The Khmer Rouge is by far the most recognized militant organization in Cambodian history- and rightly so considering the group’s murderous regime which began in 1975. However, the Khmer Rouge did not come out of the jungles overnight. Before the Khmer Communist Party lurched towards the ultra-Maoism under Pol Pot, many of its leaders and teachers had been in another violent rebel group. This mix of rightists, leftists, warlords and bandits was a diverse and would later splinter into different factions, including the Khmer Rouge. At the movement’s inception, these groups were labelled the Khmer Issarak- who aimed, with competing motives to overthrow the French rule in Cambodia.
The following is a rough chronology of the Issarak movement, as well as some details of the major members.
The Indochinese Communist Party (PCI) was created by Ho Chi Minh in 1930 as a movement for the liberation of Vietnam from French colonialism in French Indochina. The armed wing of the movement-Viet Minh fought against the French, the Japanese (with American help), Kuomintang nationalist Chinese and the British during the brief occupation of Indochina following the Japanese surrender- a mostly forgotten conflict known as Operation Masterdom, before seizing control of much of Northern Vietnam, finally leading to French defeat at Die Bien Phu and the founding of Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The Viet Minh also gained influence in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
By the 1940s, along the Cambodian-Thai border and the Thai occupied regions of the northwest, a movement took hold, which was known as the Issarak- loosely translated to ‘free/independent’. Although the roots of the Issarak were right-wing and pro-Thai, the Issaraks later moved more towards sponsorship and support from the PCI and Viet Minh. Their aim was to force the French from Cambodia.
July 20, 1942: The ‘Umbrella War’. Around 2,000 people including 500 monks carrying umbrellas demonstrated in Phnom Penh against French rule. Son Ngoc Than and his supporters, with the seemingly tacit support of the Japanese, clashed with colonial troops. As many as 200 were arrested. Others were able to escape- one of them, Achar Mean, a Pali teacher at Wat Unnalom, fled to Yeay Tep Monastery in Kampong Chhnang. From there he established an underground network linked to the PCI under the name of Son Ngoc Minh.
1944: Poc Khun, a Khmer aristocrat founded a movement in Bangkok, calling it Khmer Issarak. It is the first time that the term was used.
February 7, 1945: US B-29 bombers bombed Phnom Penh. Some fell on Wat Unnalom, killing around 20 monks and lay people. Tou Samouth, a Pali teacher from the pagoda, who had also participated in the umbrella war of 1942, fled to Vietnam where he joined the PCI.
March 9, 1945: The Japanese army seized control of Indochina. Almost all the colonial forces and the French administrators were interned.
March 12, 1945: King Norodom Sihanouk denounced the Franco-Siamese treaties, proclaiming Cambodia’s sovereignty and participation in the ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’ and formed a government over which he chaired.
March 24, 1945: General Charles de Gaulle declared his plans for the liberalization of the Indochinese colonies and the integration of Indochina into the French Union.
April 13, 1945: Although the Japanese had all but lost the war, King Sihanouk praised ‘the Empire of the Rising Sun, liberator of the peoples of Asia‘.
May 30, 1945: Son Ngoc Thanh returned to Phnom Penh and became Minister of Foreign Affairs.
June 1945: An armed Issarak group was founded in Battambang.
June 18, 1945: The last Emperor of Annam, Bao Dai, proclaimed independence and the unity of Vietnam through the reunification of Tonkin, Annam and the “other territories of the empire”.
June 25, 1945: King Sihanouk asserted Cambodia’s rights over Cochinchina.
August 9, 1945: Dissatisfied with the government they considered too conservative, seven young nationalists and anti-monarchists staged a coup. Supported by a large number of monks – including Achar Mean (Son Ngoc Minh). Members of the Lycee Sisowath alumni association burst into the royal palace in the middle of the night, demanding the abdication of King Sihanouk almost the entire government. Son Ngoc Thanh had them arrested, but five soon escaped to Vietnam and joined the PCI in 1946.
August 14, 1945: Son Ngoc Thanh became president of the Council of Ministers.
August 15, 1945: Japan surrendered, following the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
September 28, 1945: King Sihanouk wrote to French Admiral Thierry d´Argenlieu, High Commissioner for Indochina; proposing to negotiate terms for Cambodia’s independence.
October 1, 1945: General Leclerc arrived in Saigon.
October 8, 1945: British troops entered Phnom Penh under the command of Lt Col E.D. Murray in his capacity as “supreme allied commander”. He was responsible for disarming the Japanese forces.
