Julio Jeldres is King Norodom Sihanouk's Official Biographer.


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