“Despite their experiences in many lands, and their academic distinctions, many observer proved less enlightened than the lowliest of our peasants. The peasants’ consciousness of the difference between independence and colonialism, between peace and war, was soon heightened by American bombs.” –deposed Cambodian Prince, Norodom Sihanouk, 1972
What is special about this book?
King Sihanouk in 1945, Paris
This is a noteworthy historical document, because it was written by Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1972. That’s two years after he was deposed in a CIA-funded coup by his one-time Prime Minister Lon Nol, and almost three years before Nol was deposed by the Communist Khmer Rouge guerilla army, plunging the nation into a genocide which saw nearly 2 million Cambodians slaughtered. In effect, this book was written in that window between the overthrow of the monarchy, but before the other shoe had dropped, and Pol Pot seized absolute power from the weak CIA-sponsored puppets.
Considering what was to come, Sihanouk’s complaints about US pressures to join SEATO (a Southeast Asian military cooperative modeled after NATO) probably seem petty, but this is the narrative of failed US foreign policy, as told by the man most responsible for, and familiar with the philosophical underpinnings of Cambodian diplomacy, from 1945 to 1970.
Some Background History
Phnom Penh in the 1950's
To give the briefest of histories: Sihanouk was crowned at age 18 in 1941. He was a puppet figure for occupying Japanese Imperial forces during World War II. When the Japanese evacuated, France tried to reassert its rule over the Indochinese colonies, but this was contested in post-war negotiations in Europe. Cambodia got its independence, and Sihanouk hoped its neutrality, in 1954. Sihanouk’s expressed desire was to maintain Cambodian neutrality, good relations with its neighbors, and to develop its economy in a way consonant with its strong Buddhist cultural roots. Beginning 1955, (US Secretary of State) John Foster Dulles, and his brother (CIA Director) Allan W. Dulles, began a hard-press campaign to get Cambodia to join SEATO.
With the carrot of foreign aid, and the stick of threatened embargos or even support of Thailand against Cambodia in a border dispute, the Dulles brothers’ efforts were construed as uninvited foreign interference in Cambodian self-rule. The Cold War was underway, and no part of the globe was uninvolved. The clearly articulated US stance was the familiar (and lately popularized by George W. Bush) “If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.” Sihanouk’s objection to SEATO was pragmatic; his country had been overrun by foreign military powers repeatedly throughout history (and in his lifetime), and Cambodia was war-weary. He didn’t want to obligate his people to fighting as a client state in some regional or (God forbid) superpower showdown. He simply didn’t see SEATO as a means to state security, but more likely a pathway to more war.At first, the Dulles bros were happy to lend US aid money without strings attached. Sihanouk deftly explains, however, that this wasn’t the great deal it appears. US aid was only awarded in the form of import credits (i.e. the money could only be used to purchase finished products manufactured predominantly in the US) –so it wasn’t of much use in achieving the development Sihanouk wanted to foster. These aid credits were not only useless for constructing domestic factories, farms, fisheries and other national assets; they made imports so cheap that no domestic Cambodian producer could compete profitably against them. Moreover, American aid stipulated that the aid could only be apportioned to US-designated recipients who had earned- through political support- the right to a US aid “import license”. In this way, the Dulles created a wealthy de facto pro-American lobby, which soon found its way into Cambodian politics. In fact, to avoid a complete political takeover by the corrupt aid recipients, Sihanouk changed the structure of government, so the small, corrupted Cambodian National Assembly (somewhat comparable to the Senate, is my impression) was made wholly subservient to the broader-based, less corrupted National Congress (which seems more like the House of Representatives, but it sounds like it is much more grass-roots). This was decried in the Western media abroad as a dictatorial monarch ruling by fiat, stifling democracy.
While all this was going on, Sihanouk was given real assets towards development by the likes of Russia, China, North Korea, and various Eastern European nations… not because those countries had Cambodia’s best interests in mind; clearly they didn’t. Obviously a monarchy was abhorrent to them, especially one with such deeply-expressed religious roots as Sihanouk’s. But those nations understood Sihanouk’s impulse towards economic development, and facilitating it was a way of driving a wedge between him and the USA. Moreover, a neutral Cambodia probably seemed the best they could hope for at the moment. Sihanouk wasn’t about to implement a peoples’ Marxist client state to Red China in his ancestral kingdom anytime soon. It seems so obvious now that if the US hadn’t pushed so hard, and hadn’t been so self-serving in its “foreign aid”, Cambodia could have been grown into at least a neutral/friendly trading partner, instead of the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.
