Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Red-handed: Pinning the blame for Dap Chhuon on the CIA



Red-handed: Pinning the blame for Dap Chhuon on the CIA

President Dwight D Eisenhower authorised covert action in Southeast Asia to fight against the alleged scourge of communism. Photo supplied
President Dwight D Eisenhower authorised covert action in Southeast Asia to fight against the alleged scourge of communism. Photo supplied

Red-handed: Pinning the blame for Dap Chhuon on the CIA

On February 21, 1959, Dap Chhuon, the anti-communist warlord who ruled over Siem Reap province, was doing calisthenics in his home when soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Army showed up. Sensing danger, Chhuon, a thin, superstitious strongman who had convinced some that he was impervious to bullets and fire, fled into the jungle, wearing only a sarong.

Then-prime minister Norodom Sihanouk, who ordered the operation, would later deem Chhuon, once a decorated colonel, a traitor with mutinous intent. In the preceding weeks, Chhuon, a former anti-French Issarak rebel, had amassed weapons and an estimated army of 3,000 men. The strongman also had the support of 1,200 Khmer Serei fighters on the Thai side of the border, archived US State Department records note.

A CIA National Security Council briefing drafted in the month following the coup summed up his doomed plan.

“Chhuon hoped that Sihanouk, realising that the Cambodian people were disaffected and lacking support from his own armed forces, would come to terms and agree to the installation of a pro-Western regime. If Sihanouk was not reasonable, Chhuon planned a guerrilla war,” it read. 

The affair reeked of foreign subterfuge. At Chhuon’s villa following the assault, soldiers discovered gold, radio equipment and two Vietnamese technicians.

The Royal Army also arrested Chhuon’s brother, Slat Peau, who later testified that the gold came from a South Vietnamese agent. The radio equipment, he said, was provided by a Japanese-American with the US State Department named Victor Matsui. The attache was quickly transferred out of the country. (In 1966, Matsui would be expelled from Pakistan, also for activity unfitting of a diplomat. He died in 2012.)

Washington has never admitted involvement in the botched coup, nor satisfactorily explained Matsui’s connection to the warlord. As with similar Cold War allegations, their official stance has always been one of denial.

As Washington’s line goes, the radio was provided by Matsui only to keep tabs on Chhuon’s scheming. But if that is so, probe sceptics, why then did the US not warn Sihanouk, as the French, Chinese and Soviet intelligence agencies did, of the plot to topple him?

Now, a US historian using, in part, previously classified documents, claims to have produced the most compelling case to date that the US colluded in the 1959 conspiracy. 

The US saw an ally in Dap Chhuon, who was staunchly anti-communist. Photo supplied
The US saw an ally in Dap Chhuon, who was staunchly anti-communist. Photo supplied

“I would say that no other author has put together as strong a case for US government complicity in the Dap Chhuon plot,” said William J Rust, author of Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War, out this month through the University Press of Kentucky.

Rust, who has written three other books on US policy in Southeast Asia, committed 100 pages of his new work to Cold War “plots against Sihanouk”. He compiled archival documents: diplomatic cables, internal CIA briefs, policy papers, personal letters, memorandums, interviews – evidence that he says “has been hiding in plain sight”.

In a 1990 oral history interview with William Trimble, the US ambassador to Cambodia following the botched coup (the former ambassador Carl Strom left less than a month after the fiasco), Trimble tells the interviewer: “The CIA station chief in Phnom Penh had been instructed to establish contact with Dap Chhuon . . . and to provide him through a South Vietnam intermediary with a sum in gold . . . The Dap Chhuon operation was stupid, very stupid,” he said. 

Trimble’s recollection, Rust noted, is consistent with that of assistant secretary of state for far eastern affairs Roger Hilsman in a 1963 recorded telephone conversation with president John F Kennedy.

“Was that a true story about the ’59 or something?” asked Kennedy. “Yes, it really is true,” replied Hilsman. “CIA did do it?” the president reiterated. “Sure, they supplied money and they were involved in a plot against Sihanouk back before this administration.” 

James Lilley, a CIA officer in Cambodia who arrived soon after the coup, spoke directly about US complicity in a 1998 oral history interview, noted Rust. 

