Coup d’ Etat on March 18, 1970

The three men behind the coup of 1970. From le...

From left: Sirik Matak, Lon Nol and In Tam (Image via Wikipedia)

Yesterday, 41 years ago, a coup d’ état against Prince Norodom Siheanouk, then Cambodian Head of State, was fabricated by General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. Lon Nol was a very loyal general to Prince Sihanouk. Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak was a cousin of Prince Sihanouk. Sometime, both princes did not have good relation and could not see each other eye to eye. After the coup, Prince Sihanouk accused the US and CIA of staging this coup against him. There is theory that the real coup maker was Sirik Matak and not Lon Nol himself. However, Lon Nol was a very close friend of Prince Sirik Matak.

 A few weeks before the coup happened, a comet could be seen in the early morning sky before dawn. I, along with my family and other peopel, had observed this natural phenomenon too. Old people kept saying that there will be bad things (political instability, wars, natural destruction etc) happened soon to our country. At that time, I was 7 years 7 months old. I felt sorry to hear that sad news and hoped that this prediction would be wrong.

 To our surprise, the prediction turned to be true. Prince Sihanouk was removed from office by the besieged parliament, on 18 March 1970. The prince himself was on the way to the airport in Moscow when he got the news of his fate from the Leader of the Soviets. He was scheduled for a state visit to China, where he stayed in exile until late 1975. Prince Sihanouk returned to Cambodia under the new Pol Pot regime, as Head of State without power. The new regime is well known as killing fields. Many political analysts and historians did not understand why the Prince did not return to Cambodia while he was in France (health check-up) when the situation in Cambodia became critical though there were urgent requests from Phnom Penh to do so. Instead of returning to Phnom Penh he went for a state visit to Moscow and later on Peking.

 Right after the news of Sihanouk’s removal in the national radio, his statute in a high school just north of our house was also torn down. Many villagers, mainly farmers, were on the street to demonstrate against the new ruler. My family was living in a small town, Ang Tasom, around 75 km southwest of Phnom Penh. As a child I was very frightened to see many people on the national road # 3 marching towards the town center while many government’s soldiers retreated and at the same time pointing guns and machine guns at them. My father told us to go to the backyard of our farm to find safe cover. The demonstrators shouted “Long Live Sihanouk” or “Long Live Samdech Euv” as Cambodians preferred to call him. A few moments later, the first gunshot was heard and the shooting lasted hours. The soldiers opened fire to thousands of peaceful demonstrators. Many people got killed or injured and some fled the scene. After the shooting became quiet, I was with my father on the road to witness dead bodies and injured people crying for help along the road, the first horrible scenes I have seen in a once very peaceful Cambodia.

 On 23 March 1970, Prince Sihanouk appealed from Peking urging his followers to join the resistance army in the marquis. Many Cambodian farmers did. Prince Sihanouk formed the exile government based in Peking, backed by China, North Vietnam and some other communist countries. The Lon Nol’s government was then supported by the United States. The (civil) war had begun. The Khmer Rouge, once was politically and militarily weak before the war, started to play Sihanouk’s card to strengthen their arms force preparing for the communist revolution. They won five years later, on April 17, 1075. The war torn Cambodia was turn into an ultra-communist country, isolated from the whole world; except China and its allies.

 In short, the coup germinated civil wars, full-scale destruction from 1970-75, Pol Pot’s Killing Fields between 1975-79, the invasion/liberation by the Vietnamese troops in December 1978 and January 1979 and the wars between different Cambodian political factions till Paris Peace Agreement in 1991. The country has finally peace after Pol Pot died in 1998.

 Some theories elaborated that the coup could be actually prevented. I endorsed it. I personally think that Lon Nol, Sirik Matak and Norodom Sihanouk were key players in this power games. They could have sorted the interest and political conflicts by peaceful means. To my humble understanding, outside powers were involved at the later stage, mainly after the coup.

 I will write more articles on my life during these black periods and post it in this blog. I strongly hope that our political leaders have learnt from these painful lessons and are working together to avoid this kind of bloodshed from happening again. It is easy to begin a war. It is very difficult to end it as we can observe elsewhere, in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan etc. In our case it took us and the world communities 28 years to stop this war. Many innocent Cambodians died and suffered without knowing real reasons why they have to. Stop the suffering of our gentle people!


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