Splits & Alliances- History Of The Khmer Issarak Part Two

The following article follows from PART ONE. The piecing together of the rebel movements becomes a little complicated, as there were various name changes, so the glossary of terms used is given (using the French order of initialism):

AEK: l’Association des Etudiants Khmers. Founded in 1946 as an organization to bring Cambodian students from all backgrounds and political persuasions together for the goal of education. Headed by Ea Sichau (nationalist) and Yem Sarong (moderate Democrat), it was non-political and notable members included Vann Molyvann (President in 1950) and Sam Sary, as well as the future Khmer Rouge leadership. By 1950 Marxist elements, including Ieng Sary, took the organization in a radical direction.

CCLP: Provisional Central Committee for the Liberation of the People. A political group linked with the FUI (1).

CNLK: Comité de libération du peuple khmer / Khmer National Liberation Committee. A broader Issarak group which maintained links to the Viet Minh and the pro-Thai groups- also known as the KNLC

FUI (1): Front Uni Issarak / United Issarak Front. A breakaway group led by Son Ngoc Minh who fully allied by the Viet Minh and Vietnamese communists. Founded in 1950 with Son Ngoc Minh as President.

FUI (2): Front Uni Issarak / United Issarak Front. A right wing, pro-US Issarak group founded by Son Ngoc Tanh in 1952.

GRK: Gouvernement de la Résistance Khmer / Khmer Resistance Government. A PRPK led self-proclaimed alternative government, with Son Ngoc Minh as president.

PCI:  Parti communiste indochinois/ Indochinese Communist Party. Communist movement with members from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Disbanded in early 1951.

PRPK: Parti Révolutionnaire de Peuple Khmer (Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party). The Cambodian Communist group that had been part of the PCI.

WPV: the Đảng lao động Việt Nam (Lao Dong Party/Workers Party of Vietnam). The Vietnamese Communist group that had been part of the PCI.

The Issaraks, renamed as the Khmer National Liberation Committee or CNLK under Committee ( Kana Kamathikar Khmer Sang CheatComité National Khmer de Libération) began to fragment in 1949.

Please note, while every effort has been made to be as accurate as possible, some sources differ (Khmer, French and English languages)- so the dates, names and events may vary slightly to what has been written here. All opinions are the author’s and not those

The flag of the UIF; this flag was also occasionally used by the CNLK in the period prior to 1953.

The Movement Splits

January 1949: A new Committee elected in, had reduced the number of identified leftists to three; Mey Pho (Information Branch), Leav Keo Moni (Economy Branch) and Moun (Treasury Branch).

Leav Keo Moni soon broke away, taking a few hundred fighters with him, followed by the right-winger Kao Tak who left in April 1949, along with 400 men.

July 1949: After Dap Chhuon had Mao Sarouth and Hem Savang assassinated, he was removed from the CNLK leadership. Later in July, the old guard Issarak Poc Khun became the leader of the organization and was joined by Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey, who became its “Supreme Army Chief”.

October 1, 1949: Dap Chhoun surrendered to the French authorities, taking with him around 300 fighters and was rewarded with an official post and his own fiefdom in the northwest.

Photo which claims to show Dap Chhoun surrendering

Ethnic Violence

The situation was tense on the Vietnamese border too. Viet Minh groups operating out of Cambodian-Vietnamese villages began to clash with ethnic-Khmers and Issarak groups, which was reported in November 1948 to French intelligence networks, although this had been happening for several years already. Over the next year these turned into tit-for-tat reprisals of looting, kidnapping and murder between both communities, with many of the attacks on Vietnamese civilians led by Puth Chhay.

This ethnic violence had two polarizing results; many Cambodian army members stripped off their uniforms and happily joined in the bloodlust- under the pretext that all Vietnamese were Viet Minh. On the other hand, veteran Issaraks who had previously worked alongside the Viet Minh were appalled by what was happening, and moved closer to the communists.   

The reasons for this outbreak of violence were many-fold. A process of ‘Vietnamization’ the area known as Cochinchina/Kampuchea Krom had sped up after the end of World War II, and the region was coveted by both the Communists and the Bao-Dai regime. Although the PCI and Viet Minh’s official position was one of peaceful relations with Cambodians, there were admissions that ‘rogue cadres’ had participated in attacks on Khmer villages.

While Viet Minh units deeper in Cambodia were under strict codes of discipline, it’s probable that on ‘home soil’, these rules were looser- and the Viet Minh were known to be ruthless against their own people, if resisted.

Cambodians were told of atrocities by, and uprisings against, Vietnamese hegemony over the centuries, and rallied to new nationalistic fervor. As reports of Viet Minh attacks spread, resentment among the populace spread.

