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Cambodia The First Indochina War, 1945-54
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    It was under such exigencies that a Cambodian army was created, primarily by Prince Monireth, the heir to the throne, who earlier had been passed over by the French in favor of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was considered more pliable. In the fall of 1945, Monireth gained the concurrence of returning French authorities in his plan to raise an indigenous military force to fill the vacuum left by the defeated Japanese and to counter mounting internal disorder. On November 23, in his capacity as defense minister, he made public two decisions concerning this issue. The first was to form the first battalion of a nascent Cambodian army, and he invited former noncommissioned officers (NCOs) of the demobilized colonial light infantry battalion to join the new unit. The second was to open an officer-candidate school, and he extended an invitation to young men between the ages of eighteen and twentyfive with a junior high-school education to apply for admission. The school duly opened on January 1, 1946, and part of it was reserved for NCO training.

    Two important agreements between Phnom Penh and Paris gave the Cambodian military forces a firmer official footing in 1946. The first, the Franco-Cambodian Modus Vivendi of January 7, 1946, for the most part concerned political matters. In military affairs, however, it gave official recognition to the existence of a Cambodian army, although it placed French advisers in the Cambodian Ministry of Defense and declared that French authorities had responsibility for maintaining order in Cambodia.

    The second agreement, the Franco-Khmer Military Convention of November 20, 1946, was more significant in Cambodian military history because it established the organization and the mission of the nation's armed forces. The pact affirmed that Cambodia, as an autonomous state within the French Union, would have at its disposal indigenous forces, the missions of which were to uphold the sovereignty of the king, to preserve internal security, and to defend the frontiers of the country. The accord also noted that Cambodia participated in the defense of the French Union by placing its military units at the disposal of the French High Commissioner for Indochina, and that, reciprocally, other French Union forces helped to defend Cambodia. The Cambodian forces were to be composed of units with a territorial responsibility and a mobile reserve. The supreme commander would be the king, who would exercise his powers through a Ministry of Defense assisted by a Franco-Khmer general staff. The Cambodians also were granted the responsibilities of recruiting, of determining obligatory military service, of designating unit tables of organization and equipment, and of deploying troops internally. The stationing of Cambodian units outside the country, however, was to be based on mutual understanding between the king and the French High Commissioner for Indochina (see The Struggle for Independence , ch. 1).

    In 1947 the Cambodian government faced a mounting threat from several thousand Khmer Issarak combatants, whose numbers would swell to around 10,000 by 1949. In an effort to keep pace with their domestic adversaries, the Cambodian military forces slowly but inexorably grew in numbers as the months and years passed. In January 1947, the effective strength of the Cambodian military stood at about 4,000 personnel, of which 3,000 served in the constabulary. The remainder were in a mobile reserve of two battalion-sized units (one of them newly formed) named, respectively, the First Cambodian Rifle Battalion and the Second Cambodian Rifle Battalion (Bataillon de Chasseurs Cambodgiens). These first Cambodian military units went into action in 1947 against the Khmer Issarak. During the next two years, two more rifle battalions were added, bringing total strength up to 6,000 personnel, with about half serving in the Garde Nationale and half in the mobile reserve. The latter at this time comprised three rifle battalions (one battalion had been allocated to French Union forces elsewhere in Indochina).

    In July 1949, in another military agreement with France, Cambodian forces were granted autonomy within operational sectors in the provinces of Siemreab and Kampong Thum, which had been part of the territory returned to Cambodia by Thailand in early 1947. Under an additional protocol signed in June 1950, provincial governors were assigned the responsibility for the pacification of the territories under their jurisdictions; to accomplish this mission they were each given a counterinsurgency force consisting of one independent infantry company.

    The early 1950s were marked by further milestones in the development of the Cambodian military forces. In the fall of 1950, a military assistance agreement between the United States and France provided for an expansion of indigenous forces in Indochina, and by 1952 Cambodian troop strength had reached 13,000 personnel, greater than that of French forces in the country. In the meantime, more rifle battalions were formed, combat-support units were established, and a framework for logistical support was set up. Cambodian units were given wider responsibility: protection of the rubber plantations in the area of the middle Mekong, and, to prevent infiltration by the Viet Minh, surveillance of the coastal areas of the southern provinces and of the eastern frontier with Cochinchina.

    In June 1952, Prince Sihanouk--determined to transcend his figurehead role--seized power, staging what was termed a "royal coup d'état." He suspended the constitution "to restore...order and security throughout the country." Taking command of army operations, he led his troops against Son Ngoc Thanh's Khmer Issarak forces in Siemreab Province, where he announced that he had driven "700 red guerrillas" across the border into Thailand. As the year wore on, the French returned to Cambodian control the battalion that had been assigned to the French Union forces since the late 1940s. The unit returned ceremoniously to Phnom Penh in October. In December the Cambodian operational sector of Siemreab was enlarged by the addition of Batdambang Province, and the subsector of Batdambang City came under the command of a previously obscure lieutenant colonel, Lon Nol. The operational sector of Kampong Thum was given its own combat element, the Third Cambodian Rifle Battalion, an elite unit that was subject to the direct orders of the monarch.

    In early 1953, Sihanouk embarked on a world tour to publicize his campaign for independence, contending that he could "checkmate communism by opposing it with the force of nationalism." Following his tour, he "retired" to Batdambang Province, which was declared a "free zone of independence" and where he was joined by 30,000 Cambodian troops and police in a show of support and strength. Elsewhere, Cambodian troops under French officers staged slowdowns or refused the commands of their superiors, as a demonstration of solidarity with Sihanouk. Full independence was granted by France in November 1953, and Sihanouk, returning to Phnom Penh, took command of the army of 17,000 troops, which had been renamed the Royal Khmer Armed Forces (Forces Armées Royales Khmères--FARK--see Appendix B).

    In March 1954, combined Viet Minh and Khmer Issarak forces launched attacks from Vietnam into northeastern Cambodia. Sihanouk personally directed a sustained counterattack. Conscription was instituted for men between fifteen and thirty-five years of age, and national mobilization was declared. Following the conclusion of the Geneva Conference on Indochina in July, Viet Minh representatives agreed to withdraw their troops from Cambodia. After a brief rebellion by the Khmer Issarak in late 1954, one of its principal leaders, Son Ngoc Thanh, surrendered in response to an amnesty decree, but, upon denial of an audience with Sihanouk, he departed for Thailand. FARK force levels were 47,000, but, with demobilization after Geneva, this dropped to 36,000, the approximate level at which it was to be maintained for the next fifteen years except during periods of emergency.

    Data as of December 1987

    NOTE: The information regarding Cambodia on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Cambodia The First Indochina War, 1945-54 information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Cambodia The First Indochina War, 1945-54 should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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