Monday, March 17, 2014

March 18, 1970 From Bloodless Coup to Bloody War

Marshal Lon Nol and his entourage (image

Since independence day 1953 until 1970, King Sihanouk and his Sangkum Reas Nyum had overshadowed all Cambodian people lives.  Most old Cambodian generation had experienced Sihanouk's autocratic rule and his unpredictable foreign policy that ultimately became catalysts to pull him from the power.  By 1966, Sihanouk had shown his political weakness since he could not control both internal and external problems--the intensification of Vietnam War and the growing conservative and nationalist elements in his government and party.  It is remarkable that the National Assembly members elected in 1966 were not handpicked by Sihanouk though they were still the Sangkum members, and those members later voted to oust him from the power. However, his peaceful removal had created a quick fire storm that pushed the country into the most bloody war in the country's history.

By 1958, the Democrat, the backbone of Cambodian democracy and a constant threat to Sihanouk's political fortune had been wiped out completely from political arena.  Most of its prominent members either joint the Sangkum or went into exile such as Son San, Chean Vorm, Keng Vansak, Thuon Mom, and so forth.  But when the Democrat vanished, the Communists and the Khmer Serei have emerged to challenged his power again.  Sihanouk fairly survived coup attempt in 1959 plotted by Dap Chuonn, Son Gnoc Thanh, Som Sary and others shadowing by the CIA, Saigon, and Bangkok. As the aftermath, Sihanouk went against all suspected supporters of Khmer Serei, extirpating them through fire squads, and severed diplomatic tie with the U.S. and its economic aids.  While the Khmer Serei were almost wiped out from the country, the communists--the predecessor of the current CPP--had gained their momentum to openly challenged the Sangkum in election, and some of the well-known members were elected into the parliament such as Keu Somphan, Chao Seng, Ho Nem, and Ho Yun and so on. But Sihanouk persistently harassed them until they fled to the jungle one by one. By 1968, there was no a single communist member in the National Assembly but gradually dominated by the conservative and nationalist members.

First lady Jacklin Kennedy and Prince Sihanouk (Google image)
Along with domestic front that Sihanouk tried to curd them from seizing the power, he had another tough job to keep Cambodia from drifting into the Vietnam War. As the war intensified along the borders, the small and weak Cambodia would fall into that war inevitably though Sihanouk publicly had claimed that Cambodia is a true neutral country in the conflict. Like or not, a small Cambodian army had no match with the well-equipped and experienced North Vietnamese troops if Cambodia chose to confront with them along the border.  To avoid casualties for the army and civilians, Sihanouk secretly agreed to let the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to station inside Cambodia territory in exchange, they would not attack Cambodian army and civilians.  On the other hand, Sihanouk habitually likes to side with the winner no matter what and who; he was well confident that the North Vietnamese would win the war from the South just in a matter of time since he had anticipated that the Soviet and China were in full commitment to help Hanoi winning the war and to weaken the U.S.'s influence in Southeast Asia.

To allow the Vietnamese troops stationing in Cambodia, Sihanouk faced a fire balls from both domestically and internationally since he had publicly declared Cambodia as a neutral country in the Vietnam conflict, and when the U.S. and its ally, South Vietnam learned that they no longer recognized Cambodian sovereignty.  Frequently, the U.S. and the South Vietnamese troops entered Cambodian territory to chase the Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops on their will.  Furthermore, the Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia had irritated the Khmer nationalists who had already seen Sihanouk's appeasing policy toward Hanoi even if he claimed his neutrality in the war.  Facing criticism from both sides, he scrambled to realign himself with the U.S. renewing diplomatic relationship with the U.S. while he still reasserted friendship with Vietnam.  Such contradictory policy discredited him even further with the high ranking conservative officials in the government and the parliament.

Siri Matak and Lon Nol (Google image)
Prince Siri Matak, Sihanouk's cousin and the most conservative deputy prime minister, became the main plotter to overthrow Sihanouk.  He lost patient with Sihanouk's appeasing policy toward Hanoi, allowing the presence of Vietnamese military bases on Cambodian soil and playing contradictory foreign policy.  Siri Matak tired of playing supporting role in Sihanouk never-end political drama while the Cambodian army was under fire from the Communist Khmer Rouge insurgents; and the many local people complained about the Vietnamese military bases in their areas. All these factors had pushed Siri Matak to make his final decision to find a solution for the country, in which he gravely miscalculated the political situation that later led to destroy even  himself.

As a prime minister, Lon Nol, saw a great danger to national sovereignty and independence when thousands of foreign troops stationing in the country unchecked.  Then he saw himself as a unique capable leader to save the country from the Vietnamese invaders. To find the truth, Lon Nol sent Siri Matak secretly to Hanoi as a fact finder to find out what could be done to remove the Vietnamese troops from Cambodian soil. In Hanoi, Sari Matak infuriated when he was shown documents signed by Sihanouk agreeing to let the Vietnamese military bases stationed in the country.  When he returned home, all deliveries of supplies to the Vietnamese troops were completely cut and set a full confrontation with Hanoi--a scenario that Sihanouk had shunned away for the past fifteen years.  Siri Matak failed to consider whether he had enough troops to face with the powerful North Vietnamese, or he might think that Americans in Vietnam would help him to survive the battle with the Communists.

Then the time was ripe for Sihanouk's removal. According to Professor David Chandler's account, on the night of March 17, 1970, Prince Siri Matak and three army officers visited Prime Minister Lon Nol's home, threatened him with a pistol, and made him signed a declaration supporting a vote against Sihanouk scheduled for the fallowing day in the National Assembly.  When Lon Nol signed the document, as if aware of the long-term consequences of his action, he burst into tears.  Next day the National Assembly overwhelmingly voted to remove Prince Sihanouk from power.  For the first time in thousand-year history, Cambodia became the republic though an official declaration delayed until October 1970.  Such a dramatic moment at Lon Nol's home had foreseen a great destruction of the country in the fallowing years.

Fallowing the peaceful coup, for most Cambodian people, the idea that the Vietnamese troops must leave Cambodia was much more popular than removing Sihanouk from the power when the people heard that Marshal Lon Nol gave an ultimatum to the Vietnamese troops to leave Cambodia in 48 hours or to face a consequence--it's probably the most unrealistic command in Cambodian history though most Cambodian people strongly supported it, for there was very limited leverage or power to enforce that ultimatum.  In contrast, the young Khmer Republic was severely beaten down by the well-armed and experience Vietnamese troops.  Two weeks after the coup, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops were just 10 miles away from the center of Phnom Penh, and by May 1970, the Vietcong took control Angkor Wat compound, and the country fell into the most violent war in history before the Khmer Rouge's victory in April 17, 1975 that pushed the country further into the killing field.

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