One cannot overlook the role of the common criminal- both Khmer and Vietnamese. The southern border region had become too dangerous for an overt French presence, and groups of bandits, murderers and rapists easily drifted into the chaos for self-gain.

The French, with many spies in many places, may also have had a hand in playing different groups off of each other using agents provocateurs, while being able to keep their armed forces in more useful locations.

Political Gains, Political Losses

June 4 1949: French President, Vincent Auriol, signed a law granting Cochinchina/Kampuchea Krom to the Bao Dai government without consultation with the indigenous Khmer-Krom people. Many Issarak leaders had Khmer-Krom family roots and the region soon became a fertile recruiting ground for Son Ngoc Thanh- who was a native of Trà Vinh.

Politically, the 1950’s started badly for the young and ambitious King Sihanouk. His successful negotiations in the Franco-Khmer treaty had won limited autonomy for Cambodia within the Indochinese Federation, but the fractured parliament- dominated by the Democratic Party- seemed united only in preventing the King from passing any legislation.

In September 1949 Sihanouk dissolved the National Assembly, opting to rule by decree- a blow to the Democrats, who, despite internal squabbling, were committed to a fully independent parliamentary state, which limited the king’s powers to a figurehead, similar to European models. Many, including ‘rehabilitated’ former rebels such as Sim Var, once again began to sympathize with the Issaraks.

January 14 1950: A hand grenade was thrown into the Democratic Party headquarters, fatally wounding Ieu Koeus, a founding member, who had briefly been Prime Minister. The case, which was never solved, was blamed in turn on rival politicians, members of the royal family and an Issarak group.

Military operations against the Issaraks and Viet Minh were carried out by French and Cambodian army, along with airborne and commando units towards the end of the 1950 dry season. Sweeps of Pursat (Operation Ceramique) and Kampong Chhnang (Canigou) took place, along with an airborne assault on Kralanh from the end of March to early April.

In early 1950 Poc Khun was removed as the CNLK leader, after being accused of embezzling 600,000 piastres intended for arms purchases in Bangkok. On April 19, the leftist Leav Keo Moni was elected the new president of the CNLK; Kao Tak became the ‘President of National Defense’.

The Communist Alliance

April 17-19, 1950: As the movement fell into disarray, leftist Issaraks met for a conference in Kompong Som Loeu, Kampot province. The conference, attended by around 200 delegates- around half of whom were Buddhist monks- agreed to the founding of the Samakhum Khmer Issarak or Front Uni Issarak (FUI – United Issarak Front) led by Son Ngoc Minh. The political wing was named Comité Central provisoire de Libération du Peuple (CCLP – Provisional Central Committee for the Liberation of the People) with Son Ngoc Minh as President, Chan Samay (Vice-President), Sieu Heng (Vice-President and Defence Minister), Tou Samouth (Vice-President), Son Phuoc Rattana and Non Suon.

A new flag was revealed- the golden towers of Angkor on a red background- a design which would be used as the state emblem of People’s Republic of Kampuchea.

A Viet Minh general named Ung Sao was also present. At the venue Khmer, Vietnamese and Laotian flags were displayed.

June 19, 1950: Claiming that the FUI now controlled between a third to half of Cambodia, Son Ngoc Minh declared independence from France.

August 1950: A FUI military school was founded, with about a hundred recruits entering training. In September, the French Union forces stepped up the campaign against the FUI and intelligence estimated the leftist Issaraks had the support of around 3000 Vietnamese Viet Minh troops.

November 22, 1950: A meeting was held between Sieu Heng (representing the FUI), Souphanouvong of Laos and Ton Duc Thang of the Viet Minh. Plans were made split the Indochinese Communist Party (PCI) into three autonomous groups, acting in unity.

1951- New Year, Old Problems

1951 fared little better for the embattled King Sihanouk. The dissolved government continued to squabble, and the French led army had little control outside the main towns. The various Issarak groups continued fighting both the French/Cambodian forces and themselves. It was civil war in all but name.

Around the same time, in Paris, a group of Cambodian students from the l’Association des Etudiants Khmers (AEK) were meeting regularly to discuss politics. They included Ieng Sary, Thiounn Mumm, Saloth Sar and their older mentor Keng Vannsak. Some would soon form the ‘Cercle Marxiste’, a clandestine organization of underground cells devoted to Marx-Leninism.

February 8, 1951: The ‘three parties, one program’ was realized in early 1951, with the formation of the Parti Révolutionnaire de Peuple Khmer (PRPK) – Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party and the Đảng lao động Việt Nam (Lao Dong Party or WPV- Workers Party of Vietnam). Laos would not have its own party until 1955.

February 1951: In the northwest, a CNLK meeting was held in Battambang, at which leftist Leav Keo Moni was re-elected president. Kao Tak was removed from his post, accused of excesses against the local population committed under his command.

