March 18, 2014 marked 44 years since the coup by General Lon Nol to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power. Over the next few days, I will profile three stories, firsthand accounts by three people who recalls what happened that day, and chain of events that occurred thereafter. The first is written by Mr. Chhang Song who was working on Prince Sihanouk's information team as an editorial assistant at the time of the coup. He later became Minister of Information in the Lon Nol government. Read his first hand account of the series of events that took place on March 18, 1970.
Part I: The OVERTHROW OF PRINCE NORODOM SIHANOUK
By Mr. Chhang Song, Long Beach, California, March 18, 2014.
The March 18, 1970 overthrow of Cambodia’s Head of State, Prince NORODOM SIHANOUK continues to be on my mind to this day and has kept me busy sorting out information for the past 45 years. Unlike many Cambodians who turned against the Prince, I was very close to him before his overthrow.
I was on the Prince’s information team as an editorial assistant. Upon my return from the US, he gave me an office at his official Sangkum Printing Plant and put me in charge of proofreading and editing copies of articles, statements and speeches he made. At the printing plant, we paid particular attention to his political magazines, Kambuja and Le Sangkum, which were published in French and English.
On that day of March 18, I was reviewing the last copy of Kambuja which had just come out of the press when the plant manager who supervised also all the publications, asked me to join him for a private discussion. That copy of Kambuja, incidentally, turned out to be the last copy of the glossy monthly which the Prince would never see and which I have kept with me to this day.
Prince SIHANOUK had been away to France for over two months and the country was in big turmoil. The National Assembly was now debating serious charges against the Prince in his absence. Those charges included corruption, lavish spending of national budget, mismanagement and, above all, the Prince’s collusion with Communist Vietcong and North Vietnamese, known as VC/NVA, while the war raged on next door in South Vietnam and the Americans were bombing Cambodia’s border areas. After all, it was his secrete authorization for the Communist Vietnamese to have their bases in eastern Cambodia, which sparked the gravest and unprecedented debate at the National Assembly. People’s Representative after Representative took the floor and denounced the Prince for breaching Cambodia’s policy of independence and neutrality which the Prince himself had adopted for Cambodia.
For three weeks now, the VC/NVA sanctuaries on Cambodian soil had caused feverous demonstrations right at the door of the National Assembly, with banners and slogans demanding that the Government see to it that those 50,000 Vietnamese Communist troops leave Cambodia immediately. As of the morning of March 18, negotiation between the Cambodians, headed by J-2 Chief KIM ENG KURUDETH and representatives of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese failed to meet Cambodia’s demand for the withdrawal of these Vietnamese troops. At the height of the demonstrations, people sacked and burned down the Vietcong and North Vietnamese embassies in Phnom Penh to the ground.
Meanwhile in Paris, Prince Sihanouk who had left Cambodia since the 6th of January, refused to meet with the Government’s envoys, former Prime Minister Prince NORODOM KANTOL and Foreign Minister YEM SAMBAUR, on the mounting crisis. Moreover, he accused his top generals and leaders of his own party in Phnom Penh of colluding with the Americans, and words of threat from the angry Prince had reached Phnom Penh overnight. People’s anger boiled, the National Bank was in trouble, the city trembled and the Prince was enraged.
At noon, I met ROS CHET THOR, the plant manager, and tried to monitor together the information on the mounting crisis while, at the National Assembly, Representative TRINH HOANH brought the sharpest charges against the Prince. The charges by Trinh Hoahn turned to be the Coup de Grace charges against the Prince. CHARLES MAYER, the French senior advisor to the Prince, stopped by briefly and compared notes with us. Mayer hinted that any time soon, between noon and two o’clock, the most critical decision would be made one way or the other and we should stay very close to the change as not to jeopardize any official statement. We then split for lunch and for some fresh air. The atmosphere was choking us.
Mayer was right. At one o’clock, I heard the last words from TRINH HOANH: “I hereby withdraw my confidence from Samdech Head of State.” The National Assembly, in a unanimous decision, voted to withdraw confidence from Prince SIHANAOUK and empowered House Speaker CHENG HENG as pro temp Head of State.
In Beijing, Prince SIHANOUK met China’s Zhou En-lai and North Vietnam’s Pham Van Dong and, together with his erstwhile leftist detractors, formed the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea, better known in French acronym as GRUNK. The exiled government was announced May 5 and immediately recognized by China. Subsequently, in his Beijing radio messages, the Prince called for a large scale popular uprising against LON NOL and against the Phnom Penh leadership.
Meanwhile, since March 29, ten days after the removal of Prince Sihanouk, the VC/NVA, dormant until this time in their Cambodian sanctuaries, launched lightening offensive against government positions in the country and against all provincial defense perimeters, with their advance troops rushing toward Phnom Penh and reached as close as Sa-Ang, only some twenty kilometers South of the capital. With only a rag tag band of 35,000 men armed with miss-matched weapons, the Cambodians stood up to repel war-hardened VC/NVA.
Prime Minister LON NOL who remained at the head of the government with his entire cabinet unchanged, issued the General Mobilization draft and asked the Cambodians to organize 100-house self-defense units. It was the time of the 24-hour soldiers when volunteers underwent brief military training and were sent to the battle fields on Pepsi-Cola trucks to stop the VC/NVA advance. I too enlisted myself in the army, while my good mentor ROS CHET THOR, the French-educated printing plant’s manager for the Prince, secretly left Phnom Penh and joined the core group of leftist guerrilla at Amleang village in Kompong Speu, West of Phnom Penh. The group was soon to become the central Khmer Rouge organizing committee
Thanks to dedicated volunteers and their brave commanders, VC/NVA progress was checked and a breathing space was created for the LON NOL Government to continue defending the Cambodian people against the enemy onslaught for the next five years until 1975 when the Americans evacuated Southeast Asia and left a chaotic disaster for Cambodia and its people.
That’s what’s been on my mind to this day, March 18, 2014. Chhang Song, Long Beach, CA
Mr. Chhang Song served in the Lon Nol government from 1970-1975 and was the Minister of Information from 1974-1975. This account is republished from his "What's On My Mind" series.