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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 7. 11th April 1973

Burchett: Inside The Cambodian Crisis

page 16

Burchett: Inside The Cambodian Crisis

The latest reports from Cambodia indicate that the pro-American government of the 'Khmer Republic' will be lucky to survive the month. The capital Phnom Penh is surrounded by the forces of the Royal Government of National Union which controls about 95% of the country.

In 1970 General Lou Nol, the head of the puppet government, led a successful C.I.A.-backed coup which overthrew the Head of State, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The leftist forces rallied to Sihanouk and a united front of all Lon Nol's opponents was established. After three years of bitter struggle against the Americans, the South Vietnamese and the regime in Phnom Penh, it seems only a matter of time before Sihanouk resumes his position as Head of State of all Cambodia.

Wilfred Burchett lived in Phnom Penh for several years until he was forced to leave after the 1970 coup. He is a personal friend of Sihanouk and has just published a book narrated by him entitled "My War with the C.I.A." (Penguin). As one of the few westerners to have had close contact with Sihanouk he is able to comment authoritatively on Cambodian affairs. Salient asked Burchett for his assessment of Sihanouk's role in Cambodian politics since the country gained its independence in 1954.

I consider that Sihanouk played a very valuable role which will perhaps only become apparent when the history of the whole war is written. Through his policy of neutrality and independence Sihanouk kept Cambodia out of the Indochina war for a very long time. He resisted first of all very extreme pressures from the United States to put Cambodia inside S.E.A.T.O. that would have meant American bases, inside Cambodia, to outflank the revolutionary forces in South Vietnam. S.E.A.T.O. was set up to do just that. Sihanouk refused.

The Vietnamese would have been outflanked if Sihanouk had permitted the Americans to use Cambodia las a base.

What happened in Cambodia was an absolutely classic case in which the United States used every form of pressure, to bend a government to its will, but as long as Sihanouk was there they didn't succeed Even before Cambodia became independent the C.I.A. started, in the physical form of Allen Dulles, together with his brother John Foster and the State Department. Even before S.E.A.T.O. was formed they tried to put pressure on Sihanouk to allow the French to retain bases in Cambodia, to pursue the war against [unclear: he] Vietminh. Sihanouk could have had [unclear: dependence] for Cambodia much earlier [unclear: ad] he ceded but he refused. After the [unclear: Geneva] Agreements the Americans put on [unclear: diplomatic] pressures, (hen political pres[unclear: ures], then economic pressures, always [unclear: th] overtones of military threats but [unclear: hanouk] resisted very effectively. When [unclear: pressures] became really intolerable, [unclear: ouk] refused to have any more Amer[unclear: in] military aid, he chucked their mis[unclear: ions] out of the country and eventually [unclear: took] the initiative of severing diplomatic relations. Cambodia was the only country in the Third World that stood up in this way. This was terribly important for the struggle in South Vietnam. They would have really been outflanked if Sihanouk had gone into S.E.A.T.O. or permitted S.E.A.T.O. to use Cambodia. So his was a very important role.

He made his mistakes too. In the early stage he was only able to carry out these things because he had the wholehearted support of the left, which became known later as the Khmer Rouge. They wholeheartedly supported his foreign policy and supported all sorts of measures in his internal policy. When he kicked out the aid missions he found they were coming through the back door, through trade and through the banks. So he nationalised the banks and import-export. Of course this was very good and the left supported him. But it aroused very strong right-wing hostilily which eventually led to Lon Nol and Sink Matak carrying out their putsch in 1970. But he made his mistake in 1966 and 1967 by believing all sorts of plots which Lon Nol persuaded him were being hatched by the left against himself and the monarchy.

Sihanouk fell for some of these things. He admitted after-wards that he had made mistakes which had weakened his own forces and made it easier for Lon Nol to carry out his putsch. But he realised his mistakes very quickly, made a self-criticsim and then launched the appeal for national resistance, setting up a national united front, and liberation armed forces. The left immediately made their peace with him. They said "we're back to the old days so lei's forget the past and think of the present and the future". And it was a very important thing that Sihanouk lent his name and his prestige to the resistance movement in Cambodia.

Salient: How does Sihanouk see his own immediate future and that of Cambodia?

Well he thinks that in the future Cambodia will remain independent, which is a terribly important thing and he has had cast-iron guarantees on that subject from the Chinese, the North Vietnamese and the Provisional Revolutionary Government. He thinks that the very existence of the Resistance has pushed the country to the left. It's led to a radicalisation of public opinion. As Sihanouk expressed it to me, "President Nixon has performed the miracle of transforming our easy going passive, buddhist, non-violent peasants into very angry revolutionaries". Sihanouk's not against that, he welcomes that, he thinks that's a good thing. He doesn't think that the future is really with him or with the monarchy but with the young people, the people who carried out the Resistance.

Photo from Vietnam of people digging

Sihanouk with Montagnard tribesmen

Photo of people in Vietnam

Sihanouk sets the example of voluntary labour. His popularity with the masses has been a major factor in the success of the resistance movement. Unlike Sihanouk Sihanouk Lon Nol has enjoyed only the support of the rich bourgeoisie in Phnom Penh.

He always used to refer to the Khmer Rouge, as "very pure, very patriotic people. Of course our ideas are not the same but I recognise that". He recognised that even when he was persecuting them. But now he has had contact with these people, now they are with his government in Peking, my feeling is that he has moved very much to their point of view. The great thing for Cambodia for centuries and centuries has been to survive as a nation, and the great quality of Sihanouk has been to recognise that and so to play historically the role of a patriot.

Sihanouk wanted to step down as head of slate as soon as the Lon Nol regime was overthrown and leave everything to the Resistance. But they appreciated his patriotic role, his great prestige among the masses of the Cambodian population, his great prestige abroad and his considerable diplomatic experience. So they sent one of the heads of the Resistance movement, one of the earliest to have left Phnom Penh for the resistance bases back in 1963, to plead with him and to persuade him to remain on as Head of State even after the victory. He accepted their request on the specific understanding that he would play no political role. He would be a titular Head of State who would represent Cambodia abroad at important international conferences, make visits abroad as Head of State, and receive visiting dignitaries to the new Cambodia. But he has made it very clear in numerous conversations with myself and in public statements, that he will not accept any political role after the war is over.

Sihanouk and the whole Resistance Government will be on Cambodian soil very shortly, if they're not there already.

Salient: Will he play any further practical role in the overthrow of the Lon Nol regime?

Yes, because he's going to be on Cambodian soil very shortly if he's not already there. That part of the Royal Government of National Union which has been based in Peking is going to join up very shortly with that part of the government which is based in Cambodia itself, if they have not done so already. In other words the whole Resistance government will be based on Cambodian soil and Sihanouk will be with them, though probably not for very long because he has engagements abroad.

There is to be a summit meeting, at Head of State level, of non-aligned countries in Algeria in September, at which it is very likely that the Royal Government of National Union of Cambodia will be recognised by the great majority, if not all the non-aligned states. Sihanouk will be making visits to some Third World countries fairly soon to prepare for this and to gain support for his cause; and if he gets enough support at the non-aligned conference, the question of Cambodian representation at the United Nations will come up. He believes, and I believe, that it's easily possible the Royal Government will get at least a majority if not a two thirds majority, because of support from the Third World. Part of the reason for this support is the prestige and personal contacts Sihanouk has had over the years with a lot of the leaders of Third World countries, and non-aligned countries.