218. Telegram From the Embassy in Cambodia to the Department of State1

319. Cambodia, Monday after elections, is country less united than election results would indicate.2 Campaign has been, for this [Page 486] country, of unprecedented bitterness and violence, and although polling has been secret, campaign has been less than free. Sihanouk would quite probably have won elections even if there had been scrupulous fair play, but as it is many people have voted for him because it was made amply clear that it was dangerous to do otherwise. Democrats, particularly because of their important representation in the intelligentsia, the sympathy they enjoy from important elements of Buddhist clergy and widespread support they have in lower ranks of administration, continue to be an important minority element. Perhaps 90 percent of Cambodia’s school teachers are Democrats. Split between country’s elite and government is therefore one factor of weakness in otherwise favorable situation.

In terms of foreign policy, most important change is likely to be in methods and activities rather than basic objectives. Sihanouk has controlled the government up to now, his increasingly militant anti-communism has been reflected in government actions and pronouncements. But whereas Leng Ngeth government has been timid, inept and paralyzed by fear of criticism from above, new government is likely to be assertive, pointing to mandate from the people, and inclined to toughness. This is good as far as attitude toward Cambodian defense is concerned, but it can also be bad in terms of working relationship with US and other friendly countries ….

While internal unity is less than electoral figures would indicate, most of factors in picture continue to be favorable. Among them following may be recalled:

Almost universal acceptance of monarchy and allegiance to throne. Campaign allegations by Prince that Democrats oppose monarchy as such were wild exaggeration. While it is true that Republican sentiment among some elements of Democratic leadership increased during campaign, seeing that all of royal apparatus was pitted against them, overwhelming majority of Democrats are still loyal to Crown. Anti-Royalist propaganda was rare during campaign not only because it was forbidden but also because it was unprofitable.
Buddhist religion. “Affair of the bonzes” (Embtel 2833) must not be allowed to obscure fact that most of Buddhist clergy is non-political, that the two Buddhist sects are firmly tied to Crown, that overwhelming mass of population do not only go to pagoda but profoundly believe in Buddhist religion, and that that religion is by its nature unsympathetic to communism. In addition, even while Buddhist clergy remains aloof from politics, it favors modernization of country, appears to have friendly attitude toward American aid, welcomes [Page 487] English-teaching projects and seeks closer contacts with other Southeast Asian Buddhist countries. In all these respects, and in others as well, Buddhist bonzes will cooperate fully with government.
National consciousness is another factor making for unity. Important feature of campaign was controversy over who deserves greatest credit for national independence. All contending parties, including Communists, campaigned on strongly nationalist platforms. Cambodian neutrality, to which all parties are devoted in differing degrees, is in fact principally a manifestation of nationalism.
Absence of important social conflicts. There is no land problem as in some other Southeast Asian countries, nearly all peasants owning the land they cultivate. Cambodia is not overpopulated. In normal times, it is rice surplus area. Although standard of living is very low, there is little grinding poverty. Class structure does not lend itself to Marxist exploitation. Issues between left and right are constitutional, not social. Extreme left has tried to outbid the moderate left in nationalism and appeals for civil liberties, but it has found few “capitalist contradictions” to exploit. Communists tried to win seats by demagoguery and terror. They have been defeated by same weapons, but also by absence of aroused downtrodden people in Cambodia.

Contrasted with these favorable factors, the unfavorable one of split between government and elite is no less discouraging and no less important; for in the long run, it can debilitate the moral fiber of a nation. It would be eminently desirable for elite to be gradually reconciled to Sihanouk’s victory rather than exasperated and thus perhaps driven into arms of Commies, who have already made some inroads into that element. If Democrats are forced to go underground, for instance, many of their young elements, who inevitably will play more important role in future, could become a dangerous fifth column in Cambodia. Unfortunately, there is no indication so far that Sihanouk and his advisers are thinking in terms of generosity and moderation vis-à-vis opposition. They are still embittered by electoral campaign and inclined to believe their own propaganda which lumped all Democrats with Communists. If this becomes policy, it will be factor deleterious to national unity, particularly in the long run.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751H.00/9–1255. Confidential; Priority. Repeated to Saigon, Vientiane, London, Paris, Bangkok, and New Delhi.
  2. Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community or People’s Popular Rally) won all seats in the National Assembly elections of September 11 overwhelming the opposition Democrats.
  3. In telegram 283, September 6, the Embassy reported that it believed Sihanouk had made a serious political blunder in his relations with the Mohanikay Buddhist order. Sihanouk issued a public denial in response to a whispering campaign that he was going to replace the Chief Bonze of the order, giving substance, in the Embassy’s view, to the belief that the order was dissatisfied with Sihanouk. (Department of State, Central Files, 751H.00/9–655)