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Cambodia Table of Contents


The French Protectorate, 1863-1954

Following entreaties that had been made a decade earlier by Cambodian King Ang Duong to Napoleon III for protection from the Vietnamese, his "traditional enemies," a delegation of French naval officers in 1863 proceeded to Phnom Penh from Saigon to conclude a treaty with Duong's son, now King Norodom (1859-1904), that created a French protectorate (see The French Protectorate , ch. 1). It is generally accepted by historians that only the intervention of the French prevented the extinction of Cambodia.

Heavy taxation as well as resentment against foreign domination and the puppet rulers who sat on the throne in Phnom Penh were the causes of the intermittent rebellions that marked the colonial period. Revolts erupted in 1866 and in 1870 that attracted considerable support in the countryside. They were quelled by the French, assisted by Norodom's half brother (the future king), Sisowath, who led his troops alongside the French in the suppression of both rebellions.

Another serious rebellion occurred in 1884, when the French forced upon King Norodom a new treaty that tightened their control over Cambodia. The reforms stipulated in the new accord, such as the abolition of slavery and the nstitutionalization of land ownership, struck at the very heart of the privileged status enjoyed by the Cambodian elite in the countryside. The result was a widespread insurrection evoking such support that a local French official in Kampong Cham noted in 1886 that "...the entire Cambodian population acquiesces in the revolt." Quelling the rebellion took one and one-half years, and it tied down some 4,000 French and Vietnamese troops that had been brought in from Cochinchina (the southern part of Vietnam).

Unrest surfaced periodically before World War II, and various episodes of Cambodians' defying colonial rule were recorded. Reports by French officials also hinted at widespread insecurity in the countryside, where peasants frequently were at the mercy of bandit gangs. The colonial military forces in Cambodia, which were available to quell potential insurrections during this period, consisted of a light infantry battalion (Bataillon Tirailleurs Cambodgiens) and a national or native constabulary (Garde Nationale, also called Garde Indigène).

The light infantry battalion, a Khmer unit with French officers, was part of a larger force, the third brigade, which had responsibility for Cambodia and for Cochinchina. In addition to the Cambodian battalion, the brigade was composed of French colonial and Vietnamese light infantry regiments and support elements. The brigade, headquartered in Saigon, was ultimately responsible to a supreme military command for Indochina located in Hanoi.

Under the French pre-World War II colonial regime, the constabulary consisted of a force of about 2,500 men and a mixed Franco-Khmer headquarters element of about forty to fifty officers, technicians, and support personnel. The force was divided into about fifteen companies deployed in the provinces. Control of the constabulary was vested in the colonial civil administration, but in times of crisis, command could pass quickly to military authorities in Saigon or in Hanoi. Service in the constabulary theoretically was voluntary, and personnel received a cash salary. Enlistments, however, were rarely sufficient to keep pace with personnel requirements, and villages occasionally were tasked to provide recruits.

Data as of December 1987