Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Chronicle of Survival
Cambodia walks a fine line Caught in the crossfire Terror and genocide Back to square oneMoving ahead, looking back

1953-1968: Cambodia walks a fine line Profile: Norodom Sihanouk (1922- ) Cambodia’s chameleon king
Cambodia won its independence from France on November 9, 1953, officially ending eight decades of colonial control. Twenty-two-year-old King Norodom Sihanouk returned from exile to lead the new country. After stepping down from the throne to become prime minister in 1955, Sihanouk insisted that Cambodia remain neutral and avoid foreign influences. As the Cold War heated up in Southeast Asia, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations feared that Cambodia might fall to communism and wanted to use it as a buffer against North Vietnam. Speaking about the strategic importance of Southeast Asia in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower warned, "You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly." Sihanouk accepted temporary assistance from the United States, but he also resented its interference in Cambodian affairs.

Map of CambodiaAs the American military presence in Southeast Asia escalated, however, Sihanouk decided to distance himself completely from the United States. In March 1965, U.S. Marines landed in South Vietnam, beginning a new phase of the war. Sihanouk had rejected American military aid two years earlier, and now he broke off all diplomatic relations with the United States. His relationship with communist North Vietnam became increasingly cozy. By 1967, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were operating along Cambodia's border with South Vietnam, with Sihanouk's approval. The United States and South Vietnam responded with cross-border operations, which Sihanouk publicly protested.

Villager in Damrey SlapAs Cambodia was drawn into the bloody conflict next door, Sihanouk's dream of Cambodian neutrality quickly faded. For now, Cambodia would not be the next "domino" to topple over. But it had become a new battlefield -- some called it a sideshow -- in the American war in Vietnam.

During this period, many Cambodians revered Sihanouk as a god-king and respected him for keeping the country relatively peaceful. But there was growing opposition to his government's corruption and intolerance of dissent. In 1960, a small group of leftist intellectuals, including Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot) and Nuon Chea, formed the Communist Party of Kampuchea. The small, highly secretive organization operated in the capital, Phnom Penh, until 1963, when its leaders fled to the countryside and launched an armed insurgency. At the time, the communist guerillas posed little threat to Sihanouk and became known simply by the dismissive moniker he gave them: the Red Khmer, or Khmer Rouge.


photo: King Sihanouk with Hu Nim(L) and Son Sen (R) of the Khmer Rouge.
credit: Photo Courtesy Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM)

photo: Villager in Damrey Slap, Cambodia - 1959
credit: Photo Courtesy United Nations