The jungle and its beasts always threaten to take back the cultivated terrain. Drought and alternating floods can play havoc with crops. Portraying himself as the embodiment of Cambodia's supposedly long-held belief that the monarch is a deva-raj or god-king, a semidivine ruler with absolute secular power and the benediction of the gods, Sihanouk treated Cambodia as his own paradise. He took it upon himself to design a state to "protect" Cambodia, to keep out unwanted foreign or modern influences that might disrupt the largely rural, Buddhist life in his kingdom.
Sihanouk saw independence from France largely as a necessary step to prevent the First Indochina War from spilling into Cambodia and destroying it forever. Independence, in his view, was not the prelude for bringing Cambodia into the twentieth century. It was insurance that Cambodia could remain an Asian beauty, unspoiled by too much modernity, which could also upset his own power.
Sihanouk resembled an Asian replica of an old European monarch rather than the leader of a third world country aspiring to a place in the modern world. He cherished the pastoral life and the arts while disdaining commerce, industry, and financial enterprise. While Thailand, Malaysia, later Singapore, and even war-torn Vietnam north and south struggled to build modern financial and industrial bases, Cambodia under Sihanouk gradually built industrial projects.
The prince preferred to concentrate primarily on education and building an infrastructure of roads, railways, and a seaport, an approach inherited, perhaps unconsciously, from the French colonizers of Cambodia. The prince believed that "agricultural pursuits ran highest in productivity, while commercial and other service activities are looked upon as more or less parasitic.
To this extent his plan worked--there was little large-scale urban migration during his rule. Phnom Penh remained the only sizable city, with about 10 percent of the population. But as early as the sixties the elite panicked. The parents of Komphot and his friends feared that Cambodia was falling behind both economically and politically. Over three-fourths of the country's population lived in villages.
For them the benefits of independence were realized in educational and social improvements that Sihanouk believed would not significantly alter the traditional Buddhist character of village life. To that end the prince put aside one-third of the national budget, an extraordinary proportion.
Most developing nations spend from 5 to 10 percent on education. In , the year he was ousted, Sihanouk devoted fully 25 percent. Cambodia's farm children did become educated. When the country won independence in , only one-third of the children were enrolled in primary schools.
By , more than three-fourths were students. The enrollment in high schools rose as dramatically over the same period--from 5, to , The number of teachers increased from 7, to 28, But what these youths learned was another story. Often their courses had little to do with their future roles as farmers employed in wet rice cultivation. In the most remote rural schoolhouses, teachers used a curriculum patterned on French education in which world history was more European than Asian, and art and culture more French than Khmer.
Vocational schools were few. In , there were 7, university students enrolled in the country. Only of them were majoring in agriculture.
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World history for them was an obscure struggle, with all great historical contenders fighting each other, from Caesar to Napoleon and Bismarck, in a vast rice field Such an idea grew naturally from another of Sihanouk's deeply rooted if not stated presumptions that the peasants could "just pick the fruit off the trees" and live comfortably, an idea that ignores the excruciating hard work of wet rice cultivation in the tropics.
They were happy peasants, in Sihanouk's vision, and the prince insisted that Cambodians and foreigners alike accept this truth. Komphot was to be one of those with know-how and knowledge. Other developing countries pushed their most talented and ambitious students to master the practical sciences, to become technocrats or businessmen, to become skilled enough to replace foreign in Cambodia, French experts.
In Sihanouk's Cambodia, they became teachers of higher education. They staffed the new schools and universities, government and newspaper offices. And they created a boulevard society of professors, writers, and intellectuals; an artistic community of dancers, musicians, and painters. They lived in a city whose beauty was zealously protected, one that reflected Sihanouk's plans for his elite. Phnom Penh would not grow with concrete high-rise buildings standing chock-a-block along the city's boulevards or factories belching smoke and polluting the Mekong and Bassac Rivers.
Sihanouk commissioned government buildings designed to resemble French provincial architecture. The French colonial rulers had done the opposite; they had built the city's grand palace, museum, and royal grounds in the style of Khmer architecture. It would remain a romantic riverport city. In the midst of Sihanouk's Cambodian Phnom Penh were other societies performing other duties for the capital.
Commerce was handled by the city's ethnic Chinese, relatively new emigres who arrived poor toward the end of the nineteenth century but eager to become prosperous by performing exactly those activities Sihanouk considered beneath his elite. The Chinese held a near monopoly on business, trade, and informal banking. Those Khmer intellectuals interested in the country's economy were encouraged to become civil servants advising the government, and later to staff the government banks.
This royal outlook was buttressed by traditional French attitudes, and the end result was a city cemented along racial divisions: The Chinese were the moneylenders and businessmen; the Vietnamese who had arrived with the French colonialists were middlemen or followed the service trades; the Cambodians were the farmers, civil servants, and intellectuals; the French who stayed on were the foreign experts, chief import-exporters, and plantation owners.
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In Sihanouk's day one did not need to know Khmer to travel about the city; French, Vietnamese, or Chinese would suffice. The middle-class Khmers of Phnom Penh grew up pampered in this environment, isolated from much of the life of the city--and, consequently, the world.
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Komphot and his contemporaries grew up as privileged children of Sihanouk, not independent citizens capable of succeeding or failing on their own. Routine corruption ensured that the favored lived well; and Sihanouk's inclinations were imperial. He preferred to grant privilege and position out of noblesse oblige and not any modern notion of shared power or a rational reward system. Courtiers were favored, troublemakers punished. It was a small society, and Sihanouk, through his police and his instincts, knew one from the other.
Sihanouk created a contradictory, if not irrational, political society for people like Komphot. The prince claimed Cambodia was a democracy, but he ruled it as a medieval monarch, not as a politician; peasants voted for his party because he was a god-king and a charismatic medieval ruler. Sihanouk's socialism was an updated version of a royal welfare system.
The prince used a pseudo-Marxist vocabulary to condemn "capitalism" when he was really condemning modernity, to promote "socialism" when he meant noblesse oblige, and in foreign affairs he spoke as an anti-American ruler promoting stronger ties with his communist neighbor states rather than "capitalist" Thailand when at the same time he boasted that he was the most effective anticommunist in the world.
But in the communists of South Vietnam inaugurated open warfare against the government in Saigon, fighting back against that regime's anticommunist campaign. The Second Indochina War began.
In neighboring Cambodia that war quickly overshadowed even Sihanouk in importance. Komphot understood that the war in Vietnam would determine the course of Cambodia's history. South Vietnam and Laos on the eastern and northern boundaries were battlegrounds, Thailand to the west became the American rear guard, home to the jet fighter planes and idling spot for American soldiers on rest and recreation leaves.
Sihanouk's pastoral Cambodia was the unlikely neutral spot in the middle. At first the war seemed to unite Cambodians. Komphot saw little difference between Sihanouk and his most radical teachers on the subject of the Vietnam War. They all opposed American intervention in Vietnam. They all supported a neutralist policy for Cambodia. During the first years of the war all whom Komphot admired supported Sihanouk's foreign policy, even if they continued to object to his stifling control over their lives back home.
By the time war broke out, Sihanouk was known worldwide for his strong belief in neutralism. In he attended the Bandung Conference, which argued that developing nations should resist ties to either superpower and chart their own courses. The communist world generally applauded Bandung; the United States did not.
The next year, in , the United States tested Sihanouk's neutralism and asked Cambodia to join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, a defense pact of American client states. Sihanouk refused.
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As punishment, the Saigon regime proclaimed an economic blockage against Cambodia and curtailed shipping up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh, then Cambodia's only port.
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