Cambodia Gains Independence from France

Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk helped to wrest Cambodian independence from France, making him a national hero and raising the hopes of Cambodians that they could remain free of communist domination threatening the region.

Summary of Event

The ancient kingdom of Cambodia lost its independence to Siam (now Thailand) in 1369 and later became a vassal state, dependent on Siam and Vietnam, in the early nineteenth century. In 1863, in face of Vietnamese aggression, the French established the protectorate of Cambodia, which they incorporated into their colonial Union of Indochina in 1887. In 1897, France reduced the Cambodian king into a mere figurehead. Initially, during World War II (1939-1945), Japan allowed the French colonial administration to remain in place in Cambodia, and the French installed Norodom Sihanouk as Cambodian king in September, 1941. Nationalism;Cambodia
Anticolonial movements;Cambodia
France;colonial empire
[kw]Cambodia Gains Independence from France (Nov. 9, 1953)
[kw]Independence from France, Cambodia Gains (Nov. 9, 1953)
[kw]France, Cambodia Gains Independence from (Nov. 9, 1953)
Anticolonial movements;Cambodia
France;colonial empire
[g]Southeast Asia;Nov. 9, 1953: Cambodia Gains Independence from France[04270]
[g]Cambodia;Nov. 9, 1953: Cambodia Gains Independence from France[04270]
[c]Independence movements;Nov. 9, 1953: Cambodia Gains Independence from France[04270]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Nov. 9, 1953: Cambodia Gains Independence from France[04270]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 9, 1953: Cambodia Gains Independence from France[04270]
Sihanouk, Norodom
Thanh, Son Ngoc
Penn Nouth, Samdech
Auriol, Vincent

Cambodian king Norodom Sihanouk.

(National Archives)

On March 9, 1945, the Japanese ended French rule over Cambodia, and nine days later, King Norodom Sihanouk created the independent Kingdom of Cambodia, naming himself prime minister. He was succeeded by Cambodian nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh on August 14. However, even after Japan’s World War II surrender to the Allies on August 15, the Allies still considered Cambodia’s government as a Japanese puppet and allowed the French to reestablish their colonial rule. On October 17, the returning French arrested Son Ngoc Thanh, convicted him of treason, and exiled him to France, ending Cambodian independence again.

Sihanouk began negotiating with the French over degrees of Cambodia’s independence. Soon there arose, in late 1945, a multifarious anti-French nationalist rebel movement called the Khmer Issarak Khmer Issarak —supported by Thailand—which was opposed to the king and included communist elements. Cautiously, the French chose to grant Cambodia limited independence. On May 6, 1947, Sihanouk proclaimed a new constitution for Cambodia, giving himself vaguely regulated powers as head of state.

Negotiating further with the French, Sihanouk worked out a treaty that granted Cambodia limited independence within the French Union, a status he called “fifty percent independence,” which went into effect on November 8, 1949, even though Cambodia’s antimonarchist national assembly never ratified the treaty. On February 7, 1950, the United States recognized Cambodian independence, and was joined by most Western countries in that recognition. France, however, maintained a great degree of control in Cambodia, which led Sihanouk to strive for a better solution.

With antimonarchists winning the elections of 1951, Sihanouk requested that the French release Son Ngoc Thanh, whom he considered an ally. Son Ngoc Thanh made a triumphant return to Phnom Penh on October 29. Soon, Son Ngoc Thanh clashed with the French and on March 9, 1952, left to join forces with the Khmer Issarak, forming his own rebel group, the Khmer Serei Khmer Serei (free Cambodians). Jolted to win back popularity, Sihanouk, on June 15, 1952, took direct power as prime minister and declared he would achieve real independence within three years.

On January 24, 1953, Sihanouk declared martial law in Cambodia and made his ally Samdech Penn Nouth prime minister. On February 9, Sihanouk left for France to try to win full independence. In France, on March 5 and 18 and on April 3, Sihanouk wrote three letters to the French president, Vincent Auriol, declaring that the communist-infiltrated Khmer Issarak would succeed in Cambodia unless the French Republic achieved full independence for Cambodia. The French officials who were meeting with Sihanouk dismissed this claim. Frustrated with the French, Sihanouk left France on April 11. He traveled to the United States and Canada, lobbying for a completely independent Cambodia.

Publishing a pro-independence royal declaration in The New York Times on April 19 created momentum for Sihanouk, as he began to positively influence Western public opinion. The French opened negotiations with Prime Minister Penn Nouth, who returned to Cambodia without desired results on May 12, two days before Sihanouk’s return from Japan.

On June 13, continuing his high-stakes gamble with the French, Sihanouk went to Bangkok, proclaiming he would return only to a free Cambodia. Rejected by Thailand, Sihanouk went to his royal residence near the ancient monument of Angkor Wat in an autonomous zone of Cambodia under control of his ally, Lieutenant Colonel Lon Nol Lon Nol .

