Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.1 -- March 1998

A Disastrous Balancing Act: The Beginning of Cambodia's Misery

Joshua N. Weiss


"The kingdom's (Cambodia's) survival for so long certainly owes a great deal to Sihanouk, who made a series of choices, disastrous in the long run, perhaps, but rational at the time and geared to the perception of Cambodia's welfare…"

David Chandler

All violent conflicts that fall into the intractable category are a great catastrophe of the human experiment. (1) Cambodia is a conflict that dismantles the heart of those who learn about it. Indeed, the more one learns about this conflict the greater the desire becomes to try to conceptualize how a small country could have been ripped to pieces by so many different actors. In order to try to understand how Cambodia got to its present state, one must start at the beginning . However, where the beginning is happens to be a difficult question to answer.

In trying to unearth the root causes of the Cambodian conundrum, one must go back to the Sihanouk Era, for it was under his guidance that Cambodia began to unravel. The word "unravel" has been specifically chosen because Cambodia did not have one significant event -- such as the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand that sparked World War I -- that caused it to explode into chaos. Rather, Cambodia slowly unraveled much like a tightly wrapped ball of string does when propelled forward down a slope. At the beginning the ball of string starts to come undone slowly, and as more and more momentum is gains, it spins completely out of control. With this slow and initially undetectable downward spiral, the future of Cambodia was set on a disastrous course that has plagued the country ever since.

The purpose of this paper is to seek to explain how the beginning of the Cambodian conflict under Prince Norodom Sihanouk set the stage for some of the worst mass violence the world ever witnessed -- that of the Khmer Rouge (KR) era. What happened between 1953 when Cambodia regained its independence and late 1974 when the KR seized power? What course of action did Sihanouk follow that compelled the KR to start an opposition movement? Was the KR's emergence only a difference of ideology or was there more than meets the eye? What fettered many of the people in Cambodia to follow the KR instead of staying with the person who lead them to independence and who they had revered only a brief while before? In short, what enabled the KR come to power and ultimately carry out their cruelest of experiments? Throughout the course of this paper these and other critical questions will be addressed. However, before delving into these difficult and fascinating questions a time frame must be established because of the length of the conflict.

As is endemic to intractable conflicts, the Cambodia story is so lengthy that it is crucial, for analytical purposes to break it into phases. Thus, the phases are as follows: Phase 1 -- Independence and Sihanouk's rise to power (1953-1965); Phase 2 - Sihanouk's demise (1966 - 1970); Phase 3 -- General Lon Nol's coup d'etat and rule (1970-1974); Phase 4 -- The KR's rise to power and overthrow of Nol (1974-1975); Phase 5 -- The KR's brutal experiment (1975-1978); Phase 6 -- The KR's demise and defeat by Vietnam (1978-1979); Phase 7 -- The rule of the puppet Vietnamese Government (1979-1989); Phase 8 -- The Peace Process Phase and the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia period (1990-1993); Phase 9 -- The coalition government (1993-1997); and Phase 10 -- The splitting of the KR and Hun Sen's coup d'etat (1997-Current).

This paper is primarily concerned with Phase 1 - the modern glory days and Phase 2 -- the conflict's initiation and escalation. The manner in which events transpired during that period set the stage for the turmoil that plagued Cambodia during Phases 3 and 4. This initial unrest has had a lasting effect on the country that continues to this day. Finally, in order to analyze the initiation and subsequent phases of the conflict the SPITCEROW case analysis method will be employed.(2)

Brief History of 1953 to 1969(3)

From 1863 to 1953 France ruled Cambodia as a protectorate. After independence was granted in 1953, Sihanouk assumed command of the government. The first election was held in 1955 with Sihanouk winning easily. Soon thereafter opposition groups, such as the Khmer Issarak, became increasingly ineffective. Cambodians quickly came to revere Sihanouk for two primary reasons - his critical role in achieving independence and the country's strong history of paying homage to its monarchy.

Sihanouk ran the country essentially unopposed until 1963. His decision to abdicate the throne in 1955 to give himself more power was an effective move that solidified his power during this time period. Indeed, Sihanouk swiftly captured the hearts and minds of his people by playing internal and external groups off each other in an impressive fashion. As such, he could do no wrong in the eyes of his citizens who were largely uneducated and thus did not know enough to challenge some of his questionable policies and vengeful actions.(4) Domestically, Sihanouk cracked down on those who challenged him. Internationally, Sihanouk implemented a policy that, in the short run, was effective, but would prove to be dangerous and costly in the long run.

In 1963 Sihanouk's honeymoon appeared to be over as opposition groups began to re-emerge and peasants became educated. A student protest in the Siem Reap province elicited a brutal response from Sihanouk. In addition, his vilification of leftist groups for the riot actually fueled the various opposition groups struggle. Lastly, Sihanouk infuriated many of the elite when he severed ties with the United States in 1963.

Unfortunately, the rest of 1963 to the end of 1965 is somewhat of a mystery. Even in retrospect it remains hard to analyze this important period because primary documents contradict each other. This is due to the fact that Sihanouk edited almost everything that was written and foreign writers were only allowed to write about Sihanouk in a positive light - what Chandler has called the "Sihanouk phenomenon."(5)

Much to Sihanouk's chagrin, the situation changed dramatically in 1966 as the Vietnam War intensified and "legitimate" parliamentary elections were held.(6) General Lon Nol, Sihanouk's military commander, was thrust into the limelight by Sihanouk and made Prime Minister after the conservatives took control of the parliament. In 1967, the first major overt revolt occurred -- the Samlaut rebellion. According to Chandler, "for the next three years (1967-1969) Sihanouk, the urban elite, and the Cambodian left were engaged in mortal combat. Broadly, this period can be seen in terms of the left's ascendancy, the urban elite's increasing relentlessness, and Sihanouk's decline. "(7) In 1970, Sihanouk's reign ended with a coup d'etat orchestrated by his long time confidant General Lon Nol. Four years later the KR ousted General Nol and began one of the most brutal reigns in the history of human civilization.

