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Geoff Gunn: The Passing of Sihanouk – Monarchic Manipulation and the Search for Autonomy in the Kingdom of Cambodia


The survival of the monarchy in Cambodia is little short of remarkable in the light of that country’s modern history. As this article develops, French manipulation of the monarchy and attempts to buttress religion and culture alongside the rise of nationalist youth and Buddhist radicalism was an important precursor to postwar events. No less momentous for modern Cambodian history was the Vichy French installation of Norodom Sihanouk as king and the elevation under Japan of the putative republican Son Ngoc Thanh. Facing down an armed Issarak-Viet Minh challenge also joined by a dissident prince, it is no less significant that the young King Sihanouk successfully trumped French ambitions by mounting his own “royal crusade” for independence even ahead of the Geneva Settlement of 1954.

Undoubtedly the passing of Norodom Sihanouk on October 15, 2012 at the age of 89 after six decades of close involvement in Cambodian politics has served to refocus attention upon the status of the monarchy in that country, facts not diminished by the actual succession in October 2004 to his son Norodom Sihamoni (b. 1953).

Though much exoticized and othered as a peaceful realm under the French protectorate, at least alongside the challenges imposed by Vietnamese nationalists, dissent always simmered beneath the surface calm in Cambodia, whether from the overburdened-over taxed peasantry, from the major immigrant communities, from religious radicals within and without the Buddhist hierarchies, or even from scheming royal princes. Given French manipulations of religion, tradition and even the royal line, a complex political picture emerges, even prior to the Japanese occupation. Japan was even more successful in Cambodia than in the other Indochina states in installing an anti-French republican demagogue, an enigmatic figure whose name recurs in Cambodian history down until the US-backed military coup in Phnom Penh of March 1970. Thanks to Anglo-French intervention, and Sihanouk’s personality, the post-war outcome in Cambodia was a “royal road to independence” although even that pathway was severely challenged by the Viet Minh and their sometime Issarak (Free Khmer) allies. Yet the royal ascendancy around the Vichy French-anointed monarch, Sihanouk, would also come back to haunt Cambodia, not only in striking a neutral course in the maelstrom of the American war, but also in lending his name to the China-backed anti-Vietnamese communist movement that triumphed in Phnom Penh in 1975.

As this article develops, below the politics of culture or the tendency of the French to buttress neo-traditionalist trends wherever they saw them, emerges a byzantine crossover of royal dynasties, powerful families and cliques that, in many ways, continued to define Cambodian politics through the modern period. It is also true, as Roger Kershaw (2000; 6; 17; 19-20) unveils in a comparative study on the “fortunes” of monarchy in Southeast Asia, that analysis of surviving monarchies (as with Thailand and Brunei alongside Cambodia), should at least account for the “synthetic” alongside the “authentic traditional values” (not excepting even Britain from this analysis). And so, with decolonization in Southeast Asia, legitimacy questions were raised to a new level as with the charisma of founding fathers of independence, alongside the role of modern bureaucracies, militaries and political parties. Cambodia under Sihanouk was not an exception.

As historian of Cambodia David Chandler (2008: 167) has written, there are several ways at looking at the years of French hegemony over Cambodia. One way is to phase this history as the extension and decline of French control. Another way is to examine the period and its ideology and practice from a French point of view. A third would be to treat the period as a part of Cambodian history, connected to the times before and after French protection. He finds the third approach seductive (insofar as it can be told through Cambodian eyes). Such would be meritorious, if possible, but without retreating entirely into a cultural studies-critical literature approach (Tully 2002; Edwards 2007), we should not ignore the established literature if we are to position Cambodia within an international political understanding.

Divided into five sections, a first section looks at French manipulation of the monarchy. A second turns to the French attempt to buttress religion and culture, alongside the rise of nationalist youth and Buddhist radicalism. A third section examines the vicissitudes of Cambodia under Vichy, including the installation of Norodom Sihanouk as king, climaxing with the rise of the Japanese-backed republican Son Ngoc Thanh. A final section examines the broad international context in which Sihanouk’s mounted his “royal crusade for independence.”

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Geoff Gunn is the author of Historical Dictionary of East Timor, Singapore and the Asian Revolutions, and First Globalization: The Eurasion Exchange, 1500-1800. He is an Asia-Pacific Journal Coordinator.

Recommended citation: Geoff Gunn, “The Passing of Sihanouk: Monarchic Manipulation and the Search for Autonomy in the Kingdom of Cambodia,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10 Issue 50, No. 1, December 10, 2012.

Conférences IAO-LARHRA : Les sociétés coloniales en Asie 1850-1950

[ndlr] Entre le 28 novembre 2012 et le 20 février 2013, l’IAO (Institut d’Asie Orientale) et le LARHRA (Laboratoire de Recherche Historique Rhône-Alpes) co-organisent un cycle de quatre conférences dans le cadre de l’agrégation sur les Sociétés coloniales. Avec la participation de Alain Delissen (EHESS), Vanessa Caru (CEIAS), Rémy Madinier (CASE) et Pierre Souyri (Inalco), voir affiche ci-dessous.