France, troubled by its deteriorating military situation in neighboring Vietnam, where the communist Viet Minh fought a large-scale anticolonial war, sought to limit its losses in Cambodia by being conciliatory. On July 3, 1953, rather than overthrow Sihanouk as king, the French government declared it was prepared to bestow full independence to the three Indochinese countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In the ensuing negotiations, Sihanouk insisted on full sovereignty and won on his terms. On August 29, Cambodia gained control of its police and judiciary from the French, and on October 17, it gained full command of its army.

On November 9, Sihanouk arrived to triumphal Cambodian welcome at his Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, after traveling some 180 miles from Angkor Wat, cheered along by the Cambodian people. At the Royal Palace, Sihanouk declared Cambodian independence and formally accepted the withdrawal of French power, which was symbolized by the resignation of the last French high commissioner of Cambodia, Jean Risterucci Risterucci, Jean .

In spite of this emotional and symbolic day, full independence for Cambodia remained unsettled. France still held authority over economic and fiscal decisions. Because most Cambodians regarded Sihanouk as a national hero after November 9, the Khmer Issarak movement that had controlled perhaps half of rural Cambodia by 1952 quickly faded. Rebellious Son Ngoc Thanh went into exile in Vietnam.

Communist Viet Minh Viet Minh forces fighting the French in Vietnam, however, moved into Cambodia as sanctuary in April, 1954, and the Cambodian army could not dislodge them. The communists also sought to carve out a part of Cambodia to be ruled by the Vietnamese-dependent Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party[Khmer Peoples Revolutionary Party] (KPRP), similar to the situation emerging in a soon-to-be-divided Vietnam. Sihanouk’s general, Saukam Khoy Khoy, Saukam , defeated the KPRP in battle in the spring of 1954, ensuring Cambodian territorial integrity. The defeated KPRP fled to North Vietnam.

At the conclusion of the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954, it was agreed that all foreign troops such as French and Viet Minh forces would leave Cambodia by October and that Cambodia, while a neutral country, was free to enter into alliances under the principles of the charter of the United Nations. At a conference in Paris in December, 1954, France agreed to the final transfer of economic and financial authority to Cambodia. On December 20 the former colonial power of France finally recognized Cambodian independence.


King Norodom Sihanouk succeeded not only in his high- stakes political gamble to win Cambodia’s modern independence but also thwarted French hopes to keep its colonial power in a Southeast Asian nation where opposition to French rule was not resisted with military force. The ensuing prestige of Sihanouk among Cambodians, coupled with Khoy’s success on the battlefield in 1954, seemed to ensure the emergence of an independent and neutral Cambodia that would not fall victim to communism, which threatened to advance throughout Asia.

However, despite its independence, Sihanouk’s Cambodia saw itself inextricably drawn into the war that engulfed North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Although Sihanouk pursued a policy of neutrality, North Vietnamese troops violated Cambodian neutrality and territorial integrity once Hanoi decided on armed struggle against the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in late 1959. By the early 1960’s, North Vietnamese troops and South Vietnamese communist insurgents entered Cambodia either by force or forced agreements.

Ultimately, Cambodian independence under Sihanouk proved too fragile to withstand the cataclysmic forces of the Vietnam War. Annoyed with Sihanouk’s acceptance of North Vietnam’s use of his independent country as sanctuary, even though it was born out of necessity forced by Cambodia’s military inability to oppose it, the United States accepted the March 18, 1970, coup of Prime Minister Lon Nol against Sihanouk. By strongly aligning Cambodia to the United States and formally abolishing the monarchy on October 9, Lon Nol immediately faced Khmer Rouge Khmer Rouge aggression that was immeasurably aided by exiled Sihanouk’s alliance with these ultra-communist Cambodian rebels. The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. Their genocidal regime caused Cambodia’s invasion by Vietnam in December, 1979, leading yet again to its loss of independence. Full national sovereignty was reestablished in 1993, with the country bearing the wounds of the Khmer Rouge murdering more than 1.6 million of its own people. Nationalism;Cambodia
Anticolonial movements;Cambodia
France;colonial empire

Further Reading

  • Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Chapter 10 of this critically acclaimed standard historical work covers the independence struggles and more.
  • Osborne, Milton. Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. Competent biography illuminating Sihanouk’s mercurial character, his strengths, and his weaknesses. Covers the independence movement in detail.
  • Sihanouk, Norodom, with Wilfred Burchett. My War with the CIA: Cambodia’s Fight for Survival. London: Penguin Books, 1974. Written while Sihanouk was in exile in Beijing and allied with the murderous Khmer Rouge, which was fighting a civil war in Cambodia. Sihanouk blames the United States for interfering with Cambodian independence.
  • _______. War and Hope: The Case for Cambodia. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Written while Sihanouk was in exile after the Vietnamese expelled the Khmer Rouge from the city of Phnom Penh.

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