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Cambodia: 1971

1956: Cambodia

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1972: Cambodia (Khmer Republic)
1973: Cambodia (Khmer Republic)
1974: Cambodia (Khmer Republic)
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Archives consist of articles that originally appeared in Collier's Year Book (for events of 1997 and earlier) or as monthly updates in Encarta Yearbook (for events of 1998 and later). Because they were published shortly after events occurred, they reflect the information available at that time. Cross references refer to Archive articles of the same year.


1971: Cambodia

The bitter struggle sparked in March 1970 by the right-wing coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk developed during 1971 into a civil war in which both sides could survive only with powerful outside help. Between the American-supported Khmer republic of Phnom Penh and Prince Sihanouk's royal government of national union, backed by Peking and Hanoi, the prospects for a political compromise looked grim.

Towns vs. countryside.

When the Phnom Penh government proclaimed Cambodia a republic in October 1970, it hardly controlled more than 25 percent of the Cambodian territory—most of the provincial capitals and towns, with their immediate outskirts, and also the area stretching between the capital and Battambang, the central plain south of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake). The leftist United National Front of Cambodia (UNFK) and its North Vietnamese and Vietcong allies had taken over not only the northeastern provinces, which they controlled completely, but also the countryside in the northern, southern, and southwestern parts of the country.

This situation did not change basically throughout 1971. Although after heavy fighting the Phnom Penh government, under General Lon Nol, was able to somewhat loosen the leftist grip around the towns and restore security in a few areas, it remained completely dependent upon South Vietnamese and American aid in order to survive both militarily and economically.

Priority was given to the battle for communications and free access to Phnom Penh. Land and river connections with South Vietnam were kept open by South Vietnamese forces moving along Route 1 (Parrot's Beak and Prey Veng) and stationed at the Mekong crossing at Neak Luong. This road connection was considered vital, and nothing was spared to ensure its security.

Reopening the road between Phnom Penh and the deepwater seaport of Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) required the intervention of American naval units of the Seventh Fleet and later of South Vietnamese troops, particularly to break the resistance of North Vietnamese troops around the Pich Nil Pass. However, Route 4 remained permanently under the threat of ambush or sabotage, and the transportation of oil products from the sea to Phnom Penh continued under precarious conditions. North of Phnom Penh, in the area of Taing Kauk—a key junction on the roads to Kompong Cham and to Kompong Thom/Siem Reap—heavy fighting raged for weeks, and government forces could not resume their advance northward before August.

Late in the spring it appeared that a long military stalemate was likely. It was too costly for Lon Nol's forces to launch great offensive operations against entrenched North Vietnamese troops. In any case, the government had to give priority to the resumption of traffic on main roads and could not afford to waste efforts elsewhere. The leftist guerrilla units, subjected to heavy aerial interdiction bombings and facing superior firepower, could not hope to take and keep towns. It was more profitable for them to prevent the rightists from opening the roads or penetrating the countryside and to concentrate their efforts on retaining possession of the villages, fields, and forests, as well as on teaching, training, and radicalizing the villagers. The North Vietnamese and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam also wanted to use Cambodia as a sanctuary for their forces as long as the war in South Vietnam continued. The failure of Saigon's troops to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through which supplies and men reach Cambodia, explains why the situation did not significantly change in this area throughout the year. Actually, North Vietnamese cadres control much more territory in Cambodia now than before President Richard M. Nixon decided to "mop up" the sanctuary in April 1970.

Important surprise attacks inside the government-controlled area showed that the security problem has yet to be solved. Phnom Penh airport was attacked on January 22 and suffered significant damage. The oil refinery at Kompong Som was attacked and damaged on March 2. On September 20 an estimated 40 percent of Cambodia's civilian fuel supply was destroyed when enemy demolition men fired rockets into large storage tanks outside of Phnom Penh. Explosions occurred even in Phnom Penh itself; the U.S. Embassy was the target twice.

Destruction of many towns and villages by artillery fire or aerial bombing forced thousands of refugees to look for shelter. There was great international concern about protecting the world-famous ruins at Angkor Vat, which are located in the Sihanouk-controlled area, from destruction during military operations.

From neutrality to alignment.

Although the Khmer republic's leaders repeatedly emphasized that they wanted to maintain a policy of neutrality and nonalignment, their great dependence upon South Vietnamese and American support forced them to adjust their policies. Their first concerns were to expand the army to consolidate power, resist what they called foreign aggression, and impose control over the provinces still under Sihanouk's influence. From the swollen urban population they could recruit a 220,000man army; they could also equip and train this army, thanks to foreign aid. In fiscal 1970-1971, Phnom Penh received first $30 million, then $255 million from Washington for military and economic aid ($155 million in arms and ammunition and $100 million to maintain the volume of imports at the level it had reached in the year preceding the March 1970 coup). The aid bill, signed by President Nixon on January 7, 1971, forbade the participation of American troops or advisers in the struggle.