[S]PITCEROW -- Sources

Historical Influence

Before launching into the sources of the conflict that existed in 1966, it is important to understand how the proud past history of the Cambodian people played into this conflict. This historical element specifically manifested itself in Sihanouk's perception of Cambodia's place in the world and also acted as a prism for his controversial and often schizophrenic foreign policy.(8)

At the height of Cambodia's dominance in the twelfth and thirteenth century the Angkorian Empire was considered one of the great powers that existed in the world. Its domain virtually spanned all of what is now Southeast Asia. The demise of this powerful entity in the Fifteenth century altered the history of the Cambodian Empire. Cambodia's identity as a nation continued to suffer as powers evolved around it - most notably Thailand and Vietnam.(9) Indeed, the fear of Vietnam increased tremendously in the 17th century and still plagues Cambodia to this day. This fear was a critical motivating factor for Sihanouk and guided his often confusing policies.(10) Lets turn now to 1953 and discuss the sources based on this background.

Ego, Policies, Decision Making, and Brutal Responses

"Because he insisted on being the dominant figure of Cambodian politics there is no way that Sihanouk can avoid a major measure of responsibility for much that happened so long as he held power."(11) Milton Osbourne

The sources and origins of the conflict from 1953 to 1970, which opened the way for the KR emergence, can be found in Sihanouk's ego, his wavering and often inconsistent policies, his idiosyncratic decision-making style, his fear of Vietnam, and his brutal responses to opposition groups (including what was to become the KR).(12) Originally, Sihanouk sought to keep the status quo because he was worshiped by Cambodians for finally solidifying independence. This approach was influenced by his perception of Cambodia's historical role and stature in the world. Sihanouk began from the premise that he could restore the once powerful Cambodian Empire that existed before French occupation. Any remarks to the contrary enraged him. One only needs to analyze Sihanouk's responses when Cambodia was referred to as a "small" nation by outside observers to see this rage.(13)

From 1955 to 1965 Cambodia lived in their modern day "golden age."(14) This period served to boost Sihanouk's already large ego and to tacitly condone his extreme and brutal responses to opposition groups.(15) Opposition groups emerged in full force toward the end of 1965 largely because of Sihanouk's inconsistent policies. The sources of the Communist insurrection can be found in Sihanouk's objectives during this period.

His first objective was to solidify himself as the rightful leader and "father" of Cambodia.(16) At times, Sihanouk's obsessions seemed to defy all logic. However, during the early period little mention of this surfaced because it would have been seen as an attack on the beloved "monarch." The failure of the average Cambodian and the media to focus on Sihanouk's polices, in lieu of his personal antics, kept him largely an enigma to his people and to the world.

Two examples of his contradictory policies should suffice. First, despite Sihanouk's visits to various Communist countries for support, in 1958 he ran on a platform of keeping communism out of Cambodia.(17) Second, in 1968, Sihanouk's military was virtually instructed to fight itself. Sihanouk authorized the Cambodian armed forces to supply weapons and other goods to Vietnamese camps along the border, while the army and the population were also instructed to "use arms against any local insurgents, supposedly the lackeys of the North Vietnamese."(18)

Thus, it is evident that Sihanouk was someone to be revered and not questioned. Later, after he began to lose his grip on power, Sihanouk still believed this blind obedience would remain. As Chandler put it "he felt that he could turn his people's violence on and off at will."(19) This attitude contributed to both his and the country's demise.

Sihanouk's second objective was to secure Cambodia's safety as a nation. Simply put, Sihanouk's approach to foreign affairs was survivalist in nature. He would do anything or say anything to anyone in order to survive. With the Communist insurrection in Vietnam and Cambodia's other volatile borders with Thailand and Laos, Sihanouk's fears that Cambodia could get swallowed up were very real. To be fair, Cambodia was situated in the center of an emerging maelstrom and whatever policy Sihanouk had chosen could have been questioned. Much of what occurred was also simply beyond his control. However, by being completely non-committal when he needed to commit (i.e. an overriding policy) and completely stubborn when he needed to be flexible (i.e. when times changed, he did not alter his fledgling policies), Sihanouk did a significant disservice to his country.

In addition, so much attention was being paid to Vietnam because of its overt struggle for independence that Cambodia's importance was only referred to in passing or in relation to Vietnam. As has been mentioned, this perception of Cambodia as a pawn on the world stage pushed Sihanouk's hot buttons.(20) Whenever Sihanouk felt he and his country were being treated as insignificant his decision-making would become infused with anger and passion. This pervasive sentiment helps explain how he reached some of his dubious conclusions surrounding his foreign policy.

