Sunday, August 9, 2015

Cambodia in World War II

The Second World War came to Cambodia at the end of the reign of King Sisowath Monivong when the country was under the colonial rule of France as part of French Indochina. King Sisowath Monivong had given the French little cause for complaint, he had even been quite helpful to the French cause in the First World War and held rank in the French army. With the outbreak of war in Europe, there seemed to be no immediate cause for alarm in Cambodia, however as France was defeated and largely occupied by Nazi Germany, the worsening situation for France meant that Indochina was a tempting target for neighboring enemies. In 1940 the Kingdom of Thailand, under the dictator Plaek Pibulsonggram (Phibun), decided to take advantage of French misfortune and attack Indochina in order to gain certain border territories that Thailand had long thought should belong to them. The French colonial forces were outmatched in every way and quickly driven from Laos though they put up more determined resistance in Cambodia. In 1941 the Empire of Japan intervened, using their alliance with Nazi Germany to exert pressure on the Vichy regime in unoccupied France. The French, Japanese and Thais met in Saigon and arranged a peace that was favorable to Thailand, giving the Thais control of the territories they wanted, most of which were in Cambodia.

King Monivong
That same year, in August, the Japanese occupied Cambodia with about 8,000 troops. The Vichy regime had, under pressure from Germany, allowed Japan to occupy Indochina and establish bases there. The immediate reason for this was to cut off supplies going to the nationalist forces in China that Japan had been in an undeclared war with for many years. Before the year was out, however, they would be used to launch attacks on all neighboring countries. At the outset, and for most of the war, the Japanese allowed the French colonial regime to remain in place. King Monivong, however, was increasingly distressed by the course of events unfolding around him. In the French colonial empire, things had been stable for the monarchy and Cambodia had progressed in technical areas while suffering relatively little unrest. The increasingly dominant position of the Japanese worried the King as their intervention had cost his country a great deal of territory. Their support helped ensure that Thailand would not oppose the Japanese invasion of their own country and the use of Thailand in attacking Malaysia, however, for the King of Cambodia it had certainly not been beneficial and could result in the loss of his throne if the Japanese were to go further in supporting historic Thai claims over Laos and Cambodia.

Reports came to the King from the border provinces of Cambodians being oppressed and mistreated by the Thais and Japanese but King Monivong was powerless to do anything about it. The French were still in control but the Japanese were effectively in control of them and the French were not about to do anything to anger Japan and risk being treated like every other European population in the Japanese-occupied territories. Full of sorrow and frustration for the state of his country, King Monivong washed his hands of his mostly ceremonial position in government and retired to Kampot. Not long after, he died on April 24, 1941 in Bokor. He was supposed to be succeeded by his son Prince Sisowath Monireth but the French thought that Prince Norodom Sihanouk would be more loyal to their interests and enthroned him instead as the new King of Cambodia on May 3, 1941. For the next few years, Cambodia was relatively calm though, like the rest of Indochina, it had to bear a double burden with the French and Japanese to support. The young King Norodom Sihanouk spent most of his time on sporting activities with the occasional tour of the countryside, waiting for events to unfold.

King Sihanouk
Unlike neighboring Vietnam, which saw a potential for gain in these years of Japanese triumph, Laos and Cambodia saw only that what they had lost due to the Japanese-Thai alliance. While a Japanese victory could mean the reunification of Vietnam, it would make permanent the territorial losses to Thailand by Laos and Cambodia. The way the French and Japanese cooperated with each other also made them reluctant to believe the Japanese racial rhetoric of “Asia for the Asians” and more susceptible to the views put out by the small but growing communist movement that both the French and the Japanese were their enemies. Yet, the relationship between the French and Japanese was never cordial and the superior status taken by the Japanese encouraged dissent toward the French. During the occupation, a Buddhist monk named Hem Chieu began preaching nationalist, anti-French sermons to troops of the French colonial army in Cambodia. The French suspected the monk of being supported by the Japanese and they had him arrested. This, in turn, sparked a large anti-French demonstration in Phnom Penh led by Pach Chhoeun who was arrested and exiled.

