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Since independence from France in 1954, Cambodia had been led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, whose Sangkum political movement had retained power after winning the 1955 parliamentary election. Following King Norodom Suramarit's death in 1960, Sihanouk had forced the National Assembly to approve a constitutional amendment that made him Chief of State with no fixed term of office, while Queen Sisowath Kossamak remained a mere ceremonial figure. He had retained domestic power through a combination of political manipulation, intimidation, patronage, and careful balancing of left- and right-wing elements within his government; whilst placating the right with nationalist rhetoric, he appropriated much of the language of socialism to marginalize the Cambodian communist movement, whom he called the Khmers rouges ("Red Khmers").

With the Second Indochina War escalating, Sihanouk's balancing act between left and right became harder to maintain. Cross-border smuggling of rice also began to have a serious effect on the Cambodian economy.[2] In the Cambodian elections of 1966, the usual Sangkum policy of having one candidate in each electoral district was abandoned; there was a huge swing to the right, especially as left-wing deputies had to compete directly with members of the traditional elite, who were able to use their local influence.[3] Although a few communists within the Sangkum – such as Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphan – chose to stand, most leftists

It also marked the point at which Cambodia became substantially involved in the Vietnam War, as Lon Nol issued an ultimatum to North Vietnamese forces to leave Cambodia.

Since independence from France in 1954, Cambodia had been led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, whose Sangkum political movement had retained power after winning the 1955 parliamentary election. Following King Norodom Suramarit's death in 1960, Sihanouk had forced the National Assembly to approve a constitutional amendment that made him Chief of State with no fixed term of office, while Queen Sisowath Kossamak remained a mere ceremonial figure. He had retained domestic power through a combination of political manipulation, intimidation, patronage, and careful balancing of left- and right-wing elements within his government; whilst placating the right with nationalist rhetoric, he appropriated much of the language of socialism to marginalize the Cambodian communist movement, whom he called the Khmers rouges ("Red Khmers").

With the Second Indochina War escalating, Sihanouk's balancing act between left and right became harder to maintain. Cross-border smuggling of rice also began to have a serious effect on the Cambodian economy.[2] In the Cambodian elections of 1966, the usual Sangkum policy of having one candidate in each electoral district was abandoned; there was a huge swing to the right, especially as left-wing deputies had to compete directly with members of the traditional elite, who were able to use their local influence.[3] Although a few communists within the Sangkum – such as Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphan – chose to stand, most leftists were decisively defeated. Lon Nol, a rightist who had been a longstanding associate of Sihanouk, became Prime Minister.

By 1969, Lon Nol and the rightists were growing increasingly frustrated with Sihanouk. Although the basis for this was partly economic, political considerations were also involved. In particular, the nationalist and anti-communist sensibilities of Lon Nol and his associates meant that Sihanouk's policy of semi-toleration of Viet Cong and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) activity within Cambodian borders was unacceptable; Sihanouk, during his swing to the left in 1963–66, had negotiated a secret arrangement with Hanoi whereby in return for the guaranteed purchase of rice at inflated prices, the port of Sihanoukville was opened for weapons shipments to the Viet Cong. As well as the rightist nationalists, the liberal modernising elements within the Sangkum, headed by In Tam, had also become increasingly alienated by Sihanouk's autocratic style.

Overthrow of Sihanouk

In March 1970, large-scale anti-Vietnamese demonstrations erupted in Phnom Penh while Sihanouk was touring Europe, the Soviet Union and China. Crowds attacked the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong embassies. Sihanouk initially gave a certain degree of support to the demonstrators; he hoped Moscow and Beijing would pressure North Vietnam to reduce its presence in Cambodia. Indeed, it has even been suggested (by William Shawcross and others) that Sihanouk and Lon Nol may have planned the first demonstrations to gain political leverage against Hanoi.

The riots, however, escalated beyond the government's control – although this was likely done with a degree of encouragement from Lon Nol and Sirik Matak – and the embassy was sacked. Inside, a "contingency plan" was allegedly found for the communists to occupy Cambodia. On 12 March, Sirik Matak cancelled Sihanouk's trade agreement with North Vietnam; Lon Nol closed the port of Sihanoukville to the North Vietnamese and issued an impossible ultimatum to them: all PAVN and Viet Cong forces were to withdraw from Cambodian soil within 72 hours (on 15 March) or face military action.[4] When, by the morning of 16 March, it was clear that this demand had not been met, some 30,000 youths gathered outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh to protest against the Vietnamese presence.

From this point, events were to move with increasing rapidity. On the same day, the Cambodian Secretary of State for Defence, Colonel Oum Mannorine (Sihanouk's brother-in-law), was scheduled to be questioned by the national l

With the Second Indochina War escalating, Sihanouk's balancing act between left and right became harder to maintain. Cross-border smuggling of rice also began to have a serious effect on the Cambodian economy.[2] In the Cambodian elections of 1966, the usual Sangkum policy of having one candidate in each electoral district was abandoned; there was a huge swing to the right, especially as left-wing deputies had to compete directly with members of the traditional elite, who were able to use their local influence.[3] Although a few communists within the Sangkum – such as Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphan – chose to stand, most leftists were decisively defeated. Lon Nol, a rightist who had been a longstanding associate of Sihanouk, became Prime Minister.

