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The Banyan Tree: Untangling Cambodian History

by Bruce Sharp

Angkor Wat, the national symbol of Cambodia The banyan tree grows throughout Cambodia. It may reach a height of over 100 feet, and as it grows, new roots descend from its branches, pushing into the ground and forming new trunks. The roots grow relentlessly; many of the ancient temples of Angkor have toppled as these roots have become embedded in the cracks and crevices between their massive stones. A single tree might have dozens of trunks, and it is often impossible to tell which is the original.

This is Cambodia today: a thousand intertwined branches, a thousand stories woven together, a thousand currents of history swirling in different directions. To understand Cambodia in the present, it is necessary to look at Cambodia in the past.

Part One: The Seeds

In the early 1960s, to much of the outside world, Cambodia seemed to be an insignificant country. For Americans, it was known only as the site of the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat: a small, quiet nation sharing a border with Vietnam.

Vietnam, by contrast, was well known to Americans. The cold war was raging, and in the eyes of the American public the front line of that war was clearly marked by the boundary between the communists in the north, and the noncommunists in the South. South Vietnam was perceived as the first domino; Cambodia was merely the next. The subtleties of history, the blurred lines of political fact and fiction were lost in the analogy.

Norodom Sihanouk, with Jacqueline Kennedy, 1967. Photo courtesy of Donald Kirk If the Americans knew little about Cambodia, it is probably also true that the Cambodians knew little about America. The leader of Cambodia, however, fully understood what the American presence in Vietnam meant. Prince Norodom Sihanouk had led Cambodia since its independence from France in 1953. Formerly the King, he had abdicated the throne in 1955 to run in elections for head of state, and he had survived on the political stage through a mixture of political acumen and ruthlessness. As American involvement in Vietnam deepened, Sihanouk realized that maintaining his rule would require a delicate balancing act. He could not afford to make enemies of either the Americans or the Vietnamese communists.

When the Vietcong began to use areas inside Cambodia as a sanctuary from which to launch guerrilla attacks into South Vietnam, Sihanouk's position became increasingly precarious. Keeping the Vietnamese out by force was scarcely an option; his own army consisted of fewer than 30,000 poorly equipped troops. In comparison, by the end of 1964 the Vietnamese communists were fielding an army of roughly 180,000. Sihanouk's reluctance to move against the Vietnamese was strengthened by his conviction that the communists would eventually be victorious.

To further complicate matters, Sihanouk's autocratic style of governing was beginning to alienate the more well-educated elements of Khmer society. The opposition from the left was particularly vocal, and Sihanouk began to rely more and more on repression to quell dissent. That repression was largely orchestrated by one of the most pro-American members of Sihanouk's government, General Lon Nol.

The leftists in Cambodia had originally concentrated on a political struggle against Sihanouk. By 1967, however, as it became clear that political opposition was both futile and increasingly dangerous, the Cambodian communists began to focus on armed struggle. They did not, however, constitute as serious threat to Sihanouk's regime. Even as late as 1969, the communists -- or, as Sihanouk derisively called them, the Khmer Rouge -- were estimated to have only about 2500 troops.

Though the Khmer Rouge were only a minor threat, the war in Vietnam was rapidly becoming a major one. The presence of the sanctuaries was a source of constant frustration for the Americans. At first, with rare and relatively minor exceptions, American forces did not pursue guerrillas beyond the border. Later, however, American commanders began to believe that the Cambodian sanctuaries were crucial for Vietnamese logistics, and that they also served as the headquarters for the communist war efforts throughout Vietnam. In February 1969, General Creighton Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, requested permission to attack Vietnamese troops inside Cambodia. President Richard Nixon quickly agreed, and on March 18, 1969, American B-52s launched the first of many secret bombing raids over Cambodia. Sihanouk had, in fact, confidentially told an American ambassador that he would not object if American forces engaged in "hot pursuit" of Vietnamese forces in unpopulated areas of Cambodia. But the extent of the attacks would later become a source of bitter recriminations. Former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would claim that Sihanouk was "...inviting this sort of pressure as a means of evicting these invading forces" from Khmer territory. Sihanouk himself would dispute that contention: "I did not know about the B-52 bombing in 1969... the question of a big B-52 campaign was never raised." In the end, the castigations of the politicians scarcely mattered. The war had come to Cambodia.

One year after the bombing began, Sihanouk made a mistake that would ultimately set the stage for disaster. Demonstrations protesting the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia broke out in Phnom Penh, the capital, while Sihanouk was vacationing in Paris. Although he was still fairly popular in rural areas, many Cambodians were losing patience with Sihanouk; they resented the corruption of his regime and his repression of dissent. Misjudging the extent of the discontent, Sihanouk declined to return to Cambodia. He left Paris and continued on to Moscow, and on March 18, 1970 -- one year to the day after the first U.S. bombing strike -- he was overthrown in a coup led by Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matak. Sirik Matak quickly faded into the background. Lon Nol was the real power, and his regime was instantly recognized by Washington; the Americans surmised, correctly, that Lon Nol would permit more aggressive moves against the sanctuaries. The Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to turn Sihanouk's ouster to their advantage. If the Prince could be persuaded to ally himself with his former enemies, the rebels would gain significant popular support. Determined to avenge his betrayal by Lon Nol, Sihanouk acquiesced. On March 23, he announced that he would join the Khmer Rouge in a bid to overthrow the new government. The battle lines were drawn.

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