Cambodia restored relations with its immediate neighbors. A treaty of cooperation with Thailand was signed on December 29, 1970, in Phnom Penh. Specific agreements on border control, communications, transport, tourism, and joint use of the Mekong River were signed with South Vietnam in Saigon on January 22. These agreements created a framework for close cooperation between the three governments, all of whom are allies of the United States. One of the most important points discussed was delimitation, mainly for oil exploration purposes, of the continental shelf off the shore of Cambodia. International companies, mostly American and Japanese, already have permits on the Thai side, and a French company has a permit on the Cambodian side. Negotiations on this subject, begun in December 1970 between Bangkok and Phnom Penh, are still in progress. However, the Sihanouk government in Peking made it clear on January 8, 1971, that it would recognize none of the concessions granted by Phnom Penh if it ever returned to power.

The Khmer republic went far beyond simple normalization of its relations with Saigon and Bangkok—it became a junior member of the "Far Eastern anti-Communist club." Various republican leaders, especially Foreign Minister Koun Wick, paid official visits to South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand, where they rarely got more than good words. They adopted a strong anti-Hanoi and anti-Peking line but refrained from attacking the Soviet Union, which still maintains an embassy in Phnom Penh. The announcement on July 15 of President Nixon's proposed visit to Peking caused great embarrassment in Phnom Penh, where a shift in official propaganda was quickly noticed.

Despite war tensions and demands, Phnom Penh advanced further toward economic liberalization: most of the import-export trade was returned to the private sector, and a banking law was passed allowing private Khmer and foreign banks to operate again in Cambodia.

Domestic politics.

Political activity continued in the new setting. The National Assembly had its mandate extended (it had expired in October 1970), and it discussed a draft constitution. The three main factions that make up the Phnom Penh government, although united against Sihanouk and his Vietnamese allies, are nevertheless competing for power in the republic: the army, with Lieutenant General Lon Nol; the business class, which favors Prince (now General) Sisowath Sirik Matak; and a bureaucratic-military group led by Son Ngoc Thanh, leader of the Khmer Serei (Free Khmer) and premier under the Japanese in 1945.

On February 8, a couple of weeks after a visit to Saigon, Premier Lon Nol suffered a stroke and was forced to cease all activity immediately. He was sent to Hawaii for treatment, and Vice-Premier Sisowath Sirik Matak assumed power. When Lon Nol returned on April 12, he was no longer able to rule effectively. He offered his resignation, and Sirik Matak was asked to become premier, but the colonels reacted sharply (under Lon Nol's brother, Lieutenant Colonel Lon Non), and there was fear of a military coup. However, differences were composed under American pressure, and a new political formula was found on May 3. Lon Nol agreed to serve as titular chief of government, while Sirik Matak would function as acting premier and wield the actual power. The Son Ngoc Thanh group also strengthened its position in the government.

Sirik Matak visited the United States in August at the invitation of President Nixon, whom he met in Washington on August 10. He received confirmation that American aid to Cambodia for 1971-1972 would total over $300 million. Briefed about American policy regarding China, he asked for continued American aerial support in the struggle against Sihanouk and his allies.

Economic developments.

The Cambodian economy has broken down in various sectors. Isolated or besieged cities and towns constitute one such sector. The city of Phnom Penh is swollen with a million refugees from the countryside, seeking shelter from bombings and other wartime operations. Transportation difficulties, speculation and corruption, and a scarcity of goods made prices soar considerably in the urban sector, especially this spring. For example, the price of rice rose 120 percent in June alone. Oil products are also scarce and expensive.

Cambodia's export potential fell to nothing. All but one of the rubber plantations either are out of operation or have suffered considerable damage. In a year the riel has lost three-quarters of its face value. There are now favorable prospects neither for the economy—given a stringent dose of anti-inflationary medicine in November—nor for politics and peace in Cambodia, whose fate is directly linked with the restoration of peace in Vietnam.

Area and population.

Area, 69,800 sq. mi. Pop. (est. 1969), 6,900,000. Principal cities: Phnom Penh (cap.), 650,000; Battambang, 45,000; Kompong Cham, 33,000.


Constitutional republic. Acting prem., Sisowath Sirik Matak.


Monetary unit, riel; 1 riel = US$0.006.


Principal exports: rice, rubber, maize, pepper, cattle, fish. Principal imports: metals, machinery, vehicles, textiles, oil.

Agriculture and industry.

Chief products: rice, maize, rubber, cotton, pepper, tobacco, timber. Limited industrial production.

Education (1968).

Enrollment: primary, 1,025,000; secondary, 117,000; higher, 10,800; technical, 7,400.

Armed forces.

Army, 45,000; air force, 2,500; navy, 1,350.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2002. © 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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