The late King Sihanouk was an extremely interesting character for a number of reasons, not least because as a monarch he remained close friends with communist leaders such as Kim Il Sung and Chairman Mao, but also because he holds the world’s record for the person who had the most “head of state titles”. As well as king, he was a Prime Minister, President, Head of State and even led the government in exile. His country itself was to go through even more changes, with it changing regime and name almost every decade!
Let’s look at all the name changes Cambodia has been through in, say, the life of one person A 90 year old Cambodian today would have been born in 1930 – at the height of French colonial rule in Indochina. At the time whilst Cambodia was officially still a kingdom, its title was the:
1) The French Protectorate of Cambodia (Khmer: ប្រទេសកម្ពុជាក្រោមអាណានិគមបារាំង)
This began in 1867, and was to continue until 1940, when it was taken over by the Vichy government of France, and ally of Japan during World War 2. Something that was to become important later on.
2) Kingdom of Cambodia (Japanese protectorate) 1941-45
Although technically still part of France for most of this period – Japan was (officially) at least promoting Asia for the Asian under their ideology of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and gave Cambodia its ”independence”. While it had its own sovereign sounding name, breaking away from the French colonial name, Cambodia had minimal autonomy and actually was occupied and part of the Japanese Empire.
3) The French Protectorate of Cambodia (Khmer: ប្រទេសកម្ពុជាក្រោមអាណានិគមបារាំង) 1945-53
Following the end of World War 2 French Indochina was again part of the French Empire, something that would lead to first Indochina War, and the eventual independence of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
4) The Kingdom of Cambodia – 1953-1970
The seventeen years of Cambodia as a kingdom began with King Sihanouk as king, which he remained until abdicating in favour of his father so he could stand as Prime Minister in 1955. When his father died in 1960, he became prince, and thus head of state. The country still remained officially named the Kingdom of Cambodia (without a king).
5) Khmer Republic 1970-75
In 1970, whilst Sihanouk was outside of the country, Lon Nol led a right-wing pro-American coup, which led to the formation of the first Khmer republic. Sadly this was all to happen during the ongoing Vietnam War and the Cambodian civil war. King Sihanouk, a favorite of Beijing, was convinced to strike an alliance with the communist Khmer Rouge, something that was to have profound effects on the next name changes.
6) Democratic Kampuchea 1975-79
The reign of the Khmer Rouge and the era of Democratic Kampuchea was to be the most severe in recent Cambodian history, with up to a fourth of the population dying of hunger, exhaustion or executed. It was one of the worst episodes in global history, and in all but name a genocide. Kampuchea is Cambodia in the Khmer language. Officially an atheist one-party communist state – in reality it was a platform for Pol Pot to test out the most extreme version of communism ever seen by mankind.
7) People’s Republic of Kampuchea 1979-1989
Following the Vietnamese overthrow of the tyrannical Pol Pot regime, Cambodia was redesigned on more of a Soviet model, and some semblance of normality returned, although the Khmer Rouge continued a brutal landmine-filled civil war. They were supported by western governments until late into the 90s (they also controlled the UN seat). In this case there were actually two competing states at the same time: one had de facto control, while the other was the recognized government.
8) Government in exile – Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea 1982-89
Officially a coalition, but in reality the rump remnants of the Khmer Rouge who controlled not only a large part of Cambodia, but also the seat in the UN. They were supported by notorious people‘s warrior Margaret Thatcher. Need I say more?
9) State of Cambodia 1989-93
During the eventually successful peace process, Hun Sen changed the name of the country to the State of Cambodia. Doing so, he also reintroduced some pre-communist era state symbols, and began to loosen up the government’s control on the country and grant more freedoms. This eventually led to free and fair elections in Cambodia (which were won by the son of King Sihanouk) and the restoration of monarchy.
10) Kingdom of Cambodia 1993 – present
Nowadays, Cambodia is technically a constitutional monarchy and a democracy. The reality is more that the king is powerless. The country can at best be described as a dominant party system and one that is more influenced by China than Vietnam.
So, there you go, our 90 year old man has lived through 10 different states in Cambodia. Pretty crazy…..