Sihanouk's on again - off again relationship with the U.S. epitomizes both of the factors mentioned above. This relationship also highlights his manipulation of virtually everyone for his own benefit. Sihanouk always felt as though the U.S. approach toward him was patronizing. Over the years he showed much animosity and resentment toward the U.S. (much of it for good reason) and contempt for many of the U.S. personalities he had to confront.(21) He tried desperately to form ties with China, the Soviet Union and France so he would have alternatives to the often more demanding U.S. position.(22) However, he continually gravitated back to the U.S. when the threats to his leadership and to Cambodia became too great.(23)

S[P]ITCEROW -- Parties

Trying to understand the parties to this conflict can often be like trying to herd cats. Just when you think you have gotten them straight something happens in Cambodian history and the names change. Using that as a backdrop for analysis lets begin with the early period from 1953 to 1965. During that period Cambodia had few significant parties. Among the broadly defined internal players were Sihanouk and his large following among the uneducated masses (called the Sangkum Reaster Niyum), the Cambodian Communists (Khmer Rouges), the Cambodian Democrats (Khmer Bleus), and the Khmer Issarak (soon to become the Khmer Serei that the U.S. often attempted to fund). Prior to 1966 the Cambodian Communists and Cambodian Democrats were lost in Sihanouk's glory.(24) They were often branded as traitors by Sihanouk and treated accordingly. It was not until after 1966, when the Communist Party became unified (CPK) and fled into the jungles to carry out its struggle, that a real threat emerged to Sihanouk's rule.

Cambodia was heavily influenced by a number of external nation-states who were embroiled in the struggle in Vietnam. The U.S., France, Thailand, and Vietnam all played a critically prominent role from the early 1950's onward. After 1963 the international landscape changed as Sihanouk sought financial and political support from China, the USSR, Japan and North Korea as well as those aforementioned.

SP[I]TCEROW -- Issues

The issues that arouse in Cambodia during the period directly following independence and after 1966 are numerous. For clarity sake the issues must be broken into two broad categories: fact-based and valued-based. Fact-based issues are often tangible in nature, while value-based issues are often intangible. Moreover, fact-based issues are often those that overt in nature, while value-based issues often lie under the surface and go to the root cause of the conflict. As Lewicki argues, "effective negotiation (and conflict resolution) involves the management of intangibles as well as the resolution of tangibles."(25)

In this situation Sihanouk's mismanagement of the intangibles were the key to angering young Cambodians and opening the door for opposition groups to rise to power. Among the more relevant intangible issues were respect, dignity, identity, ideology, and an ability to voice displeasure when it existed.

The tangible fact-based issues were also important. Among the issues involved were the poor conditions for many rural Cambodians, the pervasive corruption, the disparity in wealth, and the presence of the NV in their country.

SPI[T[CEROW: Tactics

The tactics that Sihanouk employed during this time period are critical to comprehend because they were heavily rooted in violence.(26) While the people of Cambodia initially were using the ingratiation tactic, Sihanouk often framed issues in terms of irrevocable commitments and employed guilt trips when attacked by opposition parties. In addition, Sihanouk's use of gamesmanship sparked this response from Pol Pot, in retrospect (stated in 1977), "the tactics in 1956 and 1958 were brutal … opposition candidates were arrested and continually mistreated … the enemy made use of its guns, laws, courts, prisons, and every other repressive tool to prevent people from voting for the revolutionary parties - the patriots and the progressives."(27) Chandler recounts many more efforts by Sihanouk to literally humiliate and crush any opposition to his rule.(28) When considering why the various revolutionary movements emerged one must seriously factor in the brutal tactics Sihanouk employed.(29) Sihanouk's repressive approach angered opposition groups and aided their revolutionary mindsets. The opposition groups quickly saw that trying to gain power via political means was untenable. These factors set the stage for widespread support of the Communists among the average Cambodian, once they were enlightened that they were being exploited. This enlightenment came in the pivotal year of 1966 and will be discussed at greater length later.

Externally, Sihanouk's intentions were to do what was best for Cambodia. His strategy and tactics however left much to be desired toward achieving that end. It is fair to argue that his approach was non-rational -- meaning that while he logically thought about his alternatives, the means (mainly the backdoor initiatives that were contrary to a stated neutral policy) he employed to achieve his goals did not get him close to that objective. Hence, Sihanouk tried to secretly play one diametrically opposed nation off on another and to attempt to maintain relationships with as many nation-states as possible.

In sum, Sihanouk's official claim of neutrality and backdoor dealings worked fine until his actions were exposed and the situation in Vietnam escalated in the later half of the 1960's. While he had little control over the external arena, his policies inadvertently set himself up for a big fall due to their random inconsistency. Sihanouk's foreign policy mirrored a feather in the wind - one minute it was heading one direction and the next minute it had taken a one hundred and eighty degree turn in the opposite direction. Even if Sihanouk knew exactly what he was doing, which is clearly in doubt, one would have to be a masterful politician and have everything work in one's favor to succeed with this approach.

SPIT[C]EROW -- Changes

A dramatic change occurred in 1966 that was largely attributable to education. It was then that Pol Pot and Ieng Sary began to bring their message to the young people and peasants in the rural areas and explain that structural violence existed in Cambodian society.(30) These young people had been the direct recipients of Sihanouk's brutal policies. The more they learned the more they realized that Sihanouk was not all that he purported himself to be and the hardship that had befallen them was due mainly to Sihanouk himself. In addition, Pot and Sary lit a fire under these groups by asserting that it somehow was acceptable for Vietnam to have an open rebellion, but not for Cambodians.(31) The frustration Cambodians were experiencing quickly turned to aggression as actions were not only brutal in nature, but also occurred with relative frequency.(32) According to Dollard and Dobbs' study, when these factors exist and are combined, an implosion or explosion (normally within an individual, but in this case a society) is the likely outcome. Unfortunately, for Cambodian society an explosion occurred.

