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Cambodia: 1972 (Khmer Republic)

1956: Cambodia

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1972: Cambodia (Khmer Republic)
1973: Cambodia (Khmer Republic)
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1998: Pol Pot Dies at 73
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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.


1972: Cambodia (Khmer Republic)

Politics and government.

As the military position of the Cambodian government deteriorated in the face of Communist insurgent success, Marshal Lon Nol, despite physical incapacity, consolidated his hold over the political life of the country.

During December 1971 the Cambodian army suffered a crushing defeat when its best-trained units attempted to remove the Communist presence from Highway 6, a key artery that proceeds northward from Phnom Penh, the capital, to the town of Kompong Thom. The government's columns were decimated by the superior firepower of the intruding North Vietnamese forces and their Cambodian allies. One consequence of this military disaster was a dramatic drop in army morale. At the same time, criticism of Lon Nol—who had initiated and personally run the disastrous operation—became widespread among the political and military elite of the violated country. Although similar criticisms of Lon Nol were voiced by the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, it was made known that any coup against him would result in the withdrawal of American aid.

On his return to Cambodia from a vacation in March 1972, Lon Nol acted to disarm his political opponents. His initiatives coincided with the outbreak of antiroyalist student demonstrations directed at the acting prime minister, Sisowath Sirik Matak, a member of the Cambodian royal family. On March 10, Cheng Heng resigned as head of state in favor of Lon Nol, who announced that it was his duty to assume the presidency in order to save the nation. Lon Nol dissolved the Constituent Assembly and nullified its work on the nearly completed republican constitution. On March 12, Lon Nol declared himself president of the Khmer Republic, commander in chief of the armed forces, and president of the Council of Ministers.

Sirik Matak, who had assumed the main burden of administration when Lon Nol suffered a stroke in February 1971, announced his retirement from politics in March 1972. On March 18, the second anniversary of Prince Sihanouk's overthrow, Lon Nol ended the week-long political crisis by naming Son Ngoc Thanh as prime minister. Son had first held the post during the Japanese occupation; a bitterly anti-Sihanouk figure, he had passed many years in exile in South Vietnam. At the end of March, Lon Nol introduced a "presidential constitution" in order to give himself legal basis for ruling. A popular referendum was held one month later to pass judgment on this document, and according to government figures the 1.5 million voters overwhelmingly supported the new constitution.

On June 4, the first presidential election was held under the new constitution. Apart from Lon Nol, the contenders for office were In Tam, who had been president of the National Assembly at the time of the deposition of Prince Sihanouk, and Keo An, dismissed in February by the government from the post of dean of law at the University in Phnom Penh. The election was hampered by Communist attacks near the capital and by the deliberate exclusion from the polling booths of many voters in Phnom Penh. Although his election campaign was well financed and enjoyed the political support—and the votes—of the armed forces, Lon Nol did not poll as well as expected. Out of about 1 million votes cast (roughly half the eligible number of voters), Lon Nol received 54 percent. On July 3, Lon Nol was sworn in as Cambodia's first elected president.

General elections were held on September 3 for the 126 seats in the National Assembly. Three major political parties announced their intention of contesting the elections: the Social Republican Party, led by Colonel Lon Non (Lon Nol's brother); the Republican Party, led by Sirik Matak; and the Democratic Party, led by In Tam. But before polling day, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties withdrew from the contest in protest over the electoral law, which, they charged, denied them any chance of winning. As a result, the Social Republican Party, facing opposition in only 17 constituencies, won all of the seats in the assembly. On October 14, Lon Nol designated Hang Thun Hak as the new prime minister, and the cabinet, announced the next day, included Lon Non.

Military deterioration.

With the failure of the Highway 6 operation, most Cambodian territory east of the Mekong River was lost almost without a fight. Despite the government's recruitment of an army of about 200,000 men, the military initiative remained fully with the Communist forces, whose ranks had been augmented by indigenous Khmer Rouge insurgents estimated to number 30,000. The Communists began to chip away at morale in Phnom Penh by assassination attempts against the U.S. ambassador and Prime Minister Son and by periodically launching rockets into the city—on one occasion within yards of Lon Nol's residence. By mid-1972, the insurgents had extended their operations south and northwest of the capital and were able to cut off food and fuel supplies to Phnom Penh. Breakdowns in army discipline were manifested in January with the arrest of an army colonel charged with selling pharmaceuticals to the enemy and, in the same month, with the shooting of civilians by battle-weary troops who claimed to have opened fire on the moon to prevent it from being devoured by a mythical frog. In early September, dire food shortages in Phnom Penh—the result of North Vietnamese interdiction of supply routes—prompted large-scale looting, allegedly led by government soldiers. Lon Nol offered amnesty to the Khmer Rouge in November, but it was not known how many insurgents were accepting the offer and returning to civilian life.

Foreign affairs.

United States support remained the key factor in sustaining the Lon Nol government. U.S. economic and military support for 1971 amounted to a record $341 million. In March, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green asserted that the Nixon administration anticipated an ongoing U.S. defense commitment to Cambodia, even after U.S. forces were withdrawn from South Vietnam.

The Cambodian government expressed anxiety over President Nixon's visit to Peking in February and over Nixon's failure to include Cambodia within the terms of his Vietnam peace proposal. These events, together with the desperate military situation, may have prompted Lon Nol to seek, without success, a compromise agreement with the Vietnamese Communists, using the Soviet Union as an intermediary. Lon Nol reportedly offered a de facto partition of the country.

Prince Sihanouk, still in exile in Peking, spent much of the year traveling abroad to win support for his cause. In February, just before President Nixon's arrival, Sihanouk left Peking for a three-week visit to North Vietnam. In April he visited North Korea, and in June he went on an East European and North African tour which included Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, Algeria, and Mauritania. The Chinese government continued to express strong support for Sihanouk and his government-in-exile. On March 19, Premier Chou En-lai hosted a banquet to mark the second anniversary of Prince Sihanouk's arrival in Peking. The persistence of Sihanouk and his supporters in presenting their case bore diplomatic fruit in August when the Conference of Nonaligned Countries, meeting in Guyana, recognized the Sihanouk delegation as the legitimate representative of Cambodia.

Economic disintegration.

The war began to wreak havoc with the economic life of Cambodia. The economy was kept from utter collapse by consumer imports financed through foreign aid and by agricultural products provided by the United States. In January, the government convened an emergency monetary conference made up of nations sympathetic to the Cambodian cause in order to solicit financial assistance in propping up the war-stricken economy and the level of the currency. Contributions totaling $20 million were received from the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Area and population.

Area, 69,800 sq. mi. Pop. (est. 1972), 7 million. Principal cities: Phnom Penh (cap.), 1 million; Battambang, 50,000; Kompong Cham, 35,000.


Constitutional republic. Pres., Lon Nol; prime min., Hang Thun Hak.


Monetary unit, riel; 1 riel = US$0.0075. Budget (1972): 24 billion riels.


Virtually no exports because of the war. Principal imports: petroleum products, vehicles, foodstuffs, and armaments.

Agriculture and industry.

Chief products: rice, corn, rubber, pepper, cattle, fish. Insignificant industrial production.

Education (1968).

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

Armed forces.

Army (est. 1972), 200,000; air force, 2,400; navy, 1,600.

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

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