“This was set up by a Japanese-American guy attached to our station there. This was the so-called ‘Dap Chhuon’ plot centred in Siem Reap. The Cambodian authorities exposed the operation. In this operation, we were working with the South Vietnamese,” Lilley said. 

As far back as 1956, said Rust, “the US government was contemplating getting rid of Sihanouk”. In an August letter from Robert McClintock, then-US ambassador to Cambodia to Daniel Anderson, counselor of the US embassy in Saigon, McClintock wrote that he had given Colonel Edward Lansdale, an intelligence operative, “our tentative appraisal of Dap Chhuon as a possible leader in the event Sihanouk has to be got rid of”. 

US ambassador William Trimble (left) with Sihanouk and JFK. Photo supplied
US ambassador William Trimble (left) with Sihanouk and JFK. Photo supplied

Collectively, these notes and others point to US complicity in the half-century-old coup attempt, said Rust. “In my line of work, there’s a very big difference between what can be assumed and what can be proven,” he said. “Strong claims require strong evidence, and here it is in black and white.”

Elizabeth Becker, author of When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, said that while “Rust may not have altered the general historical narrative, he certainly removes any lingering doubts that too often the United States considered Sihanouk fair game in its pursuit of victory in Vietnam”.

According to Kenton Clymer, a Cambodia historian at the University of Northern Illinois, “[Rust] has done the most thorough research on the topic to date”.

Julio Jeldres, a scholar at Monash University and Sihanouk’s good friend and official biographer, said the evidence was conclusive. “For many years, various scholars have written that there was never CIA plotting against Sihanouk and that they doubted that Dap Chhuon had been infiltrated by the CIA, but this book tells the story as it was.”

In The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War and Revolution Since 1945, historian David Chandler wrote that after the Dap Chhuon affair “Sihanouk became permanently distrustful of American intentions”. However, he said this week that relations were not seriously damaged.

“The relations calmed down in 1960 until they nose-dived in November 1963,” he wrote in an email. “Ambassador Trimble got along with Sihanouk, but Ambassador Sprouse did not.”

Current US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman had this to say about Rust’s findings: “We’re pleased to hear that more information about that era has been made available for use by scholars and researchers, but we don’t have any comment on specific allegations in the book.”

While the US may have gotten away from the affair relatively cleanly, the same cannot be said for Chhuon. A few days after the army assault on his villa, he was found in the jungle and shot in the foot then carried to a main road and executed.

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh unveils rules for post-lockdown transition

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration issued a set of detailed guidelines for the seven days to May 12 after the capital emerges from lockdown at the onset of May 6. In the 14-page document signed by municipal governor Khuong Sreng released on the evening of May 5, the

  • SBI LY HOUR Bank Launches Cross Border Money Transfer Service between Cambodia and Vietnam on RippleNet, utilizing DLT

    SBI LY HOUR Bank Plc and Hanoi-based Tien Phong Commercial Joint Stock Bank (TPBank) on Friday launched the first Cambodia-Vietnam money transfer service in real currency via RippleNet, provided by SBI Ripple Asia Co Ltd to provide safe, fast and convenient services. SBI LY HOUR

  • Gov’t issues guidelines as lockdown nears end

    The government has issued a five-page set of instructions to be enforced when the three-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Takmao town in Kandal province ends on May 6. According to an announcement signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 4, the instructions cover a

  • Cambodia ready to exit LDC status

    Cambodia is well-prepared to minimise economic risks when it graduates from its Least Developed Countries status, according to a senior official at the Ministry of Commerce on May 7. Four LDCs – Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Nepal – met at a virtual workshop last week to explore potential

  • Nine US franchises eye Cambodia debut

    Nine famous US franchising companies are looking for business opportunities and expansion into Cambodia to build a footstep for a strong foundation in Southeast Asia. The US embassy in Phnom Penh, in partnership with the US Foreign Commercial Service and with support from the American

  • Lost in translation: ‘Starvation’ in capital’s designated red zones

    “DACH bay” is a Khmer slang meaning a “loss of income”, that could also be literally translated to «deprived of rice”, which alludes to starvation. However, civil society organisation (CSO) officials have independently confirmed the government’s prior assertions that there are no cases of