This was most likely a political decision, as Kao Tak opposed furthering links with the Viet Minh. Soon after the meeting, Kao Tak attempted to kill Leav Keo Moni in an ambush in Battambang on February 13. The attempt failed, but the CNLK issued a death sentence on Kao Tak- who managed to escape.

April 1951: Three CNLK delegates returned to Cambodia from Vietnam, and attempts were made to strengthen cooperation between CNLK and FUI.

July 26, 1951: Perhaps in an attempt to bring the right-wing CNLK on side, and with the first election since he dissolved the National Assembly in 1949 imminent, King Sihanouk began referring to the Issaraks as ‘Khmer Viet Minh’.

August 1951: An AEK delegation, headed by Ieng Sary and Saloth Sar, visited East Berlin. Viet Minh sympathizers shared documents from Son Ngoc Minh. They returned to Paris and took over the AEK by the end of the year.

August 20, 1951: The CNLK congress met again and re-elected Leav Keo Moni as president. His old foe, the former member Kao Tak had reorganized his forces, and could count around 300 fighters under his command by the end of 1951.

September 9, 1951: The results of the general election saw a landslide win for the Democratic Party- another blow to Sihanouk.

September 30, 1951: The communist Issaraks founded the “formation and propaganda” committee – with Son Ngoc Minh as President. This operated as the provisional central committee of the PRPK, which now had about 1000 members. 

Around this time the main factions of the Issaraks were the Viet Minh leaning CNLK centered in the north and west, with the Viet Minh dominated PRPK in the south and east.

The CNLK were further split into three separate units, each operating autonomously; Ouch Nilpich and Achar Tumsok both operated in different parts in the north of the country and the third, led by Thim Tralay, operated south of Battambang.

Tralay’s group was in charge of relations with Viet Minh, and operated jointly with Viet Minh forces in the Battambang area.

To complicate matters further, expelled members of the CNLK were also fighting against their former comrades.

Dap Chhoun, now with French blessing led troops in Siem Reap. Poc Khan still had the support of old friends across the border In Thailand and Kao Tak, after failing to kill Leav Keo Moni, had reorganized his forces, with around 300 fighters under his command by the end of 1951. Others, such as Norodom Chantaraingsey, unhappy with the increasing presence of the Viet Minh, were also making plans to leave the movement.

The October 29 Events

Two major events in a single day in October 1951 shook up matters even further.

Sihanouk’s gamble on a fresh election had backfired, with the Democrats once again holding the National Assembly. For reasons that can only be speculated, the King decided to play a wildcard.

Son Ngoc Thanh- the right-wing godfather of the independence struggle had been safely out of the way under house arrest in France since 1945. After a promise not to get involved in politics, Sihanouk successfully lobbied the French for his release, and Thanh was finally able to return to Cambodia. Unbeknownst, Thanh had been visited by Khmer students while still in France- including the playwright Hang Thun Hak and Iv Yang. Ho Chi Minh also sent a secret envoy, suggesting that they fight a common front together with the Viet Minh on his return to Cambodia- to which Thanh declined.

October 29, 1951: Tens of thousands gathered at Ponchentong Airport to welcome Son Ngoc Thanh back as a hero- among them the recently elected Prime Minister Huy Kanthoul and several elected members of the Democratic Party. It is highly unlikely that Sihanouk expected such a rapturous homecoming, but this would later prove serendipitous as the Democrats faced charges of treason.

The same day, Jean Léon François Marie de RaymondCommissaire de la République- the highest ranked Frenchman in the country was found murdered in his room. His young Vietnamese houseboy was the supposed killer- the Viet Minh claimed he was working on their instruction.

The assassination in Phnom Penh came just 3 months after a suicide bombing (possibly the first such ‘terrorism’ case recorded) killed Charles Chanson- Commander of the French-Indo-Chinese forces in southern Vietnam- on July 31, 1951. This was blamed on a bizarre new age sect known as Cao Dai- but Chanson’s death certainly eliminated a competent adversary of the Viet Minh in Vietnam, as did de Raymond’s in Phnom Penh.

Once back in Phnom Penh, Son Ngoc Thanh began to reassociate himself with his old friends including Pach Chhoeun and Sim Var- who had worked on the Nagaravatta (Angkor Wat) newspaper until it was closed following the Umbrella War of 1942.

He sent the student Iv Yang- also returned from France- to secretly scout out locations suitable for a base to use as new headquarters. The two regions considered were Phnom Aoral in Kampong Speu province and O’Smach in Oddar Meanchey province.

O’Smach- straddling the Thai border and with a natural pass through the Dangrek mountains- was chosen as the preferred spot.

Return Of The Rebel

Son Ngoc Thanh and Pach Chhouen

January 1952: The Gouvernement de la Résistance Khmer (GRK – Khmer Resistance Government), was announced, with Son Ngoc Minh proclaiming himself President. 