Also among the prominent demonstrators was Son Ngoc Thanh who would have a long history as a republican rebel in Cambodia. He was an admirer of Japan and the pan-Asian movement with a long history of supporting what he termed “National Socialism”. When the demonstration was broken up, he fled to Japan but would be back in due time as a long-standing enemy of King Sihanouk. Of course, after the initial offensive in late 1941 and early 1942, things went from bad to worse for the Empire of Japan. The year 1942 saw the Imperial Japanese Navy suffer a crippling defeat at the Battle of Midway followed by the horrific defeat at the Battle of Guadalcanal. Allied counter-offensives throughout 1943 were fiercely resisted but everywhere victorious and 1944 saw the Japanese invasion of India end in total failure and the near collapse of Japanese forces in the region. The British-led offensive into Burma made steady progress so that the fall of Thailand and Indochina seemed to be inevitable. By 1945 the Allies had taken or were in the process of taking Borneo, The Philippines and were approaching the Japanese home islands. The situation was desperate and Japan tried to make a last-minute effort to gain more local support by sponsoring declarations of independence for the occupied countries of French Indochina.

Kingdom of Kampuchea flag
By this time, the Vichy regime in France had collapsed and the Governor-General of Indochina, Admiral Jean Decoux, had transferred his allegiance to the provisional government of the French Republic. Starting in March of 1945 the Imperial Japanese Army began moving troops into position near French garrison towns and barracks. On March 9, they struck, surrounding the French troops and ordering them to lay down their weapons or be killed. Most surrendered, those that did not (as well as some who did) were massacred. Most of the French commanders were massacred with two top colonial generals in Saigon being beheaded when they refused to sign the surrender. A little under 6,000 French colonial troops managed to make their way to China to join the nationalists and these were the only ones to escape. All other French survivors, military and civilian, were put in concentration camps while the local leaders in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were “informed” that the time had come to declare independence.

King Sihanouk decided to cooperate and seize this opportunity to assert Khmer independence, even though the Japanese did not entirely trust him as he was thought to be too friendly with the French. Perhaps in an effort to keep the King in check, the Japanese brought Son Ngoc Thanh back from Japan and installed him as Minister of Foreign Affairs and then a couple of months later as Prime Minister. The Latin-style written version of the Khmer language was abolished in favor of the old script and the country was renamed from the Kingdom of Cambodia to the Kingdom of Kampuchea. However, the regime did not have long to live as the war situation was rapidly worsening for Japan. In August of 1945 the Empire of Japan surrendered to the Allies and the collapse of the Kingdom of Kampuchea was only a matter of time. That time officially ran out in October as Allied forces (mostly British-Indian troops) moved in to disarm the Japanese and take their surrender. With the Allied victory the French in Indochina were liberated and returned to power (at least in those areas where the British rather than the Chinese oversaw the Japanese surrender). The French Far East Expeditionary Corps, formed to fight the Japanese, arrived too late to fight Japan but served to restore French authority in the region.

Son Ngoc Thanh
Some Cambodians who wanted to carry on the fight for independence fled to the northwest provinces that had been ceded to Thailand to carry on a guerilla war against the French with Thai support. However, they splintered due to internal disagreements and ultimately proved to be of little consequence. The territories that had been ceded to Thailand from Cambodia and Laos because of the Franco-Thai War were ultimately returned after France threatened to block the entry of Thailand into the United Nations unless the provinces were given back. Son Ngoc Thanh was arrested by the French for collaborating with the Japanese and exiled to France under house arrest. However, he later returned after his nemesis, King Sihanouk, was deposed in an anti-communist military coup that established a republican government in Cambodia, becoming Prime Minister for a short time starting in 1972. Following the American withdrawal from South Vietnam and the communist takeover in 1975 he was executed by the Khmer Rouge.

King Norodom Sihanouk mastered the events of World War II quite adeptly. He had gone along with the Japanese declaration of independence but never burned his bridges with the French. However, he used his position at the end of the war, when the Japanese were returning home, to extract considerable concessions from the French to make the return of the colonial regime go more smoothly. The result was that the French agreed to autonomy for Cambodia within the French Union. While Vietnam descended into division and civil war, life in Cambodia remained relatively stable and a period of bountiful rice harvests after the war led to a time of prosperity that was attributed to the semi-divine status of King Sihanouk who became more popular than ever, particularly after the granting of total independence from France for the Kingdom of Cambodia after the end of the French Indochina War. Despite being, briefly but officially, on the losing side in World War II, King Sihanouk had emerged from the conflict as a clear winner.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. The faces of these Cambodian monarchs appear very dignified, virtuous in fact!


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