As the young became educated they also began to the see the corruption that was visible at all levels of society. A western observer commented upon his return to Cambodia in 1966, "With the help of Cambodian friends and as a result of dozens of chance conversations I came to understand how fragile Cambodia was … fragile and diseased … (with) corruption. A pervasive corruption of values, of political morals, and of purpose existed."(33) A rift emerged over this corruption predominately along rich urban and poor rural lines. As the population increased in the country in the later half of the 1960's more poor Cambodians made their way to the cities. It was here that their presumptions regarding the corruption were confirmed -- as they witnessed first hand the massive disparities in wealth. The financial extravagance of the Cambodian elite, the mismanagement of the government, and the comprehensive corruption within the governmental structure, all contributed to a change of perception regarding Sihanouk. In short, Sihanouk was no longer infallible and opposition groups began to gain support and exhibit a deep and bitter disgust for the society in which they lived.(34)

Sihanouk, whose interest in politics was fading, took a number of actions that inadvertently fostered his demise.(35) As Osborne argued,

"What I believe the events of 1966 demonstrated was the extent to which Sihanouk's options had been exhausted. The basic policies, both domestic and external, that he had formulated in the middle and late 1950's, no longer answered the changing circumstances of the middle 1960's. Sihanouk found himself forced to choose between making new approaches to Cambodia's growing range of problems, or adopting a policy of doing nothing and hoping that difficulties might disappear as events took their course. As it happened, Sihanouk followed both of these courses of action with increasingly dangerous results for his own position."(36)

Thus, he stayed with policies that had worked in the "golden years" after independence and clung to them steadfastly until events began cascading around him.(37)

When Sihanouk did decide to act he committed serious blunders. One of the most significant events that happened in 1966 was the Cambodian parliamentary election. Sihanouk's decision to allow "real elections" by not hand picking the candidates, as he had done in previous elections, opened the door for the conservative elite to control the parliament.(38) Some have speculated as to why Sihanouk took such an action. Osbourne argues Sihanouk sensed "that his policies had steered Cambodia into a dead end … (and) he looked to the right to give him time to find new ways to deal with new problems."(39)

The "elected" conservatives were "against change, concerned with retaining power, little moved by calls for aid to the weak and needy, and deeply disturbed by the path Sihanouk had been following in both domestic and external politics since the early sixties."(40) They also had no allegiance to Sihanouk (unlike parliamentarians in the past that he had handpicked) and for the first time he was publicly denounced by elected officials. Cambodian politics had finally become polarized between the right and left with Sihanouk held in contempt by both sides.(41)

Finally, the internal conflict transformed itself from latent to open in nature with the Samlaut rebellion and other peasant uprisings. The uprisings centered around issues of rice buying and resettlement. In the case of Samlaut rebellion, the problem began when Sihanouk instituted a new socialist economic program. Upon implementation of this program, foreign investors quickly withdrew from the country, sending the economy into a tailspin. To supplement this loss of foreign revenue, Sihanouk raised taxes and cut the military budget. In order to deal with the higher taxes the peasants began to engage in an illegal rice trade with the Vietnamese. As the trade began to flourish the military usurped it to supplement their budget that had been slashed. Thus, the peasants not only had to pay more taxes, but now had no way of accomplishing that task because the military had cut them out of a lucrative business. Thus, many were forced to migrate to the cities to find work. This enraged the peasants and they openly showed displeasure toward Sihanouk and his policies by rebelling.(42)

From a conflict analysis perspective these rebellions could be considered the triggering event.(43) Due to the positive or negative outcome of a triggering event a conflict can often escalate or deescalate. The military response to the uprisings -- the slaughtering of many innocent villagers -- caused the problem to spiral upward. In addition, Sihanouk tried to frame the problem as pro-Communist vs. anti-Communist. He blamed the Communists for the uprising and rounded up many of their members for public execution. It was at this point that the Communists fled to the jungle for safety and to concisely organize their movement.(44)

These rebellions were also important for another reason. They represented an awareness of Structural Violence and Relative Deprivation that previously uneducated peasants did not know existed. For example, there was a perception among the elite and Sihanouk himself that no matter what actions they took the peasantry would be happy and content. This lack of understanding and lack of concern was largely due to the system of structural violence that was in place. As is often the case, those benefiting from an unjust system are often unaware a problem even exists and of the consequences if the system continues. Even after Sihanouk was deposed he would recount the supposedly happy life led by the peasants while he was in power - thereby proving his lack of understanding of the problem.(45)

In addition, the notion of Relative Deprivation also had an impact on the uprising and peasants growing discontent. As Ted Gurr has explained, relative deprivation is "the perceived discrepancy between men's value expectation - what they think they are rightfully entitled to - and their value capabilities - what they think they can get under existing circumstances."(46) In 1966 this discrepancy became a reality for many peasants as they learned more about their plight. Thus, it is commonly held that revolutions are "not frequently started by people with their face in the mud [as Cambodians had been until now]…[but rather] are most frequently started by people who have recently lifted their faces from the mud, looked around, and noticed that other people are doing better than they are and that the system is treating them unfairly."(47) As one analyst explains, "(the) opportunity to move from one place in society to another was not something that a rural Cambodian could assume existed."(48) It was this type of frustration, coupled with a new enlightened understanding, that led the average Cambodian to act where they had previously been passive. As de Tocqueville cautioned, "Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable once the idea of escape from them is suggested."(49)

From a foreign affairs perspective Sihanouk tried desperately to get agreement from various external factions to solidify Cambodia's borders. Sihanouk's preeminent concern was the fear of being engulfed by Vietnam.(50) As Osbourne stated, "The fear of war spilling over the borders of Cambodia continued to haunt Cambodians up to the time when the right mounted their successful coup against Sihanouk in 1970."(51) As Sihanouk negotiated with Vietnamese Communists and allowed them to use bases inside southern Cambodia he also talked quietly with the U.S. to try to cover himself in case the war in Vietnam shifted in the U.S. favor. As one analyst claimed, "While never ceasing to think of the Vietnamese as enemies he sought through diplomacy to find ways to keep these enemies from absorbing Cambodia. The way to do this … was to make his ethnic enemies political friends. It was a fateful choice, one that played a major part in his overthrow."(52) Thus, Sihanouk's choice to not choose caught up with him in the long run.