By 1969, Lon Nol and the rightists were growing increasingly frustrated with Sihanouk. Although the basis for this was partly economic, political considerations were also involved. In particular, the nationalist and anti-communist sensibilities of Lon Nol and his associates meant that Sihanouk's policy of semi-toleration of Viet Cong and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) activity within Cambodian borders was unacceptable; Sihanouk, during his swing to the left in 1963–66, had negotiated a secret arrangement with Hanoi whereby in return for the guaranteed purchase of rice at inflated prices, the port of Sihanoukville was opened for weapons shipments to the Viet Cong. As well as the rightist nationalists, the liberal modernising elements within the Sangkum, headed by In Tam, had also become increasingly alienated by Sihanouk's autocratic style.

In March 1970, large-scale anti-Vietnamese demonstrations erupted in Phnom Penh while Sihanouk was touring Europe, the Soviet Union and China. Crowds attacked the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong embassies. Sihanouk initially gave a certain degree of support to the demonstrators; he hoped Moscow and Beijing would pressure North Vietnam to reduce its presence in Cambodia. Indeed, it has even been suggested (by William Shawcross and others) that Sihanouk and Lon Nol may have planned the first demonstrations to gain political leverage against Hanoi.

The riots, however, escalated beyond the government's control – although this was likely done with a degree of encouragement from Lon Nol and Sirik Matak – and the embassy was sacked. Inside, a "contingency plan" was allegedly found for the communists to occupy Cambodia. On 12 March, Sirik Matak cancelled Sihanouk's trade agreement with North Vietnam; Lo

The riots, however, escalated beyond the government's control – although this was likely done with a degree of encouragement from Lon Nol and Sirik Matak – and the embassy was sacked. Inside, a "contingency plan" was allegedly found for the communists to occupy Cambodia. On 12 March, Sirik Matak cancelled Sihanouk's trade agreement with North Vietnam; Lon Nol closed the port of Sihanoukville to the North Vietnamese and issued an impossible ultimatum to them: all PAVN and Viet Cong forces were to withdraw from Cambodian soil within 72 hours (on 15 March) or face military action.[4] When, by the morning of 16 March, it was clear that this demand had not been met, some 30,000 youths gathered outside the National Assembly in Phnom Penh to protest against the Vietnamese presence.

From this point, events were to move with increasing rapidity. On the same day, the Cambodian Secretary of State for Defence, Colonel Oum Mannorine (Sihanouk's brother-in-law), was scheduled to be questioned by the national legislature on allegations of corruption; the proceedings were adjourned to hear the demonstrators' resolutions. According to Sihanouk, Mannorine had received information that Lon Nol and Sirik Matak were about to precipitate a coup; a group of Mannorine's men, under the command of Phnom Penh's Chief of Police Major Buor Horl, attempted to arrest the plotters, but it was by then too late.[5] Mannorine, and other key security personnel loyal to Sihanouk, were placed under arrest. After the Assembly adjourned for the day, Sihanouk's mother Queen Kossamak, at Sihanouk's request, summoned Lon Nol and Sirik Matak to the Royal Palace and asked them to end the demonstrations.[6]

It appears to have been sometime during 16 or 17 March that Sirik Matak finally swayed Lon Nol to remove Sihanouk from the government. Lon Nol, who until that point may have been merely hoping that Sihanouk would end his relations with North Vietnam, showed some reluctance to take action against the Head of State: to convince him, Sirik Matak allegedly played him a tape-recorded press conference from Paris, in which Sihanouk threatened to execute them both on his return to Phnom Penh.[7] However, the Prime Minister remained uncertain, with the result that Sirik Matak, accompanied by three army officers, finally compelled a weeping Lon Nol to sign the necessary documents at gunpoint.

The next day – 18 March – the army took up positions around the capital, and a debate was held within the National Assembly under In Tam's direction. One member of the Assembly (Kim Phon, later to be killed by pro-Sihanouk demonstrators in Kampong Cham) walked out of the proceedings in protest, though was not harmed at the time. The rest of the assembly voted unanimously to invoke Article 122 of the Cambodian constitution, which withdrew confidence in Sihanouk. Lon Nol took over the powers of the Head of State on an emergency basis, while the position itself was taken by the President of the General Assembly, Cheng Heng. In Tam was confirmed as President of the Sangkum. The removal of Sihanouk had, therefore, followed essentially constitutional forms rather than being a blatant military takeover.[8] These events marked the foundation of the Khmer Republic.

Queen Kossamak was forced to leave the royal palace by the new government and held in house arrest in a villa in the suburb before being allowed to join her son in Beijing in China for health reasons in 1973 and died there two years later.

There is evidence that during 1969 Lon Nol approached the US military establishment to gauge military support for any action against Sihanouk.[9] Lon Nol's appointee as deputy Prime Minister, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak – a US-friendly nationalist and leader of the Cambodian business community – is thought to have suggested that Sihanouk should be assassinated, though Lon Nol rejected this plan as "criminal insanity".[10] Sihanouk himself thought that Sirik Matak (who he characterised as a jealous rival claimant to the Cambodian throne) backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and in contact with exiled Sihanouk opponent Son Ngoc Thanh, had suggested the coup plan to Lon Nol in 1969.[11] CIA involvement in the coup plot remains unproven, and Henry Kissinger later claimed that events would take the US government by surprise, but it now seems likely that at least some U.S. military intelligence agents were involved.[12][13][14]

Demonstrations against the coup