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What Caused the Cambodian Civil War?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Cambodian Civil War was a traumatic event for Southeast Asia, but to understand it we need to examine its background. In this lesson, we'll see why the Cambodian Civil War began.

The Cambodian Civil War

The Cambodian Civil War rocked Southeast Asia from roughly 1970 to 1975. It ended with the rise of brutal dictators and one of the worst genocides in Asian history. Before we can understand any of that, however, we have to take the time to understand where this conflict came from. The Cambodian Civil War built upon two decades of unrest, in which Cambodia entered a competitive world as an independent nation and struggled to find its place.

The Policies of Sihanouk

In 1953, Cambodia finally completed its 100-year struggle for independence from the French Empire. It was an independent nation, ruled by King Norodom Sihanouk. In 1955, the country reorganized itself and Sihanouk was elected as the nation's first prime minister. He would hold that position for 15 years. During this time, Cambodia struggled to find a place in the competitive Cold War and local distrust of Sihanouk's government grew. While it would be 15 years until war broke out, we can identify a few major moments as setting the stage.

Norodom Sihanouk
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Controlling the Government

Sihanouk was elected as the prime minister, making him the head of the government, but in 1960 he amended his power and became the head of state as well. Through this and other means, Sihanouk made Cambodia a single-party state. As his power grew, his tolerance of dissent diminished and other political parties or voices were suppressed. This eliminated the ability of the people to express their discontent through legitimate political channels.

Economic Difficulties

Becoming a new nation is hard, and nearly every post-colonial country struggles to gain economic stability. This was especially pronounced in Cambodia. Unequal development of rural and urban Cambodia created a massive wage gap, but failed to stabilize the national economy. As a result, many Cambodians lived in poverty and distrust of the government increased.

The Vietnam War

Finally, we have to remember that Cambodia achieved its independence from the French Empire just as Vietnam was really kicking off its own independence war. Even as the United States entered into the Vietnam War, Cambodia remained officially neutral. However, Sihanouk did sympathize with the communist factions of Vietnam, and let them use Cambodian ports. The risk of pulling Cambodia into this conflict further alienated the Cambodian people against their government.

The Breaking Point

In 1967, a relatively small insurrection broke out against government taxes in a town of the rural province of Batdambang. Residents attacked the tax collectors and all the tensions of the last decade began boiling over into a revolt that spread across the province. Sihanouk was out of the country at the time, but his military responded violently to the outbreaks. When Sihanouk made it back to Cambodia, he personally oversaw the fight against the insurgency, and assured the Cambodian people that it had been quelled. It hadn't. The survivors began turning their uprising into a full rebellion which spread into eleven provinces.

By 1970, Cambodia was in economic disrepair, the rural citizens were turning against the government, and the politicians distrusted Sihanouk's acceptance of Vietnamese communists using Cambodia for a supply route. Sihanouk went to soley using the title Prince of Cambodia, and one of his advisors, a lieutenant-general named Lon Nol, was elected as the prime minister. Then, while Sihanouk was again visiting Europe, anti-Vietnamese protests broke out in Cambodia's largest city. The protests turned into riots. Lon Nol, who was far more pro-American and anti-Communist than Sihanouk, did nothing.

Lon Nol
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