Sihanouk's external decision-making was influenced by a number of factors. There is little doubt that Sihanouk was paranoid about his dealings with other countries and their ulterior motives. This paranoia was probably influenced by the way in which he conducted his own affairs. Many theories on distorted perceptions, which is reasonable to argue that Sihanouk had, are rooted in Cognitive Consistency.(53) The theory of Cognitive Consistency, as outlined by Mitchell, is comprised of selective-perception, selective recall, and group identification.

Selective perception simply means that anyone alters the information they receive to fit their worldview. Sihanouk was masterful at this and could bend and twist almost any information he received to fit his preconceived ideas of right and wrong. His dismissal of contrary advice from his advisors was a good example of this dynamic. Similarly, selective recall is the memory one retains of a past event and how it transpired. This again is often remembered in a way that fits into ones worldview. Sihanouk's recollection of Cambodian history and fear of the Vietnamese is an example of this dynamic. Finally, Sihanouk's group identification - being Cambodian - was very strong indeed. His desire to be "the father" of Cambodia is an example of this dynamic.

Add all these psychological factors to an already revolutionary mindset taking hold in the country-side, the escalation of the war around Cambodia, the brutal tactics used against the opposition, sprinkle in Sihanouk's "instinctive judgement rather than calculated analytical approach" to decision-making, and you have a recipe for disaster.

SPITC[E]ROW -- Enlargement

As the myriad of problems emerged both internally and externally Sihanouk's response was not to engage, but rather to recede from society. In doing this, the conflict began to enlarge as more actors and issues come forth. Meanwhile in 1968, "Instead of strengthening Cambodia's army [Sihanouk] made films. Instead of curbing the financial depredations of his entourage, he allowed them to roam around the edges of the economy amassing personal fortunes. He also ignored the drought that brought much of the countryside near Phnom Phen close to starvation…"(54)

It quickly became evident by his actions and statements that Sihanouk was feeling somewhat overwhelmed and had run out of answers. To compensate for this feeling and to create the opportunity for himself to pull back he again sought to balance one ideological group against another, accept aid from all who were prepared to give it, and to reassert Cambodia's "neutrality." These policies, that had worked so well as long as the situation in Vietnam did not pose any real threat to Cambodia, now failed miserably.(55) When this approach did not bear fruit Sihanouk decided that he must align himself with one of the factions in order to survive. Thus, he joined with the Conservatives (the right) whom he had struggled against for years.

This merging with the Conservatives was another significant action that eventually helped the radical left gain power. As Sihanouk had done to the opposition under his rule, the Conservatives wasted no time cracking down on the left with brutal tactics. This continued repression had three significant effects. First, it forced the revolutionary leftist groups to consolidate themselves into one main opposition force. Second, it forced the consolidated group to flee the cities and organize in the jungles near the rural peasants. Third, it gave the leftists a platform and an opportunity to recruit more people for their struggle - people who were rife with fear and held deep resentment toward those in power.

The situation further escalated when Sihanouk was hospitalized and General Lon Nol (Sihanouk's military confidant) took over as Prime Minister. To further confuse the situation, Sihanouk became revitalized while in the hospital and decided he would form a counter-government to Nol.(56) What had started out as "a fight to the death among paradigms - Sihanoukists, leftists, and elitists" had taken a hiatus, but was now back on track with the leftists and elitists (Conservatives) in a much stronger position. Unfortunately, Sihanouk's brutish policies in the early 1960's dashed all hopes for the emergence of a pluralist approach to Cambodian society.(57)

The aftereffects of the unsuccessful Samlaut rebellion were felt as the conflict enlarged. While the Samlaut rebellion was crushed, it had the important effect of "providing a model for the future."(58) For the next few years Communists continually pointed to this event as a prime example of the repressive regime they were trying to topple. They used the event to recruit minorities who had suffered the greatest during the rebellions.(59) In addition, they also analyzed the rebellion and used it to strategize for later efforts in 1969 and 1970.

If internal enlargement was not enough, Sihanouk also attempted to blame the internal insurrection on foreigners and foreign governments. He concocted a scheme that had the U.S., Thailand, Khmer Serei, South Vietnam, Vietcong, and the Cambodian Communists all plotting to disrupt the country via rebellion. This conspiracy theory, filled with bedfellows that made it virtually unbelievable, coincided with the intensification of the war in Vietnam. Soon thereafter, Sihanouk's neutral foreign policy was exposed as bogus.(60) The U.S. and the South Vietnamese discovered Vietcong bases in Cambodia and the first bombings of those bases commenced.(61) When this evidence was detected, the U.S. concluded that Sihanouk had been lying all along and as a consequence had forfeited Cambodia's proclaimed neutrality. This continued uncertainty and mistrust ultimately lead to U.S. President Nixon's secret bombing campaign years later. Sihanouk's continual insistence that the Vietcong were not in his country even after evidence had been presented to the contrary only made the U.S. (and others) less and less trustful of him.