The CIA Funds Civil Unrest in Cambodia~
John Foster and Allen W. Dulles
CIA shanangans begin in force sometime in the late 1950’s, when John F. Peurifoy- the CIA station head most credited with engineering the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954- is moved to Bangkok, where he begins funding and building up a Cambodian domestic dissident group, the Khmer Serei (“The Free Khmer”). This creates both (1) a source of domestic unrest which can be used to threaten Sihanouk’s credibility and legitimacy to rule, and which will take precious resources for him to fight; and (2) keeps the Cambodian army distracted with domestic peacekeeping responsibilities, so they cannot tend to the kingdom’s borders, should US or proxy forces invade (which they eventually did). CIA harassment of Sihanouk’s government is documented throughout the 1960’s. Typical to CIA, many of the Khmer Serei’s “spontaneous demonstrations” against the Prince featured signs in English- a language barely known by the general Cambodian public- which Western reporters eagerly documented and disseminated to Western audiences, to support the narrative of a freedom-yearning public rising up against an autocratic monarch who opposes American ideals (e.g. of democracy), and who is friendly to our Communist enemies. History disproves this view later, when Lon Nol’s coup fails to establish a lasting government, due to lack of popular support.
In the summer of 1959, the Chinese intelligence agency tipped off Sihanouk that the CIA was likely planning his assassination. They helped him identify and apprehend foreign agents in the northern jungle area near the Thai border. The agents- Thai nationals- had American military-grade armaments and radio equipment. Documents they had with them implicated Son Ngoc Than -an advisor to Prime Minister Lon Nol- in CIA activities. Son Ngoc Than, by the way, had been Prime Minister in the puppet regime established by Japanese Imperial forces during World War II. He was going to be tried in France as a traitor after the war, but Prince Sihanouk intervened on his behalf and argued for his political rehabilitation. That's gratitude for you.
Son Ngoc Than
No more was learned about an assassination plot at that time, but on 31 August 1959, a letter bomb ripped through part of the palace, killing several servants and functionaries, but failing to kill members of the royal family. On 03 September, the Indian intelligence agency handed over an intercepted message from Sam Sary, a member of the US diplomatic staff in Phnom Penh- to Edmund Kellogg, the CIA political advisor in Southeast Asia. Sary regretted the failure to remove Sihanouk, and awaited further instructions. There's your "smoking gun".
Some members of the embassy were expelled from the country, but it was later learned (too late) that as many as 20% of the US diplomatic staff was either directly CIA, CIA trained, or working in cooperation with the CIA.The following year, a second assassination attempt was discovered. Again, Chinese intelligence identified a known CIA agent leaving Taiwan and travelling into Cambodia. Cambodian police observed him renting a house close to the airport road in Phnom Penh. Over several weeks, he was recorded digging a tunnel under the road. When police moved in on him, they seized a powerful bomb, which was going to be placed under the road and detonated on the occasion of a state visit from Chinese Premier Chou En Lai. When the motorcade passed the appointed place along the road, the bomb was intended to kill both the Chinese official as well as Prince Sihanouk.
A third assassination attempt was thwarted in 1963- this time with less drama. The assassin was picked up by police before he could gain access to the palace. On him, they found a grenade. He eventually confessed the plot and his ties to the CIA, providing names of contacts which established CIA involvement beyond a doubt. He was tried for treason and executed.So to summarize: the US claimed friendship with the Sihanouk government, and wished to urge him to distance himself from Communist governments. Yet it was repeatedly the Red Chinese who tipped the Prince off about the incipient assassination attempt at the hands of the American CIA. If the State Department was involved, this is just downright treachery; if was not involved, then the CIA is a rogue agency working counter to American diplomatic policy. The Prince says as much in his own recollection of a conversation with President Kennedy, in which JFK assured him in early 1963 that no covert operations were underway in Cambodia. Sihanouk didn’t doubt Kennedy’s sincerity, but observing the contradictions between US policy and CIA behavior, he had to conclude that the President could not control the CIA, and most probably wasn’t even privy to what they were up to. In any case, what service did the CIA do the American public here? It is yet another case of them driving our potential friends into bed with our enemies.
Through its agent Son Sakd, the CIA set up the Bank of Phnom Penh in 1960, which was shut down around 1965 (?) after Cambodian officials amassed sufficient proof that the bank was laundering money for CIA agents, using cheap loans to bribe officials, and funding dissident groups like the Khmer Serei. At this point, Sihanouk also foreswore any more American military or financial aid. As he describes eloquently in the book, the taste of cheap money and opulent imported luxuries corrupted officials who had always been faithful public servants to this point. Naturally, some of what Sihanouk says may be taken with a grain of salt; he had his own interests, and saw the world through his own optics, but readers should consider that the Prince was crowned in an environment of optimism and public support for Cambodian independence, at the end of an era characterized by degrading French and then Japanese corruption.
The Coup of 1970
Lon Nol during the 1970 coup
So back to Lon Nol: he was Sihanouk’s Prime Minister, and was believed loyal, but documentation in this book, shows that for nearly a decade, he was being groomed by the CIA to depose Sihanouk when a propitious opportunity arose. He regularly met known CIA agents on state visits to Vietnam, and on visits to Paris- ostensibly for medical treatments. The Khmer Serei was at his disposal, armed clandestinely through the porous border to Laos.