October 15, 1945: General Leclerc arrived in Phnom Penh. He ordered the arrest of Son Ngoc Thanh. Defense Minister Kim Tith rallied to the French, while the Minister of the Economy Pach Choeun escaped to the jungle.
October 17, 1945: Prince Sisowath Monireth formed a new government.
October 23, 1945: King Sihanouk agreed to read a text prepared by the French senior resident by which he declared his loyalty and that of the Cambodian people to France, and his support for the French plans of the creation of an Indochinese Federation within the framework of the French Union.
October 16, 1945: Son Ngoc Thanh, who had just been appointed Prime Minister was arrested and taken away to Saigon. The French court handed him a 20-year prison sentence for his collaboration with Japan.
King Sihanouk appealed to the French for him to be exiled and taken to France. He was put under house arrest in Poitier where remained until 1951. In the wake of his arrest, the followers of Son Ngoc Thanh fled; one group to Thailand, the other to South Vietnam:
1. Achar Ouk Chear, Achar Khiev Chum and Bun Chan Mol passed through Battambang (then under Thai occupation) before entering Thailand.
2. Pach Choeun, Chau Sèn Kosal Chum, Ms. Son Ngoc Thanh (née Lam Thi Ouk) and others took refuge in Southern Vietnam.
Bun Chan Mol with his uncle Poc Khun (founder of the first Issarak committee in Bangkok), and with Thai government support, formally began a campaign to “Liberate the country from French colonialism”.
Considered to be the first leaders of the Khmer Issaraks were: Hem Savang, Hem Savath, Sarou, Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey, Chhieng, Chan Tor Tres, Phan Say, Ros Yeun, Hou Ouk San, Khan Pum, Phok Ny, Keo Tak, Dap Chhoun, Siv Heng, Moul Sambath, Achar Press, Achar Mean and Pong Phoeuk.
Despite being a movement dedicated to independence, the Issaraks were far from independent- relying on financial and material resources from Thailand and the Viet Minh, along with from ‘donations’ collected from the local peasantry, topped up with brazen looting and banditry in the countryside.
June 1946: Dap Chhoun raised about 150,000 Riels from the people of Battambang to give to Poc Khun-the Khmer Issarak leader who was still in Bangkok. Poc Kun purchased 150 rifles, ammunition and some grenades to equip more than 400 Issarak troops in Battambang province.
August 7, 1946: An Issarak group of 300 men, led by Dap Chhuon, a former Khmer sergeant in the Thai army, Norodom Chantaraingsey, a rebel prince and Son Ngoc Minh attacked Siem Reap town and occupied the Angkor temples for 6 days.
After discussing the plan, Issarak troops from Anlong Vil marched through the forest, while others traveled along the national road through the town of Serei Sophorn (then named Sisophon). After traveling for 5 days, they reached a bridge about 5 km from Kralanh district which marked the border between Thai occupied Battambang and French occupied Cambodia.
Hem Savang and Mao Sarut decided to divide the forces with a small band to attack Thmar Puok district hall and sent more than 300 troops towards Siem Reap in 5 columns. The first was to seize the provincial hall (hotel de ville), and subdue the French officers there. The second was to attack the native Khmer infantry base and the third to capture the radio station. The fourth column was to attack the prison, freeing the prisoners, and the fifth to strike the house of the chief, the customs chief, and the provincial police.
An Issarak intelligence team said that in the provincial town of Siem Reap, there were about 25 French officers staying at the provincial hotel.
In the middle of the night on August 7, 1946, the five groups snuck into Siem Reap, following each objective as planned. The first was about 2 km from the provincial hotel, when the came across Khmer-French armored vehicles patrolling the city. The commander ordered the men to lie down and remain silent so as not alert the enemy. But an Issarak named Men, disobeying the order, fired a shot, causing the armored vehicle to shot back and rush back to the post in Siem Reap to alert the garrison.
The shot firing Issarak was accused of being a French agent, who was trying to warn the French of the attack.
However, the other four other units successfully attacked their respective targets, the assault on the infantry barracks and the prison working especially well.
After the armored vehicle left for the hotel de ville where the French officers were billeted, the Issaraks began shooting at the building from a distance. French officers returned fire from inside.
In the early morning of August 8, as the Khmer Issarak army was collecting more than 100 guns that colonial Khmer soldiers had left behind as they fled, the French army began to regroup for a counter-attack outside the city in large numbers. Realizing that they could not resist the French, the Khmer Issarak forces were forced to retreat strategically from Siem Reap to the north, heading to Angkor Wat.
The wounded were taken to the city hospital and left outside, in the hope that the doctors would help treat them in a humanitarian way. They were all shot dead by the French, who did not allow the doctors to accept them.
