Today is the 49th anniversary of the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s rule that paved the way for Marshal Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic.
Many in the Kingdom blame the United States for being involved in the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk, a prelude to the Khmer Rouge genocide in which nearly two million people died.
In 1970, during the height of instability in the region due to the Vietnam War, Prince Sihanouk, who was head of state at the time, was on an official visit to Moscow in the Soviet Union to meet communists leaders when he was deposed.
The overthrow of his leadership was done as soon as he left the country. It began with a large-scale anti-Vietnamese demonstration in Phnom Penh.
Soon after, the National Assembly voted to remove Prince Sihanouk from power, forcing him to live in exile in Beijing. Prime Minister Marshal Lon Nol then took over and renamed the country the Khmer Republic.
“History is already recorded. If there was no support from the US government, there would be no coup,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said yesterday. “It’s not only me, most Cambodians know this, especially victims of the US’s nearly three million bombs.”
Chhang Song, the last Information Minister under Marshal Nol’s regime, previously told Khmer Times that the ousting of Prince Sihanouk was a legislative decision.
“When the coup came, it was not a coup per se,” Mr Song said. “Legally, it was decided by the National Assembly.”
“They legalised it […] I would not call it a coup, I would call it a decision,” he added.
The move further plunged the nation into bitter civil war.
After years of fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol regime, news came that the former would soon overwhelm Lon Nol’s forces.
Upon hearing the news on April 1, 1975, Marshal Nol and Mr Song boarded a flight to Hawaii to live in exile.
“I stayed with Lon Nol almost every night. Every day in Hawaii, I was the only person there,” Mr Song said. “His mood? Lon Nol did not change his mood. It was the same look. He did not look sadder than he was. He looked the same. I asked him why. He did not answer.”
Marshal Nol died on November 17, 1985 in Fullerton, California, at the age of 72.
US embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes declined to comment on the matter.
However, last month the US embassy denied that the US was ever involved in a coup in Cambodia and accused China of supporting Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
“There is no substantiated evidence that the US was involved in a coup which brought Lon Nol to power,” it said in a Facebook post. “Instead there is a lot of evidence which showed that the Chinese government actively supported the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.”
The statement drew a response from the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of being involved in the ousting of Prince Sihanouk.
“Recently, [the US embassy] said publicly it was not involved in the coup led by Lon Nol in the 1970s,” it said. “In fact, the coup that plunged Cambodia into years of war [did not involve] the US, but it was the CIA.”
Sambo Manara, a professor of history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, yesterday said there were many reasons why the ousting of Prince Sihanouk happened, including the regional instability caused by the Vietnam War.
He said that even though there is no direct evidence that the US government was behind the ousting, the US quickly supported Lon Nol’s regime through loans and aid packages.
“After the coup, who supported them? Where did their weapons come from?” Mr Manara said. “The two great powers were not directly involved, but they were spreading their ideologies to Cambodia.”
“They cannot deny their involvement in Cambodia’s civil war,” he added.
Today, the US is demanding more than $500 million in war debt. It started as a $274 million loan for food supplies to feed the country under Lon Nol’s government. The government is refusing to pay.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has lobbied the US to cancel the debt, calling it a “dirty debt”. In 2016, he asked US President Donald Trump’s administration to reconsider Cambodia’s debt.
“I hope the government of Donald Trump will think about the debt Cambodia owes to the US from the Khmer Republic of General Lon Nol,” Mr Hun Sen said. “It is difficult for us to tell Cambodians to accept debt used to buy bombs and bullets to kill our people.”
The US dropped millions of bombs in Cambodia from 1963 to 1973 in order to destroy Viet Cong forces.
According to a report by the Asia-Pacific Journal, tens of thousands of people died in US bombing campaigns along the border of Cambodia and Vietnam.
“The Pol Pot leadership of the Khmer Rouge can in no way be exonerated from responsibility for committing genocide against their own people,” the report said. “But neither can Nixon or Kissinger escape judgement for their role in the slaughter that was a prelude to the genocide.”
Mr Manara said that the $500 million is a debt inherited from a previous government, adding that the US should consider converting it into aid.
“The country that provided the loans has the right to demand for the money back,” he said. “But the US government should consider the values of humanity, virtue and morality, and convert the debt into humanitarian support.”