When the first Cambodians died as a result of the bombing Sihanouk became enraged. At the time of these events the average Cambodian believed Sihanouk when he announced there were no Vietcong in Cambodia.(62) Furthermore, these bombings gave Sihanouk the ability to pursue collusion efforts between the Cambodian government, the Vietcong, and China (who had increased arms sales to the Vietcong in Sihanoukville). However, even as these efforts were being undertaken Sihanouk secretly swung back and pursued another rapprochement with the U.S. - this time on his terms.(63) One scholar argued that Sihanouk's policy, "quite deliberately chose to follow a path that carried with it the greatest possible risks, not just for himself but for his country as well."(64)

All these external activities again aided the leftist groups in their struggle. Due to Sihanouk's overt neutrality and covert deal making with anyone and everyone, the leftists painted him abroad as someone who could not be trusted. This helped they gain support from key countries such as China, and made their eventually overthrow of General Nol possible.

SPITCE[R]OW -- Roles

As the conflict enlarged more actors emerged as having a significant impact on the future of Cambodia. As should be evident, in 1966 the Communist groups and the conservative elite took on much more real significance in Cambodian politics and society. Their emergence changed the attitudes and opinions of Cambodians in both a positive and negative manner. From the positive perspective, the impoverished and uneducated became more aware of their situation and sought a more just society. From the negative perspective, the conservatives continued Sihanouk's approach to opposition groups and peasants by brutally crushing them. As a result, these victimized groups slowly learned that the means to change in Cambodian society was through violence and not through effective political opposition.

Another important factor in this deteriorating situation was that no internal group played the part of third party to try to bring the factions together. Khieu Samphan, a leader of the Communists in the parliament, for years had tried to do this, but failed. Therefore, with the situation devoid of such an entity and with Sihanouk and the conservatives operating from an authoritarian mindset (i.e. no chance of pluralism) the chances of any peaceful resolution to the emerging rift were scant.

Lastly, the war in Vietnam intensified and with it Cambodia's covert involvement. The further Cambodia became engaged in the conundrum the more real the fear of the domino theory became for countries such as the U.S. Due to this, the U.S. again asserted its influence on Cambodia in largely a negative manner - now possibly more than it ever had in the past. The secret bombings of Cambodia and the massive loss of property and life significantly enhanced the U.S.'s role in this conflict. Furthermore, China and the USSR's support for Sihanouk and then the Communists also increased their stake in this conflict, thereby making it more complex than in the past.

Thus, as any conflict enlarges new roles are assumed by new and old actors. This reality, coupled with the predominantly negative roles the different entities had already assumed, further plunged Cambodia into the abyss. In fact, the more actors became involved the harder it became for Cambodia to separate itself from the larger Indochina morass. Once the NV crossed the line and began using Cambodia for their own purposes, Cambodia's chances of escaping the larger regional problems were remote. Again, no external group was extremely concerned about Cambodia's sovereignty as a nation or about its people in general. External powers had bigger problems to address and if Cambodia got in the way - which it did - it would have to suffer the consequences.(65)

SPITCER[O]W -- Outcomes

The outcome of this critical time period is clear on the one hand and unclear on the other. As Chandler stated, 

"Looking at the 1960's for roots of Communist victory in 1975 may lead us to exaggerate the military menace the CPK posed to Sihanouk in 1968 and 1969. The CPK was not a genuine military threat at that time… (However) the evidence in 1969 and 1970 suggests the occurrence of a shift in the balance of power away from Sihanouk and toward the forces opposing him."(66)

Events such as the break with the U.S. in 1963 and the Samlaut Rebellion in 1967 were important turning points in the future of Cambodia. While these were critical events during this era they more importantly represent symptoms of a dysfunctional society. The outcome that befell Cambodia was largely due to a gradual shift by the Cambodian people from reverence to repugnance of the ruling government and of Sihanouk himself. Sihanouk's avoidance of the many problems that began to plague Cambodia after 1965 culminated in the coup that ousted him from power. This coup in turn lead to a nasty civil war that culminated in many deaths. Furthermore, if that had been the end of the Cambodia question it would have been tragic indeed. However, the brutal KR experiment that was to come and the two and a half decades of misery that have followed make the catastrophe of this small nation almost unparalleled.

SPITCERO[W] -- Winners?

Can it be said that there are any winners in Cambodia from 1953 to 1970? Based on current history and the massive loss of life that has ensued since that fateful period, an outsider such as myself would have to argue that there definitely were not any winners in this conflict.

It is certainly fair to say there were no long-term winners. Power changed hands so frequently that none of the parties can effectively argue they achieved the goals they had set out when they assumed power (either forcefully or via political means). From 1953 to 1965 Sihanouk should be considered a winner in Cambodia. However, if one takes into account that during this period Sihanouk sowed the seeds of his own demise, than what it means to be a winner is called into question. More definitively, after that date there were no winners in Cambodia - only different magnitudes of losers. It is also easy to argue this in hindsight, but for analytical purposes there is nothing else that can be done. Cambodia epitomizes the often uttered phrase "There are no winners in war, only variations of losers."


"It is hard to write about Prince Norodom Sihanouk … in a way that is always moderate, fair, and reasonable. (However) developments that took place (in the late 1960's) cast shadows, not always sharply defined, that suggested the possible shape of Cambodia's future. "

Martin Osbourne

The purpose of this paper was to explore the roots of Cambodia's misery. From a conflict resolution perspective it is critical to try to understand how intractable conflicts begin and sustain themselves over a long time period. The conclusion of this paper is that the genesis of Cambodia's problems lay with Norodom Sihanouk's perception of himself, his often instinctive based decision-making approach, his conflicting policies, his perpetuation and tolerance of corruption, and his brutal actions toward opposition groups and peasants.

