Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 34, No. 18. October 6 1971
Prince Norodom Sihanouk, it was officially claimed, had lost the confidence of his people when he was deposed as Cambodian Head of State last year. The present regime, by implication, deserved the world's support. But a remarkable series of interviews with highly placed, and for the moment anonymous figures in Phnom Penh reveals a very different pattern of conspiracy and intrigue - icluding a plan to assaisinate the Prince, if necessary, as early as six months before the coup. T.D. Allman here tells a story which remains a closely guarded secret inside the young republic.
Every political regime, using tactics ranging from the benign fiction of Plato's golden myths to the national brainwashing of Himmler's big lie, to some extent justifies its existence - and conceals its mistakes -through recorse to deception.
Somewhere in between, repeated again and again to the Cambodian population, as well as to foreign visitors, lie the claims of the Phnom Penh Government that last year's ousting of Prince Sihanouk, and the war that followed, were the result of spontaneous popular demonstrations.
The complete details of the moves leading to Sihanouk's going have long been closely guarded State secrets here. In a recent series of interviews, however, a number of high-ranking Cambodian officials for the first time consented on the condition that their names be not revealed for the present, to discuss candidly the events leading up to the change in Government and the beginning of the war.
The train of events re-created in the interviews, granted to me over the last month, is completely at variance with the offical version of the events disseminated through the various propaganda organs of the Cambodian Government. The interviews, nearly 18 months after the events seem important not only in an historical perspective, but in the light of the Government's pretensions that the Cambodian war was unavoidable, that Sihanouk had lost the confidence of his people - and that as a result the present regime is entitled to world-wide support.
According to these people, all of whom still hold high posts in Phnom Pehn, Marshall Lon No 1, his deputy, Sirik Matak, and important members of The Cambodian, high command and Parliament conspired to overthrow Norodom Sihanouk by force of arms and to assassinate him, if necessary, as early as six months before the coup actually occurred and the war started.
They also organised subsequent anti-Sihanouk demonstrations, which failed to attrack popular support and thus delayed the anti-Sihanouk group's timetable for ousting the Prince by 48 hours. On the eve of Sihanouk's eventual overthrow, on March 18, 1970, the Lon Nol-Sirik Matak forces arrested scores of pro-Sihanouk officials and surrounded the National Assemby with tanks. Only then did the Cambodian Parliament proceed to oust the Prince.
The crucial March demonstrations, the final steps in Sihanouk's removal from power, were planned in a series of high-level clandestine meetings heldin Phom Penh in the early months of 1970. Several of them were held in the homes of Lon Nol and Sirik Matak; others occurred in moving cars to avoid detection by S Sihanouk's secret police. Sihanouk himself was absent from the country at the time.
The result of the meetings, I was told, were personal orders issued by Lon Nol and Sirik Matak instructing the Minister of Education, at that time Chamm Sokhum, to arrange anti-Vietcong demonstrations in the Communist infiltrated province of Svay Rieng, and later in Phnom Penh itself Svay Rieng officials apparently feared the consequences of the demonstrations, but went ahead with them when they were assured that they "would help Sihanouk in his efforts to put pressure on the Communists to withdraw," as one of my informants put it.
After the small demonstration on March 8 of students and teachers in Svay Rieng, larger demonstrations were ordered for Phnom Penh. Government sound trucks urged the students to demonstrate, and officers of the Government sponsored Assembly of Youth arranged for students and teachers to assemble at the two Communist embassies.
However the actual sackings of the two embassies, which, together with Sihanouk's fall and a Cambodian ultimatum to the Communists, provided a casus belli, was arranged through the Cambodian high command and actually carried out by squads of military police in plain clothes under thy command of Lon Non, Lon Nol's younger brother.
The demonstration in Phnom Penh on March was just one part of a planned two-part effort to oust the Prince. "We planned two demonstrations" one of my sources said, "one for the eleventh to create the crisis, the other on March (1970) to provide the pretext for ousting Sihanouk."
Anti-Sihanouk tracts and anti-Vietnamese posters were prepared in advance at the Ministries of Information and Education. However the anti-Sihanouk demonstration on March 16 failed when pro-Sihanouk students surrounded the National Assembly. The Phnom Penh police, also pro-Sihanouk, that day arrested 20 hand-picked demonstrators carrying anti-Sihanouk tracts as they moved toward the Assembly. As a result, I was told, "it appeared for the moment we were foiled."
Inside the national assembly that day anti-Sihanouk deputies, including the acting president of the Assembly, In Tham (now Minister of the Interior), were waiting for the demonstration to materialise in the hope that it would stampede the Parliament into ousting Sihanouk. Instead, "we began to be attacked for our anti-Sihanouk statements. The Assembly adjourned in confusion."
That night, as Phnom Penh newspapers carried headlines saying "Coup d'etat aborted," another high ranking meeting was held at the home of Sisowath Sirik Matak. He summed up the situation when he said; "We have gone too far now to turn back."
The next day, with the approval of Lon Nol, the arrests began. Tables arrested or forced from office included 20 high ranking army officers, the governors of Phnom Penh and the surrounding Kandal province, and two members of the Cabinet. Only after Lon Nol's troops had taken over the civilian Government of Phnom Penh, and tanks had surrounded the Assembly building, did the actual vote ousting Sihanouk take place.
The events of March 18 are alleged to be but the final stage of more than six months' efforts to depose Sihanouk (which began shortly after the former chief of state, in an effort to put pressure on the Communists, named Lon Nol premier and commander in chief of the Cambodian armed forces in mid-1969)
According to the sources, the anti-Sihanouk faction was ready to oust Sihanouk in December 1969, during a national congress held in Phnom Penh. The sources said that 4,000 military police and, solider, again under the command of Lon Nol, were ordered to pack the meeting which Sihanouk used as a sounding board for his programme. Seeing he was out-gunned, Sihaouk let the Congress vote for Sirik Matak's policies rather than dissolve the Government and call for new elections, as planned. Shortly afterwards Sihanouk left Phnom Penh for France, telling a confidant; "They are trying to make a Sukarno out of me."
New light is also shed on the role played by Lon Nol in the events leading up to Sihanouk's ousting. The Premier absented himself from Phnom Penh during much of the crisis, and some observers have suspected that he, unlike Sirik Matak, was not wholeheartedly behind the moves to remove the Chief of State. However, my sources agreed that Lon Nol all along had manipulated events from afar. "We always acted with his approval, on his instructions. He ran the Government - and our plans - by telephone from Paris."
Interestingly enough, my informants, in the course of half a dozen interviews, never named Sihanouk's foreign policy of maintaining good relations with the Vietnamese Communists as a reason for ousting him.
"Frankly," said one of them, "Sihanouk was as anti-Communist as we were." Another said; "He had power too long. We wanted it. The only way to get at him was by attacking the Vietcong." Military orders, signed by Lon Nol, directed Government troops to assasinate the Chief of State if he returned to Cambodia. The main fear of the moment was that Sihanouk would return, rally the country to him, and hold elections, which he would win "because he was so popular with the peasants."
Perhaps the most striking elements of the anti-Sihanouk conspiracy - for such it seems to have been - were its total lack of spontaneity, and the plotters' easy sacrifice of good relations with the all-powerful Vietnamese Communists in the interests of domestic and political expediency.