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Colonial Period

History of Cambodia : Colonial Period

Cambodia remained under the wings of the French from 1864 to 1953, with a brief Japanese occupation during World War II. During these years, the kings of Cambodia were mainly figureheads and were viewed by the peasants as the god-kings (devarajas).

It was a period marked by French exploitation of natural resources, pockets of dissent among branches of the royal family and rebellion among the peasants against penalizing taxes. Interestingly, though, Cambodia escaped relatively unscathed during World War II as opposed to Burma and Philippines where fierce fighting waged. However, it was also during this period that Angkor was discovered as a lost city in the jungle, and French efforts at restoring the temples could be seen as their most positive legacy to Cambodia.
Old hotel International , Phnom Penh – by Jean Sien

King Norodom

King Norodom was the ruler who approached the French for protection to avoid being carved up by its aggressive neighbors. Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1864 and when the French demanded more control over Cambodia’s internal affairs, the government acquiesced. In return, the French kept King Norodom’s court in splendor.

During the 1880s, Cambodia was drawn into the French-controlled Indochinese Union, At the start of the colonial period, the French traded Battambang and Siem Reap to the Thais in return for their renouncing suzerainty over Cambodia. These provinces were ceded back to Cambodia by a border treaty between France and Thailand in 1907, returning Angkor to Cambodia after an absence of more than a decade.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk

King Norodom was succeeded by King Sisowoth, his brother ,who was deemed friendlier to the French. When King Monivong died during the Japanese occuption, the French installed 19 year old Prince Norodom Sihanouk, great grandson of King Norodom, whom they thought would be pliable in their hands. However, it would later transpire that Prince Sihanouk would be the pivotal political leader who would negotiate the country’s independence and bring success to Cambodia between the 1950s and 60’s.

Peasant Revolt

The Cambodians were discriminated against in the Indochinese Union and paid the highest level of taxes. Peasants lost their farms through penalizing interest rates and taxes. This came to a head in 1916 with a revolt which brought tens of thousands of peasants to Phnom Penh to petition a King Sisowath for lower taxes. In 1925, Khmer villagers killed a French tax collector who was looking for tax delinquents.

Some infrastructure was built during the French colonial rule, primarily roads and bridges, some of which can be seen today. Education was neglected and at the end of the era, there were no universities and only one high school in the whole country. An influx of immigrant labor increased the ethnic diversity of Cambodian society, most of the immigrants being Vietnamese who ended up as laborers in plantations and fishermen.

New Era of Optimism

During the Japanese occupation, the French continued to manage affairs in Cambodia. When the war ended, the French regained control and after several tumultuous years which saw increasing nationalistic clamor, Sihanouk’s crusade for independence succeeded. November 9 1953 marked the end of colonial period. Cambodia became an independent nation, ushering in a new era of optimism.