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The Khmer Issarak (Khmer: ខ្មែរឥស្សរៈ) was an anti-French, Khmer nationalist political movement formed in 1945 with the backing of the government of Thailand. It sought to expel the French protectorate authorities from Cambodia, and establish an independent Khmer state.
The widely differing political ideologies within the movement led to its eventual break-up, with many of its figures going on to participate in the Cambodian Civil War.
Founding of the independence movement
The Khmer Issarak ("independence") movement was founded in 1940 by Phra Phiset Phanit (Poc Khun) in Bangkok, Thailand, almost at the same time as Son Ngoc Thanh petitioned the Japanese for assistance in expelling the French.
Like Thanh, the Thai regime hoped to exploit French weakness in Cambodia, though its ultimate purpose was to bolster its own territorial ambitions. In November 1940, Thailand took control of Battambang and Siem Reap provinces, an action sanctioned by the Japanese four months later. The newly formed Khmer Issarak organisation was used in legitimising these acquisitions by making Poc Khun the representative of Battambang in the Thai parliament.
The leftist Issaraks
After an independence riot in Phnom Penh on 20 July 1942, Mean fled north to Kampong Chhnang where he decided to form an armed resistance band. Achar Sok, a professor of Pali at a monastery in Phnom Penh, also took part in the 1942 disturbances: after an incident in 1945 in which the monastery was struck by stray US Army Air Force bombs, he fled and eventually made his way to the Viet Minh. These two men were essential founders of the communist party in Cambodia; by the end of 1945 both of them cooperated with the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), in Vietnam, where the Viet Minh were leading the August Revolution after the Japanese capitulation. They obtained many new recruits amongst the Khmer Krom minority of southern Vietnam.
After the Second World War
Poc Khun's Thai-sponsored organisation had fallen apart as early as 1946 due to internal dissension: the concept of a Thai-funded Cambodian nationalist movement did not seem so compelling to people already tired of the exploitation of Cambodia by the French.
In the first few years of the post-war period, Thailand was one of the most influential actors over rebellions in Cambodia. By December 1946, Thailand was forced to relinquish control over Battambang, Siem Reap and Sisophon; Thai officials quickly signed a deal with another rebel leader, the regional warlord Dap Chhuon, offering support for his anti-French guerrilla bands: although this was an unlikely hope that they could incite a rebellion in the region. Thailand also offered support to Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey and a number of other individuals controlling armed units, but the Thai-sponsored Issarak was weakened by the fall of the leftist Thai government in 1947.
Throughout the second half of the 1940s, Viet Minh groups continued to infiltrate into northern and eastern Cambodia, working alongside the growing leftist Issarak groups. The ICP continued to give support, education and instruction to native Khmers.
On 1 February 1948, the Issarak movement formed the Khmer Peoples Liberation Committee with Chhuon as its president. Five of its eleven leaders were sympathetic to the Vietnamese, which pushed away certain elements of the Issarak movement. Though Chhuon was nominally anti-communist, the organisation also had two important Viet Minh supporters: Sieu Heng, who was head of the ICP North-Western branch, and his nephew Long Bunruot, who later changed his name to Nuon Chea and rose to become deputy leader of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), second only to Pol Pot.
By this time the Viet Minh was leading a concerted attempt to foster Issarak anti-colonialism and to turn it into support for communism in general, and Vietnamese communism in particular. This was especially the case on the eastern side of the country, where guerrilla cells were often commanded by Vietnamese, and Cambodian recruits into them often attended ICP political schools. There they were taught Marxist-Leninism and the virtues of cooperating with Vietnam. On the other side of the country, Son Ngoc Minh had returned from Thailand with enough weapons to equip a fairly large company. In 1947 he established the Liberation Committee of South-West Kampuchea (this is particularly of note, because by the end of the civil war of 1970-75 the south-west had one of the most powerful and well organised communist armies in Cambodia, and which would form the main core of Pol Pot's support). By late 1948 many areas of the country were under the effective control of powerful Issarak organisations.
By 1949, however, the Issarak movement in this form was coming to an end: the French began to exploit the greed of some Issarak leaders by giving them colonial positions, while others went off to join more radical organisations. Chhuon's KPLC expelled Sieu Heng and the majority of the other leftists, and remodelled itself as the Khmer National Liberation Committee, with Prince Chantaraingsey as its military commander. Tou Samouth and the other leftist Issaraks formed the United Issarak Front, which had heavy Vietnamese involvement. Chhuon went over to the French, while Chantaraingsey eventually left the KNLC and aligned with the right-wing, anti-monarchical Khmer nationalists, the Khmer Serai, under Son Ngoc Thanh. The Khmer Issarak were notorious for their violence during this period, known for torture and arbitrary executions.
Legacy of the Issarak movement
The Issarak bands of the 1940s and 1950s, although not a single organised movement, were important in the nationalist and communist movements not just because many later joined Norodom Sihanouk's Sangkum or the communists, but also because of their aims, principles, and their use of guerrilla tactics and on occasion extreme violence.
Many of the component groups of the Khmer Issarak - particularly its more rightist elements - participated in government under Prince Norodom Sihanouk after independence. Leading Issarak Dap Chhuon, for example, was given considerable power as Royal Delegate and Governor of Siem Reap, though he was to be killed by Sihanouk's forces in 1959 after being alleged to be involved in a coup plot. The only major group not to be integrated with Sihanouk's government was Son Ngoc Thanh's Khmer Serai, who remained resolutely anti-monarchist.
Not only would the guerrilla tactics and organisation of the Issarak forces be mimicked by the communist forces during the Cambodian Civil War, but many later communists were first introduced to the concepts of Marxist-Leninism whilst involved with the Issaraks. In the eastern area of Cambodia, the leaders of those Viet Minh-influenced forces remained largely unchanged up to and beyond the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea. Until purged by Pol Pot in 1976, their forces not only wore differing uniforms to those of Pol Pot loyalists, but were noted to be exemplary in their treatment of the civilian population and to retain a certain degree of loyalty to Sihanouk.
- Margaret Slocomb, The People's Republic of Kampuchea, 1979-1989: The revolution after Pol Pot ISBN 978-974-9575-34-5
- Goscha, Christopher E. (1999). Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution, 1885-1954. Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. p. 123. ISBN 0700706224. Retrieved 3 Dec 2013.
- Vickery, M. Cambodia 1975-1982
- Sour Note, TIME Magazine, 16-03-59
- Seekins, D. Cambodia - Intraparty Conflict, Library of Congress Country Studies
- Kiernan, B. How Pol Pot Came to Power. London: Verso, 1985
- Chandler, D, P. The tragedy of Cambodian history : politics, war, and revolution since 1945. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1991