1955 Sihanouk’s abdication and the creation of the Sangkum. Dr Henri Locard

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Lecture 8 …

Lecture 8

20th March: 1955 Sihanouk’s abdication and the creation of the Sangkum. Dr Henri Locard

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  • 1. XV – 1955: Sihanouk‟s abdication & the creation of the Sangkum
  • 2. Sihanouk‟s predicament in the face of the democratic constitution After the various agreements and treaties, Cambodia had, by the end of 1954, fully recovered its sovereignty and independence. The Phnom Penh Agreements of 17th October 1953 had been recognized by the international community along with the 21st July 1954 ceasefire and the evacuation of the Vietminh from the national territory. Finally, the 24th December Paris Treaty had liquidated the Indochinese Federation. • Sihanouk needed to find a way to justify his keeping the full political power that he had enjoyed for the past two and a half years. He had therefore recourse to a referendum.
  • 3. 1 - The Referendum of 17 February 1955 • As far as internal national policy was concerned, King Sihanouk had personally assumed the responsibility of the government from 16th June 1952, pledging to the nation that he would bring full independence to the country within three years. • He had fulfilled his promise six months in advance. Sihanouk needed some popular support to set aside, if not eliminate, the Democratic Party and its republican components that he saw “as an obstacle to his ambitions” (Chandler)
  • 4. “Was the royal mission fulfilled to our people’s satisfaction?” • The answer was, not surprisingly, an overwhelming 99% “Yes”: 925,812 “yes” to 1,824 “no” [Tioulong], 925,667 to 1,834 [Chandler & Osborne]. • Tioulong admitted that this was indeed a plebiscite and in actual fact the real question amounted to “Was the royal crusade fulfilled to the people’s satisfaction within a three-year promised delay?” • During the electoral campaign, a low-flying plane dropped thousands of leaflets that read: “This is how you should vote. If you love the King use a white ballot; if you don‟t love the King, use a black ballot. You must believe this. Don‟t believe anyone who says differently”. [Chandler, 77]
  • 5. The referendum was an outright plebiscite • … to reinforce Sihanouk‟s hand in his fight against the dominant Democratic Party that was being transformed from inside by young radicals. Those, like Keng Vannsak (1925-2009), Prince Norodom Phurissara (1919-1976), Thiounn Mumm (1925- ), used the tactics of “entryism” (=the practice of joining a political party in order to transform its ideas and plans from inside). • Sihanouk must have been deeply aware that the elite could have considered him as a usurper, since, on the one hand, he was a relatively late comer in the struggle for independence, and, on the other, the legitimate successor to King Monivong was Prince Sisowath Monireth who had been groomed for the part.
  • 6. The Father of Independence • This is why Sihanouk needed to establish firmly: first, that he was the legitimate successor of Monivong, with overwhelming popular support, secondly, that he was the Father of Independence and the only one. • In this respect, he could never tolerate anyone to suggest the contrary. This is why, after his triumph in the plebiscite, he ordered “the arrest of the editors of several Khmer language newspapers, including Saloth Sar‟s elder brother, Saloth Chhay, the editor of Sammaki (Solidarity)… These papers had taken issue with Sihanouk‟s claim that he had won Cambodia‟s independence single-handedly.” [Chandler, 77]
  • 7. 2 – The Abdication of the King • After the victorious “Royal Crusade for Independence” and the triumph of the Cambodian delegation at Geneva, Sihanouk had tasted the nectar, if not of immortality, at least of absolute power and he was resolved to sideline all his competitors from those within the Democratic Party to the ebullient (hyper- active) Sam Sary, the leading light of the Khmer Geneva delegation. • Penn Nouth had given his resignation on 25th January 1955 and, on the very same day, Leng Ngeth, a magistrate and the King‟s private counsellor, formed a new government in charge of organizing the next general elections. But the King was thinking of a constitutional reform to avoid the instability of the first Cambodian democratically elected governments.
  • 8. Transforming the “regime of parties”. • After having organized for peasant delegations from the provinces to come to the capital and implore the King to personally conduct the politics of the kingdom, on 19th February, Sihanouk delivered a three-hour speech on the necessity of transforming the “regime of parties”. • He spoke in front of the diplomatic corps, the International Control Commission (Canada, Poland and India), ministers and Crown Counsellors. In his speech, Sihanouk proposed that those who stood for elections would not be allowed to use party labels, although parties would still be allowed to exist. He also offered to grant women the right to vote too. But the main point was that the government and the Ministers would exclusively be responsible to the King and no longer to the National Assembly.