When Sihanouk went on a state visit to Moscow in April 1970, Lon Nol and his forces occupied Phnom Penh, declared martial law, and convened an emergency session of Congress, whereby each representative had to sign his name to a ballot, voting to either dethrone the prince and install Lon Nol as Head of State –or not.With pro-Nol forces administering martial law right outside, you can guess how most of them voted.
Both foreign and domestic observers noted the new police forces were armed with the finest new American armaments. Later, a French ex-patriot school teacher provided photographic evidence that the guns had recently been unloaded in Sihanoukville off an American ship traceable to the CIA.
Did all this skullduggery pay off? Did the CIA install a new regime more friendly to American official interests? At the time of writing, the answer was "yes". The Lon Nol regime survived five years, but ultimately fell due to lack of popular support. Prince Sihanouk had always been popular with the rural folk, and Nol further inflamed them by seizing land and awarding it to his underlings. Independent farmers who were at least able to earn meager livings under the Prince found themselves debt slaves to new landlord cronies of Nol. The rural fury over this became fertile recruiting ground for the underground Marxist army of Pol Pot- whose forces would overwhelm all opposition- CIA backing notwithstanding- in April of 1975.
So what happened after the 1970 coup? As noted above, Lon Nol’s government struggled unsuccessfully for legitimacy, but his land confiscation put him at odds with the rural peasantry, which was eventually won over to Khmer Rouges resistance fighters. Meanwhile, continued draconian martial law and cronyism eroded any support he may have had in the cities and towns. Really it was only continued American economic and military aid which allowed Nol to hold power for five years. During this time, however, the Communist Khmer Rouge and royalist reactionaries- strange bedfellows indeed- steadily gained control of the rural areas and surrounded the towns, until the last days of the republic, when Phnom Penh was surrounded by guerilla insurgents and Lon Nol was forced to flee Cambodia (to Honolulu, it happens), never to return. He died in exile in 1985. Meanwhile, the victorious Communist forces ushered in the era of Pol Pot and genocide.
Of course, none of this was known at the time of this book’s writing. The Prince ends his narration with an optimistic plan to wait out the end of Nixon’s second term, and hope for a more conciliatory American administration in 1976. Touchingly, he closes: “But the National United Front, from top to bottom and from bottom to top, is absolutely determined to fight on if necessary until another U S President takes over in 1976, or until we have rid our country of foreign aggressors and local traitors and attained our modes aims of living our own Cambodian way of life within our own national boundaries, whether this takes until 1980 or 1984 or longer.”
By 1980, of course, 2 million Cambodians were slaughtered as elements subversive to the Peoples’ Marxist Revolution in Kampuchea (the “reformed” name for Cambodia). Sihanouk’s history at this point becomes complicated. He bounces between being a powerless figurehead to living in exile- in China and North Korea, mostly. He was recrowned king in 1993, but never effectively ruled after 1970. He died of colon cancer in Beijing, in October 2012. While Sihanouk’s willingness to collaborate with the likes of Mao, Kim Il Sung (of North Korea), and the Soviet Union bespeaks a certain naiveté, and perhaps a moral ambiguity about the means he employed to his ends, I challenge anybody to read this book and question his sincerity as a benevolent leader who genuinely wanted a peaceful path towards economic development, a way of life which respected his nation’s traditions and Buddhist foundations, and to reclaim dignity for his kingdom, after a century of humiliating colonialization.
Even taking the most cynical view of the Prince, it is impossible to justify or excuse the approach the CIA took towards Cambodia, given that the US officially recognized its national sovereignty, and was not in a state of war with the kingdom.
So after that sordid mess, it seems fair to point out that here, once again, we have an episode in history where the CIA was not functioning as an apparatus of intelligence gathering, but rather as an armed paramilitary interventional force. Its actions were not sanctioned by Congress or the President (that we know), and in any case not subject to the veto of American public opinion. The agency is either behaving as a rogue actor, or as a personal and unaccountable army to the Executive Branch of (American federal) government. Neverminding (not that we should excuse it) the astounding human suffering it caused in Cambodia, the agency has again here created enormous ill-will towards an American public which was wholly unconsulted, unrepresented, and uninvolved with its activities. The agency has not just put blood on our collective hands; it has created circumstances ripe for “blowback” –retaliatory actions directed at ordinary Americans. Cambodians of the 1970’s –either by nature or opportunity- did not engage in terrorism against Americans, but well could have.
I regard this entire book as further evidence that the time has come for a national forum to discuss whether this agency should be dissolved. Sihanouk was not an angel, and a lot of others wronged by the CIA were not angels either, but the long and bloody history of the CIA offends the national conscience, and endangers the public, to the benefit of apparently a very few.
Cambodian citizens being marched at gunpoint, by their own army, to the killing fields, 1975
NOTE: This was a fascinating book. I’d be willing to share it with another reader out there, but only somebody with a real interest in this subject, who promises to read and review it. -BB