All that having been stated, that does not mean that anyone other than General Lon Nol (1970 - 1975) and the KR (1975 - 1978) are responsible for the acts that were committed under their respective regimes. What it does mean however is that the conditions that were established under Sihanouk's rule created an atmosphere conducive to violence. Indeed, Cambodia became "… filled with threats and shadows. As government-sponsored violence became widespread and remained unpublished, the fabric of Cambodian self-confidence, never tightly woven, began to unravel."(67) When peasants and opposition forces were constantly beaten down, not by political means, but by violence and public humiliation, their frustration and socialized learning created a response of violence. As one revolutionary had come to believed in the late 1960's, "… the evils of Cambodian society … could only be removed by recourse to radical solutions. Nothing less than total change could bring to an end a system that was totally rotten, totally corrupt, and totally offensive."(68) Had Sihanouk fostered or even tolerated a more pluralist society early on without the repression of other viewpoints a very different atmosphere might have taken hold.

It is also somewhat difficult to come to this conclusion as an outsider. Many Cambodians still revere Sihanouk despite all that has taken place. It might be acceptable for Cambodians to criticize Sihanouk, but it has a different air when an outsider makes this type of claim. Thus, it should be reiterated that the objective of this paper has not been to vilify anyone, but rather to understand how it was possible for the KR to emerge and carry out the horrific experiment they did.

Within this context there is no doubt Sihanouk loved his country and his intentions were honorable. However, as Chandler explains there was much more to the man and his policies,

"In examining the Sihanouk era, one must balance the prince's diplomatic skills, patriotism, and capacity for hard work against his tolerance of corruption and his self-centered, erratic style. Anyone trying to form a judgement about his years in power must also confront his disdain for educated people, his impatience with advice, his craving for approval, his fondness for revenge, his cynicism, and his flamboyance."

Thus, one lesson of this period, and for conflict resolvers in general, is that good intentions are not enough. One must be well prepared and not allow passion to override reason. Spinoza argued that when human passions surpass reason violence is likely to emerge. As Osborne confirmed, "one can see that what at times was a lack of balance in Sihanouk's judgement (because of his passion for his country) … had become … something dangerous both to his own position and to the survival of his state."(69) When this is the prevailing attitude in an intractable conflict it is the job of conflict resolution professionals to help redirect the course of the conflict onto a new path before tragedy strikes.

Finally, no one individual is every solely culpable for the demise of a country. However, the critical period Cambodia faced after 1965, with turmoil at almost every turn, had a significant effect on the shape of its future. Logically, it follows that Sihanouk's responses to different actions during this period inevitably moved Cambodia in a particular direction. As unfortunate as it may be, Sihanouk set his beloved country on a destructive course with his disastrous balancing act.

1. As Wayman and Jones explain, "long term conflicts are categorized as such by at least five reciprocated military disputes over a twenty-five year period." In Vasquez, J. The War Puzzle. More.

2. SPITCEROW is an acronym for an analysis method of conflict developed by Professor Christopher Mitchell. SPITCEROW stands for Sources, Parties, Issues, Tactics, Changed, Enlarge, Roles, Outcome, and Winner.

3. Much of this brief history is taken from Chandler, David P. 1991. The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War and Revolution Since 1945. New Haven: Yale University Press.

4. Ibid, p. 85.

5. Ibid, p. 123.

6. In actuality the 1966 parliamentary elections were fraudulent but it was the first time Sihanouk did not select the candidates for office himself. As the reader will see later this cost Sihanouk dearly.

7. Ibid, p. 159.

8. As Chandler states "Sihanouk's perception of his own greatness and Cambodia's role in the world were greatly overstated." P. 99.

9. Osborne, M. 1979. Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy. Boston: George Allen & Unwin. Pp. 10-11.

10. Sihanouk often referred to the Vietnamese as Cambodia's hereditary enemy.

11. Osborne, P. 183.

12. According to Osborne and in a clear effort to save face (see Folger et al), "Sihaouk often spoke publicly of his lack of formal education, of how he never read books, (and) of his reliance upon instinctive action rather than decisions based on a careful review of alternative possibilities." P. 183.

13. Ibid. P. 9.

14. Chandler, D. P. 90.

15. Ibid. P. 94. As Chandler recounts of one incident where opposition leaders were captured and displayed in public for "treasonous behavior" -- "Sihanouk's behavior on display that afternoon … with violent rhetoric before the masses and public humiliation of the defenseless opponents followed by physical brutality became increasingly characteristics of his treatment of opponents."

16. As Sihanouk once stated about insulting him, "The truth is that five million Khmers identify themselves totally with me. To insult me, to wound me, to humiliate me, is to strike at the Cambodian nation." Quoted in Chandler, P. 138.

17. Ibid. P. 95.

18. Chandler, P. 177.

19. Ibid, P. 177.

20. Haas, P. 4.

21. See Chandler, Pp. 87-95.

22. Sihanouk did not particularly like the two way relationship the Americans deemed fair and wanted more of an big brother - little brother fostering relationship.

23. In 1963 Sihanouk made the following internal/external argument for breaking ties with the U.S., "There are Khmer traitors living amongst us. In siding with the Chinese and Vietnamese they will leave us alone as long as we remain enemies of the Americans … When we become pro-American the Chinese and the Vietnamese immediately become our enemies and bring us insecurity. It is for this reason I think that we have greater advantage in continuing to quarrel with America." Quoted in Chandler, P.140.

24. The Communist or Leftists groups were split mainly between older Communists and a new young group of radicals that had just returned from their educational experience in France. Many leaders of the younger group were to become the leaders of the Khmer Rouge that rose to power in the mid 1970's. As Haas stated about these young radicals, "… they decided to portray their (older) Khmer comrades as longtime Vietnamese collaborators; their aim was to gain support from the next generation of Cambodians." Haas, P. 11.