  • 9. Sihanouk‟s proposed constitutional reforms - 2 • Such a reform would have nullified the very substance of a constitutional monarchy and constituted the first step towards the re-establishment of the absolute monarchy – all the more so since by then the kingdom was independent and sovereign [Tong, 75]. • Finally, the King proposed that “unsatisfactory” representative could be removed by electorates [Chandler, 77]. Similarly, Sihanouk proposed that provincial assemblies would be elected, with their own budgets, and that they would be in a position to dismiss provincial governors. The King also suggested that there would be a second consultative chamber whose members would be all nominated by himself. • Osborne indicates that these proposals were “drafted initially by Sam Sary and Yem Sambaur” [Prince, 89]. However, both men would soon fall from the King‟s grace, falling foul of him and becoming his “enemies”.
  • 10. Coup de théâtre: abdication • In front of the icy reactions of the international community that advised him to proceed with the national elections, on 27th February, Sihanouk suddenly dropped all his plans and brooded by himself. He later claimed he was not following anybody‟s advice, not even his parents‟. Chandler, in a note, found some evidence in the papers from the American embassy that “it is possible that Sihanouk was maneuvered into the abdication by advisers like Sam Sary who convinced him that the decision would consolidate his political power”. On 2nd March 1955, Radio- PhP. received a recorded tape in Khmer and in French that was to be broadcast at news time. The Khmer version was broadcast first in the early morning, and the French version at noon. He announced that he abdicated in favour of his parents and that he had become “citizen Sihanouk”
  • 11. Why did he abdicate ? • He also vowed that, under no circumstance, he would ever return to the throne. He wished to be called “Samdech Euv”, “Monsignor Papa”, or “Father of Independence”. The full title was “Samdech Euv upayuvareach”, “the Prince who had been King”. Osborne quite rightly added: “So far as status and respect were concerned, he remained King in all but name” [92]. • In his arguments for his abdication, he said he wished to be rid of the pomp and privileges of the office of King to be nearer to the “Little People” or his “children”, as he has always called ordinary citizens, the farming communities in particular; people he was always to treat as minors who were to be granted the small presents he liberally distributed along all his journeys in the provinces, rather than the social justice – the aim of all modern and democratic States. In a speech he would also attack “politicians, the rich, the educated who are accustomed to using their knowledge to deceive others and to place innumerable obstacles in the path on which I must lead the people
  • 12. Sihanouk‟s new persona • Opponents to Sihanouk – among the Republican camp in particular – would later claim that Sihanouk “in fact abdicated in order to impose his dictatorship thanks to one Party State – his”. Tioulong, the loyal friend of the King, suggested that Sihanouk wanted, once and for all, to get rid of the kind of original sin that was his selection by the totally discredited Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain. He was to be the leading politician of Cambodia on his own merit and because of his own achievements and not because an 18 year-old adolescent prince had been selected by Admiral Jean Decoux. “Inward sentiment of illegitimacy and even usurpation”. • That abrupt decision was a bombshell in public opinion, as no one was expecting this at all. Obviously also, to the role of constitutional monarch, Sihanouk preferred that of Prime Minister. By using the modern method of universal suffrage he could launch into a new political career and become a self-made politician. For that, he needed a party and that was to be the Sangkum Reastr Niyum.
  • 13. 3 - The Creation of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum • The rationale for creating such a “Community” was to “attain the aspirations of the Little People, the real people of the Kingdom of Kampuchea, which we love. Our Community … fights against injustice, corruption, exactions, oppression and treason committed against our People and our Country.” • President, founder, with the title of “Supreme Counsellor” C (Conseiller Suprême), Norodom Sihanouk signed the statute of the organization on 22nd march 1955. He had launched the “Socialist People‟s Community” on 16th March, just before his journey to India, where he went to return Nehru‟s visit in October 1954. The members were called Sahachivin (Companions), as this was not to be a political party, but an association of free citizens above all parties. In 1958, General de Gaulle Sihanouk admired so much was to do the same with his “Rassemblement du Peuple Français” (RPF), founded by the General on 14th April 1947.
  • 14. Samdech Sahachevin • Sihanouk was to be called Samdech Sahachevin or “Prince Companion”. Chapter II, article 4 specified that “our community is not a political party”, while, in total contradiction, Chapter III, article 1 specified that to be admitted into the community, “every Cambodian must belong to no political party”. • One important article is the one that described the role of the “Supreme Counsellor”: Chapter V, section 1, “the Central Committee”, Article 14 : • “The Supreme Counsellor, who is by definition a personality who has rendered eminent and undeniable services to Cambodia and is acknowledged as a veritable national hero, has the duty to constantly guarantee the cohesion between the Members of the Community and to inspire, if need be, the national action of the Community.”
