Cambodia from Independence to key actor in South East Asian geopolitical landscape – a path of multilateralism

Do you know what happened on 9th November of 1953 in Cambodia?

Cambodia’s Independence Day commemorates the day when Cambodia achieved its independence from French Colonial Rule in 1953. King Norodom Sihanouk began asking for independence from France in 1949 and gained it only four years later in 1953 after nearly 100 years of colonization.

For millennia, the Khmer people had remained independent but during the 19 Century, the kingdom had been reduced to a vassal state of Siam (now Thailand). The kingdom of Siam annexed the western provinces of Cambodia, including Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat area. To top that, the growing Vietnamese Nguyen Dynasty began threatening Cambodia’s eastern provinces. In fear of ultimately losing Cambodia, King Norodom signed a treaty with the French to establish a protectorate over the kingdom in 1863.

The treaty allowed the Cambodian Monarchy to remain but the majority of control was given to Paris. France gradually expanded its colony in Indochina. During World War II, the Vichy government signed an agreement with Japan to allow the Japanese military transit through the colonies of French Indochina. The Thai government, allied with Japan, took advantage of this and invaded the western provinces of Cambodia.

Japanese and Thai troops forced authorities to give up control of the Battambang, Sisophon, Siem Reap, and Preah Vihearprovinces to Thailand. Near the end of World War II, allied military units entered Cambodia and disarmed the Japanese military forces present in the country. The French were then able to impose again the colonial administration in October 1945.

On July 3, 1953, France declared that it was ready to grant independence to the three states under its control: Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Finally, at the end of August 1953, the police, military, and judiciary branches were transferred back to Cambodian control and the official independence Took place on the 9th November of the same year.

Cambodia from the Independence to the Paris Peace Agreement

Cambodia went to war again after its independence due to many factors overshadowed by the Cold War from the end of the Second World War until the early ‘90. The Vietnam War spread across land borders with Cambodia and Laos. Cambodia sought to remain neutral, but as a tiny nation and militarily weak, it was dragged into a proxy war between the superpowers, U.S., China, and former Soviet Union whether she liked it or not.

Cambodia’s domestic conflict emerged in 1970 as the U.S. supported the pro-democracy faction led by military chief Lon Nol on one side; while China and then the Soviet Union lent support to the bloody organization known as Khmer Rouge led by dictator called Pol Pot. When Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975 and ruled with a bloody hand till January 1979, more than 2 million people died from executions, starvation, disease, and forced labour. 

Despite the creators of the killing field were excluded from power in January 1979, still Cambodia’s war had continued. Another 10-years of war (1979- 1989) between Cambodia’s forces of Phnom Penh supported by Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, on one side, and the Cambodian resistance, including the Khmer Rouge, supported by China and the west, on the other.

On October 23, 1991, Paris Peace Agreement was signed and it marked the official end of the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. The agreement led to the deployment of the first post-Cold War peace keeping mission (UNTAC) and the first ever occasion in which the UN took over as the government of a state. It was also followed by the U.N. sponsored election in May 1993. 

Cambodia should use multilateralism not to repeat its painful history

Looking at its history, especially during the Cold War era, Cambodia was always embroiled between different nations that used Cambodian territory to fight a sort of proxy war. For this reasons Phnom Penh now is trying to use multilateralism as its strategy in foreign policy. “Cambodia’s foreign policy is firmly underpinned by a strong spirit of multilateralism,” said Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation on 27 October 2020. Cambodia’s commitment to multilateralism and the rules-based trading system is a progress that the Kingdom has achieved since the adoption of its Constitution in 1993. 

Since joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999 and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2003, Cambodia has engaged extensively with the world in global trade and particularly has integrated herself prominently in the regional and global supply chains networks. Cambodia has diplomatic ties with North and South Korea, European Union, Arabic world. Cambodia is in free trade talks with Republic of Korea, Japan, India and China. For these reasons it is important that the international community will collaborate with the Kingdom forging productive partnership and cooperation in bilateral and multilateral free trade agreement to help Cambodia to create conducive environment for them to realise the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030, through investment promotion, technological transfer and above all trade liberalisation.