French Indochina

In 1887 the French created the Union of Indochina, also known as the French Indochina, a federation of the three Vietnamese regions of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina, Cambodia, and at a later stage Laos. Following the creation of French Indochina, Cambodia fell under total control of the French, specially after King Norodom was declared unfit to rule and all his powers were transferred tot he French authority in the country in 1897. Under French rule Cambodia was largely neglected in favour of their more profitable neighbour Vietnam. The French soon came to realization that Cambodia had not all the wealth they had presumed it had. The colonial power collected taxes but did little in the way of improving Cambodian economy.

Despite the French dominion, Khmer nationalism did not emerge until later into the XXth century. The uneducated peasants were used to the abuse of power and as the French had kept the Cambodian monarchy everything seemed to be in order. In 1904 King Norodom died and the French put his brother instead of his son in the throne, thus securing a submissive monarch that would not pose any opposition to their dealings.

The outbreak of WWII briefly shifted the control over Indochina to Japanese hands, and in 1945 the Japanese dissolved the French colonial government and urged Cambodia to declare independence. King Sihanouk (who had been put on the throne in 1941) announced independence and a new government was established headed by nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh as prime minister. As soon as the WWII was over and the allies occupied Cambodia, Son Ngoc Thanh was arrested.

Map of Indochina in 1942

Map of Indochina in 1942.

The Free French under command of General Charles de Gaulle tried to regain control over the region and offered a degree of self government to Cambodia. In 1946 the French allowed elections for a Consultative assembly to assist the King to draft the constitution and the democratic party (formed by teachers, intellectuals and civil cervants that embodied the nationalist elite of the country and that largely opposed the king's policies) won the elections. The Democratic party won again in the 1947 and 1951 elections for the National Assembly and they continued to oppose the King. In 1952 Sihanouk dismissed the government, suspended the constitution and named himself prime minister. He then proclaimed martial law and started his crusade for independence. The French reluctanty accepted as the military situation was deteriorating in Indochina and on the 9th November 1953 Cambodia celebrated its independence, one of the most important dates in Cambodian history.


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