  • 15. Many rallied the new party • The idea of the Sangkum was born of Sihanouk‟s deep distrust of political parties, like Charles De Gaulle‟s. In his opinion, the Sangkum must be a wide federation that was meant to absorb all other political parties. • Except for the Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the Pracheachon, all the smaller parties dissolved into the Sangkum. That was the case of National Democracy of Oum Chheang Sun, Khmer Renovation of Colonel Lon Nol, the People‟s Party of Sam Nhean. • Shortly after the great success of the referendum, many of the upper civil servants – the same as those that had voted for the Democratic Party in the earlier elections – joined the Community, all the more easily since no subscription was at first required. At a later stage, those same civil servants were made to pay into organization coffer a “voluntary contribution” that was in fact a compulsory deduction from their salary.
  • 16. 4 – The 11th September 1955 National Elections • After two months of electoral campaign, 75% of electors took part in the voting. The Sangkum won 630,625 votes or 83% of the number of voters, the Democratic Party, 93,919 votes or 12% of those who voted, the Pracheachon 29,509 votes, or 4%. Four minor parties and independents shared the remaining 1% of the votes. • In all, there had been 309 candidates competing for 91 seats. This meant the Sangkum had won the totality of the seats in the National Assembly. Both an opposition and traditional or normal political parties had been routed. But had the elections been fair ? It does not really seem to.
  • 17. Tarnished elections ? • Tioulong, for instance, admits that some “incidents” contributed to tarnish the atmosphere. For instance one candidate from the Democratic Party, Keng Vannsak, was arrested then released. Pracheachon candidates were intimidated and had recourse to the International Control Commission for protection. • According to Chandler and Osborne, the whole process was marked by intimidation : violence and even terror dominated the campaign. In the first place, Sihanouk had appointed the barely literate Dap Chuon, “known for his brutality towards his enemies” [Osborne, 97] as director of national security, in charge of supervising the elections. He was assisted by Lon Nol, Sam Sary and Kou Roun, “a man who was to earn a deservedly sinister reputation as the head of Sihanouk’s secret police during the 1960s” [Osborne, 97].
  • 18. • Osborne continues by pointing out that Dap Chuon‟s men “systematically intimidated” all opponents to the Sangkum candidates. That kind of violent pattern was to continue throughout Sihanouk‟s rule until his overthrow in 1970. “He knew that his supporters resorted to violence to maintain him in power. He sanctioned that violence since he could not conceive that his opponents could be other than foolish, at best, or more likely motivated by evil intent towards him personally, at worst.” If that was the case, that is if they were motivated by a personal hatred of the ex-King, “they had forfeited their right to freedom and possibly to life”. • The number of victims of the violence among the Democratic or Pracheachon candidates and campaigners was never made public, “a pro-Democrat achar named Chung was arrested during the campaign for reciting poems that were interpreted by some as insulting to the Prince: he died in prison” [Chandler, 81]. The campaign showed a “contempt for the elite that was to continue under Sihanouk for many years”. Since he saw them “as his enemies” [82], ”The idea of an opposition was anathema to the Prince” [84], and any possibility that an official one could exist was unimaginable in the context of his regime. Sam Sary was to be the victim of that.
  • 19. Keng Vannsak (1925-2008) • We can give two striking instances of Sihanouk‟s undemocratic ways as mentioned by Tioulong, Chandler and Osborne. The first was the treatment of Keng Vannsak, one of the most brilliant speakers in favour of the Democratic Party. In his speeches he had attacked absolutism, underdevelopment and exploitation of the poorer classes with great energy. “As he was addressing a rally in Phnom Penh, a Buick sedan bearing Sam Sary, heavily armed policemen and a loudspeaker, drove slowly into the crowd backed by a truckload of Sangkum supporters. Shots rang out, and his democrat chauffeur was killed.” Vannsak was arrested, accused of inciting the violence, although he was unarmed. He was imprisoned for two months without trial or charge. He was released only after “he had apologized abjectly to the Prince” [83]. As a result of those intimidations plus meddling with the counting of the votes and ballot stuffing, the Prince‟s new „Party” won an overwhelming victory. David Chandler had demonstrated, new evidence has come out “the Sangkum candidates were, in fact, defeated in five constituencies” [Osborne, 98].
  • 20. Conclusion : a precarious democracy • After Sihanouk‟s unexpected triumph, democracy, along with the Democratic Party, was to a large extent in limbo – or in some indeterminate place between life and death from 1955 to 1970. After some half a century of efforts on the part of the French to set up a professional modern administration and a government that represented significant steps towards democracy, the Prince had, in a way, de facto re-established century-old royal absolutism in Cambodia. • Rather, it was at best a benignant paternalism (young Sihanouk presented himself as a father figure - the father of independent Cambodia). The ideology of his authoritarian one Party rule was based on a somewhat muddled ideology - a mixture of socialistic aspirations, Buddhist ethics and traditional royal reverence base on the revival of the myth of Angkor. • But the Prince was able nevertheless to rule over fifteen years of peace, growing prosperity and happiness, after the chaotic years of the Second World War and the struggle for independence.