The French in Cambodia

In this particular post I am going to tell you about the French coming in and ruling Cambodia. I know you are going to think this is boooring, but my mother made me do it, so send the angry letters to her, please.

The thing is, the Cambodians actually invited the French to rule over them, but then it kind of got out of hand. King Norodom (the ruler of Cambodia at the time) requested a French protectorate over his country. On August 11th 1867 he signed a treaty that stated there would be a French protectorate, with the Cambodian monarchy remaining, but the Resident General would have most of the power. France would also be in charge of Cambodia’s foreign and trade relations and would provide military protection.

The seat of the Resident General would be based in Saigon (at least until it moved to Hanoi in 1902). Cambodia would be governed by our dear friend the Resident General, who would be assisted by Residents (local governors). These Residents would be posted at provincial centers like Battambang, Pursat, Odong, and Siemp Reap. Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) was under direct supervision from the Resident General himself.

The French made a lot of reforms to Cambodia’s laws and politics (or is it policies?) – some bad, like reducing the king’s power, some good, like abolishing slavery.

In 1884 the governor of Indochina, namely Charles Anthoine François Thomson (yes, I do wholeheartedly agree with you, he did have a ridiculous name) tried to overthrow Norodom in order to have absolute and unchallenged French power. He succeeded only slightly. This was mainly due to the governor-general of Indochina (so called because the French called it Indochine, to mean between China and India. Thus, it’s not India or China, but SE Asia) preventing total French power to avoid conflict with the Cambodians. However, the monarch was reduced to almost totally a figurehead.

In 1885 Si Votha, the half-brother of Norodom (he (Votha) had been exiled to Thailand) led a rebellion to overthrow Norodom (who was backed by the French). The French helped Norodom defeat Si Votha on the conditions that the Cambodian population be disarmed and the Resident General be recognized as the highest power.

In 1896 the French and the British signed an accord acknowledging each others’ power over Indochina. According to this accord, Thailand had to cede Angkor to French-controlled Cambodia. It stated that the French also controlled Vietnam and Laos.

Now the French placed new administrative posts in Cambodia and began to develop it economically. They even introduced ze French culture and language. Yay! Delicious French cuisine.

In 1897 the Resident General complained to Paris that Norodom was not fit to rule anymore and asked for permission to usurp his power, which was collecting taxes, issuing decrees, and even appointing royal officials and choosing crown princes! From then on, the kings were merely figureheads and patrons of Buddhism. But the peasants still looked up to them as god-kings. All the other power was in the hands of the Resident General and the colonial bureaucracy.

This colonial bureaucracy was mainly made up of Frenchmen, and the only Asians allowed to serve on it were Vietnamese, because Vietnamese were considered the dominant Asian race in Indochina. When King Norodom died, the French passed on the crown to his brother Sisowath instead of one of his many sons. This was because, firstly, Sisowath’s side of the family was considered to be more submissive than Norodom’s, and because Norodom’s favorite son (Prince Yukanthor) whom he wanted to be his heir; had stirred up public opinion about ze French rule in Cambodia. France later enlarged the protectorate’s territory in 1902 and 1904 through treaties with Thailand. Cambodia had originally been seen as a buffer for France between its Vietnamese colonies and Thailand. Basically, it hadn’t been seen as an economically important area at first.

But then…

Nah, I’ll just leave you on a cliffhanger.

Okay, fine. You see, the colonial government’s money mainly came from taxes. The French administrative rule was very bad at first, but then it got better and started growing rice and pepper, which allowed the economy to grow. Rubber, corn, and cotton plantations were later built as well.

Infrastructure and public works were also improved under French rule, and roads and railroads were constructed. The industry was also later developed, but it was mostly used to process raw materials for local use or export. However, foreigners dominated the management roles in the country, which was mainly due to the French discrimination against Cambodians holding important economic positions. Many Vietnamese were recruited to work on rubber plantations, and later immigrants held key roles as fishermen or businessmen. Chinese Cambodians were given higher roles, but the highest positions were given to the French. And that was the way things were for a while. But despite this growth, the Cambodians still had to pay very high taxes, and in 1916 protests demanding tax cuts broke out. Sadly, this didn’t change anything much.

At least until a guy called Sihanouk came to power in 1952! He then dismissed all of his cabinet, suspended the constitution, and controlled the government as prime minister. He then dissolved the National Assembly and proclaimed martial law in 1953. Sihanouk had direct rule for nearly three years, until he appointed an Advisory Council to help his legislature. He also appointed his father, Norodom Suramarit as a regent. In 1953 Sihanouk went to France. He told everyone he was going for his health, but he was actually going to try and get the French to give Cambodia true independence. The French refused and threatened to replace him. It appeared to be a failure, but on the way home he publicized the situation to the US, Canada, and Japan. He also declared what he was trying to do to his own country and said he was going to go into self-exile until independence was Cambodia’s.

Sihanouk was making a gamble with very high-stakes, for the French could easily replace him. However, the military was declining in Indochina, and on July 3rd 1953 France declared it was going to give independence to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Independence was theirs by November 9th.




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