The French soldiers pursued the retreating Issaraks, who took refuge inside the temple of Angkor Wat where they waited for a few days. From there they split into smaller bands to escape, planning to regroup in Kampong Thkov on the Battambang border, and then proceed to the Dangrek mountain range.
They split into three groups led by Dap Chhuon, Hem Savang and Mao Saruth and the third group led by another Khmer Issarak leader to set up positions in their respective areas.
Seven French officers were killed in the fighting, along with Issarak leader Hem Savath.
Dap Chhuon, after raiding the French garrison for weapons and ammunition, withdrew towards Phnom Kulen. Prince Chantaraingsey escaped to Battambang, where Ros Yeurn was arrested and killed by the Thais in Poipet. Many more Issaraks were detained and executed by the French.
There was another smaller attack on Puok district hall on the night of August 7, probably as a diversion from the main assauly. The French arrested a number of teachers and district officials who were drinking and partying at the district hall that night, and after interrogation they were all executed after being accused of aiding the rebels.
November 17, 1946: A Franco-Thai agreement saw the return of the Cambodian provinces occupied by Thailand. The Thai army maintained a presence on the site of the Temple of Preah Vihear, and continued to support and harbour the Issarak movement through into 1948.
In 1947 Son Ngoc Minh returned from Thailand with new weapons to equip a fairly large company. He established the Liberation Committee of South-West Kampuchea- which would remain an important stronghold for the later rebel groups.
November 8, 1947: Thai army troops launched a coup in Bangkok. The regime of Pridi Banomyong was removed, and official Thai support for the Issaraks quickly waned. Some of the group’s leaders began to lobby the Viet Minh for assistance.
December 25, 1947- January 2, 1948: Operation Pluton, a French airborne operation was launched which attacked a Viet Minh base around Phnom Kulen in Siem Reap province. It is not clear where Dap Chhoun was at the time, but this was the area he controlled after the attack on Siem Reap.
February 1,1948: The Issarak movement formed the Khmer People’s Liberation Committee (CLPK – comité de libération du peuple khmer) with Dap Chhuon as its president. Five of its eleven leaders were sympathetic to the Vietnamese, which began to alienate rightist elements of the movement. Though Chhuon was nominally anti-communist, the organization also had two important Viet Minh supporters: Sieu Heng, who was the head of the ICP North-Western branch, and his nephew Long Bunruot.
The CLPK was changed to the CNKL (Comité National Khmer de Libération – Khmer National Liberation Committee), in February 1949 under Poc Khan, who attempted to distance the movement from the Viet Minh.
By 1949, the remaining rebels regrouped into autonomous groups in several regions, such as Samlot in Battambang province, placed under the control of Sieu Heng (uncle of Lao Kim Lorn/ Long Bunruot, better known as Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea- who would later kill him) and included Leav Keo Moni, Moul Sabath and Pong Phoeuk.
Kampong Thom and Kampong Chhnang were controlled by Nguon Hong, Saloth Chhay and Captain Seap.
The province of Kampong Speu placed under the control of Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey, Savang Vong and Puth Chhay. Puth Chhay, was a near-illiterate peasant who joined the Issaraks after serving time in a French prison for robbery and assault. He was little more than a bandit operating out of S’aang and commanded around a thousand men. He hated the French, drank heavily, was a womanizer, relied heavily on magic, and was known for cruelty towards his prisoners.
The area around Kampot was controlled by Nop Bophan, Achar Mean (Son Ngoc Minh), and in the following years students who had returned from France, including Chi Kim An, and Saloth Sar (the future Pol Pot). This area was heavily influenced by the Viet Minh, who set up bases in the province to attack southern Vietnam.
Great swathes of these provinces were effectively no-go zones for the French and Cambodian government, which began a campaign of bribery and coercion to bring some of the rebel leaders back under control through deals and government positions. These included Dap Chhoun, who, in October 1949, took his men over to the French, and was rewarded him with de-facto rule over great swathes of northwest Cambodia and an official military post as commander of the “Franco-Khmer Corps”.
November 9, 1949: The Franco-Cambodian Treaty was signed, granting Cambodia limited autonomy within the French Union. The northwestern provinces, returned by Thailand were given over to Cambodian military control- with Dap Chhoun effectively running his own fiefdom.
The next years would see the Issaraks splinter into differently aligned political groups- but the violence continued. As always, sides were switched and enemies became allies as quickly as allies became enemies. Some died as traitors, while others were later commemorated as founding fathers of modern Cambodia.
Stay tuned- Part II to follow next week.