25. Lewicki, R., D. Saunders, and J. Minton, 1996. Essentials of Negotiation. Boston: Irwin. P. 5.

26. For a list of tactics people use see Rubin, J., D. Pruitt, and H.S. Kim, 1994. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement. Second Edition. New York: McGraw Hill. Pp. 70-72.

27. Chandler, P. 95.

28. See particularly the anti-Sangkum student protests in Siem Reap in 1963.

29. For example, the 1963 Siem Riep riot was first openly hostile event that set the stage for the larger Samlaut Rebellion in 1966. Not only did Sihanouk crush both of these but he created an escalation spiral whe police did not investigate. This caused suspicion about whether Sihanouk did indeed care about the people as he claimed.

30. See Galtung, J. 1976. "Feudal Systems, Structural Violence and Structural Theory of Revolutions," In Galtung, J., Essays in Peace Research, vol. III, Copenhagen: Christian Ejlers.

31. Chandler, p. 114.

32. For an in depth analysis of how frustration leads to aggression see Dollard and Dobbs (The Yale Group) Frustration-Aggression model.

33. Osborne, P. 17.

34. According to Chandler, Sihanouk partly encouraged this rise by not altering his authoritarian policies that were being called into question. If he had he may have been able to argue otherwise and preserve his dominance. Pp. 122-125. Osborne also quotes a revolutionary, Poc Deuskomar, who shows great contempt for the society he was in. As Osbourne quotes "Central to his decision … was a sense of total disgust with the system of government that prevailed in Cambodia, with the men who were ready to serve that system, and with Sihanouk for presiding over such a state." Osbourne, P. 74 and 77.

35. Osborne argues that "A case ca be made that I the face of Cambodia's multiple difficulties Sihanouk simply gave up and that his near obsession with film making was the visible sign of his unreadiness to try to contend with the country's problems. To a degree there is some truth to this analysis." P. 186.

36. Osborne, P. 182.

37. Roderick Kramer has written about the phenomenon in which leaders are hesitant to change what worked I the past because it was with this policy that they achieved prominence.

38. It is widely accepted that the Conservatives bought their victories to office. See Haas, M. 1991. Genocide By Proxy: Cambodian Pawn on a Superpower Chessboard. New York: Praeger. P. 15. Or Osbourne, P. 178.

39. Ibid, P. 180.

40. Ibid, PP. 179-180.

41. Ibid, P. 17.

42. To complicate matters further population in the rural areas was also increasing.

43. As Folger et al say about the triggering event "it is the straw that broke the camels back." However, if dealt with appropriately the triggering event also carries with it an important opportunity. P. 97.

44. Haas, P. 15.

45. Osbourne, P. 131.

46. Gurr, T.R. 1970. Why Men Rebel. Princeton:. Princeton University Press. P. 13. Also see other concepts such as the Psychology of Oppression for more detail on these psychological processes.

47. Aronson, E. 1984. The Social Animal. Fourth Edition. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company. P. 210. See also Galtung's concept of Rank Disequalibrium.

48. Ibid. P. 133.

49. Alexis de Tocqueville quoted in Aronson, E. P. 211.

50. The cultural differences between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians are interesting. The Cambodians are an "Indianised culture and the Vietnamese a Sinicised culture" that carry very different assumptions. For more information see Osbourne, P. 165.

51. Osbourne, Pp. 33-34.

52. Ibid, P. 163.

53. Mandel, R. 1979. Perception, Decision Making ad Conflict. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America. P. 15.

54. Candler, P. 183.

55. Osborne, P. 184.

56. Sihanouk claimed that he created this counter-government at the behest of the youth who had come and asked him for such an action. Nobody has found any proof that such a request was made. Chandler, P. 124.

57. Chandler, P. 125.

58. Ibid, P. 165.

59. Chandler states that Pol Pot and his followers believed the poor rural peasants way of living was conducive to their Marxist ideology. The peasants were "poor and blank receptacles for revolutionary doctrine." P. 175.

60. "Sihanouk's inability to show that his policies toward the Vietnamese Communists would succeed was a major factor that tipped the balance of conservative opinion against him in March 1970." Osbourne, P. 173.

61. Sihanouk would later remark in the late 1970's that his decision to break with U.S. was the turning point in his career. This was an important event for Sihanouk and also allowed him to save face by taking the blame off himself for the failure and corruption in his government. As he stated, "One thing I regret was to reject, in 1963, the … corrupting aid accorded by the U.S. to my army and my administration. If I had allowed these forms of American aid to continue to rot my government, my administration, my senior officers and generals, perhaps Cambodia and its people could have avoided the fatal putsch of March 18, 1970 and as a consequence the war of 1970-1975." Chandler, P. 139.

62. This action on the part of Sihanouk is a classic case of what Leon Festinger calls Cognitive Dissonance.

63. In 1968 Sihanouk was providing support for the NV and NLF and told the U.S. that he "would not object if the U.S. engaged in hot pursuit of the NV in unpopulated areas." Sihanouk said he would shut his eyes if the U.S. did this because both would be guilty, but the NV would be more guilty. Chandler, P. 172.

64. Osbourne, P. 173.

65. This approach can best be captured in the early Realist thinker Thucydidies. Particularly his recounting of the Melean Dialogue in which the principle of "The strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must" took shape.

66. Ibid, P. 179.

67. Chandler, P. 183.

68. Deuskomar quoted in Osbourne, P. 83.

69. Osbourne, P. 44.

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