March 9, 1952: At 1 a.m., Son Ngoc Thanh left Phnom Penh with collaborators: Ea Sichau, Hang Thun Hak, Koam Reth, and San Savath in two Citroen cars heading to Siem Reap province.

Two days later, with help from Pach Chhoeun- then Minister of Information- Iv Yang was able to join the group in Kralanh, taking with him a Land Rover and a radio transmitter.

They began broadcasting radio messages from a site on the banks of the Stung Sreng river in Oddar Meanchey province, announcing the formation of a new liberation movement.

Confusingly, this was also named Front Uni Issarak (FUI), which had already been taken by the man who had previously taken part of Thanh’s name- Son Ngoc Minh, now renamed the CNLK.

The motto for the FUI#2 was “Independence, Democracy, New Khmer Society, Discipline, Courage”. This pro-American movement reached out to the Cambodian right, and was made up of students, army deserters and right-wing Issaraks who had either been expelled from the other FUI, or were dissatisfied with the reliance on the Viet Minh.

Son Ngoc Thanh’s FUI movement soon included Ea Sichau (the former AEK president who had heckled Sihanouk and accused him of cavorting with a French prostitute on a state trip to Paris in 1949) as deputy chief and theorist of the revolution, responsible for planning and political union. Achar Khiev Chum was Secretary General, his deputy was Yun Heang. Hang Thun Hak (the playwright) was responsible for education, culture and arts, Iv Yang: responsible for general security and military commander of the West region and Battambang and Pursat provinces. Péng Kith was in charge of technical and radio broadcasting communications. Duong Chan Sarath the Chief of Staff, his deputy was Leav Thean Sy. The down-but-not-out Keo Tak was made military leader and military operations commander, San Savath the military commander of the North region (Siem Reap), his deputy was Lek Sam Eurn, while Koam Reth was made military commander of the Northeast Region (Kampong Thom/Chhnang/Cham) overseeing a military commander for province: Mèn, Ung Sim, Mau Thém.

Hang Thun Hak 

May 26, 1952: Following earlier anti-French demonstrations across the country- the Democratic Party organized simultaneous marches in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampong Cham. The Democrat led government then arrested rival politicians who were demanding the dissolution of the National Assembly, including Lon Nol and Yem Sambaur. 

June 15, 1952: French troops moved into Phnom Penh as Sihanouk again dissolved the Democratic Party Government. He took power the next day, in was widely seen as a palace led coup. A letter of protest was soon dispatched from the AEK in Paris.

August 1952: After calls were sent out against the dissolution of the government in Phnom Penh, another group of 150 Khmer Issarak from Kampong Thom led by Ngoun Hong, Sarin and Saloth Chhay joined the movement. In Kampong Speu. Norodom Chantaraingsey was requested to remain in Kampong Speu and work with Ea Sichau.

September 7, 1952: Dap Chhuon- the right wing former Issarak-turned-defector- led his provincial autonomous army in an attack on Son Ngoc Thanh’s FUI army base, which left 22 dead and 60 wounded.

October 1952: Leav Keo Moni from the CNLK and Son Ngoc Thanh tried to find a way to unite the Khmer Issarak resistance in the west. Kao Tak, accompanied by 60 soldiers, traveled from Siem Reap to Kampong Speu to meet with Puth Chhay, Norodom Chantaraingsey and Savang Vong to mediate on the issue of consolidating the Khmer Issarak resistance movement and the Viet Minh. 

November 27, 1952: After Son Ngoc Thanh and Son Ngoc Minh both unsuccessfully campaigned to be recognized as the legitimate leaders of the Issarak movement, an agreement was reached between both sides agreeing on mutual security, if not unity.

December 1952: A Cambodian student of the AEK and member of the Cercle Marxiste- boarded the SS Jamaïque, returning to Cambodia after failing his exams for two years in a row. He was charged with the mission to investigate and report on which rebel movements should be supported by the more radical elements of the AEK. His name was Saloth Sar.

By the end of the year there was an uneasy balance between the rightists led by Thanh, the more moderate leftists of Leav Keo Moni and the ‘Khmer Viet Minh’ communists of Son Ngoc Minh. Others working independently- like Puth Chhay, and Chantaraingsey-remained active, along with their men, while Dap Chhoeun was a potential danger to the Issaraks and Sihanouk. All the factions were undoubtedly, to some degree, infiltrated by French agents.

Meanwhile, in the capital, King Sihanouk was preparing his political tightrope balancing act, for which he would later become known for. With his rivals the Democrats virtually a spent force, the King prepared to sideline the rebels by achieving with negotiation (and a little showmanship) what the rebels had failed to do with force- total independence for Cambodia.


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