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ROYAL CRUSADE FOR INDEPENDENCE

Between February and November 1953, as the Indochina War entered its most intensive phase in Vietnam, King Norodom Sihanouk launched a “royal crusade for independence” that took him across the world and throughout Cambodia. At the heart of his sudden decision to push the French for the full independence of Cambodia was Sihanouk’s need to recast himself as the national leader of Cambodia; it was essential to his ability to remain a power player in postcolonial Cambodia. Like Bao Dai, Sihanouk was something of a colonial king, having been selected by Governor General Jean Decoux in 1941. Sihanouk had remained loyal to the French and their return to Indochina after World War II. The problem was that he had national competition. The Cambodian Democrat Party began pushing for greater independence from the French as well as political pluralism vis-à-vis the monarchy. The well known nationalist, Son Ngoc Thanh, returned to Cambodia in 1950 and soon positioned himself as Cambodia’s true modern nationalist leader, contrasting himself to Sihanouk’s longstanding relationship with the French and their colonial project. Faced with such challenges, Sihanouk realized he had to break with the past or risk being sidelined for good. His decision to move was also motivated by his frustration at the inept, corrupt revolving door governments in the late 1940s.

It was in this context that Sihanouk decided to go on the move to recast himself as the “father of the nation”, even it meant forcing the French colonial hand. The increasing intensity of the Franco-Vietnamese war provided Sihanouk with a favorable conjuncture and the leverage he needed to pressure Paris more effectively in light of the French need to win against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). In February 1953, as the DRV prepared to disperse the French army across all of Indochina, Sihanouk made his move when he dissolved the Democrat-dominated National Assembly and embarked upon a national and international campaign to force the French to accord Cambodia full independence with himself at the helm. At first, the French refused to take him seriously when he arrived in France and informed Vincent Auriol of his call for full independence of Cambodia. The Americans asked Sihanouk not to bother the French with this right now in light of the more urgent need to fight communism at this dire point in the Indochina War. John Foster Dulles told Sihanouk that by creating problems with France he was only helping the communists. Miffed by the French and angered by the Americans, Sihanouk turned to the media to advance his case. In an interview he accorded to the New York Times, he threatened to lean the other way, towards the Vietnamese communists, if the French did not grant Cambodia independence.

Sihanouk then returned to Cambodia, but left the capital for remote Battambang province. From there, he began to mobilize popular sentiment behind him. He set up base in the temples of Angkor Wat and prepared a national march on Phnom Penh. Although admittedly difficult to gauge accurately, Cambodian support for Sihanouk’s crusade was real or at least sufficient enough to convince the French to compromise. The French needed to keep Cambodia on board in the struggle against the DRV. On 17 October 1953, French and Cambodian delegates signed a political convention. Sihanouk resumed contacts with the French and left Battambang to make a triumphal return to Phnom Penh on 8 November 1953. In early 1954, continued negotiations ensured the full independence of Cambodia from the French. “Messieurs, le roi est fou”, the French commander for Cambodia Paul de Langlade said of Sihanouk, “mais c’est un fou génial” (Messieurs, the king is a nutter, but a brilliant one).

While the French army remained in control of major military operations, by late 1953 Cambodia had recovered its independence and Sihanouk had successfully recast himself as a nationalist monarch, although his claim to this mantle would continue to be contested into the postwar period. See also BAO DAI SOLUTION; PHETXARAT.