A Brief Glimpse at Norodom Sihanouk’s and U Nu’s (Non) Cooperation with Former Enemies

A Brief Glimpse at Norodom Sihanouk’s and U Nu’s (Non) Cooperation with Former Enemies

2 March 1962 and 18 March 1970 are important dates in Burma’s and Cambodia’s political history respectively.

On 2 March 1962 General Ne Win, in a military coup, overthrew the democratically elected government of U Nu and the rest as they say is ‘history’.

General Ne Win’s coup has (in a certain sense) been celebrated in Burma/ Myanmar from 1964 up to the present. In that year Ne Win ruled that the day of his coup should be commemorated as ‘Peasants Day’.

During the 2018 Peasants Day commemoration in Mandalay, a peasant representative suggested 22 December to be commemorated as Peasants Day instead of 2 March. 22 December is the anniversary of the start of the (failed) Saya San peasant rebellion against British colonial rule on 22 December 1930. Though not a betting person, I am willing to bet that no member of the Legislature would make a formal proposal in the Union Legislature or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw to change ‘Peasants’ Day’ from 2 March to 22 December.

18 March 1970 was also another day in March which in retrospect can be considered as disastrous in Cambodian history. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown in a (sort of) coup partly initiated by his then Prime Minister Lon Nol. The consequences of the Cambodian ‘coup’ of March 1970 were much more disastrous internally than the Burmese coup of March 1962.

Sihanouk, the wily, egotistical, opportunistic person that he was…

There had been a left-wing rebellion against Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk since the 1960s by what he himself dubbed the Khmer Rouge (‘Red Khmers’, KR) communists. The violence between the government and the KR was vicious, with photos of Cambodian government troops holding the severed heads of KR troops.

Indeed (Dr) (from University of Paris, 1959 on Cambodia’s economy) Khieu Samphan, a Khmer Rouge leader, fled into the jungles in 1967 to escape being arrested by Sihanouk government officials.

In early March 1970 Sihanouk left Cambodia for a trip that would take him to France, the Soviet Union and China. Before he went on the trip, Sihanouk apparently instructed his Prime Minister Lon Nol to ‘arrange’ demonstrations against the North Vietnamese Embassy to protest North Vietnamese troops’ incursion into Cambodian territory. His Prime Minister Lon Nol (apparently) begged him not to go abroad because of the political situation in Cambodia. But Sihanouk still did.
Norodom Sihanouk, 1972 Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Lon Nol carried out Sihanouk’s instructions by arranging demonstrations against the North Vietnamese Embassy some of the demonstrators (as was wont to happen on such occasions) went ‘beyond their mandate’ so to speak and destroyed properties of the North Vietnamese Embassy.

From Paris, Sihanouk condemned those persons including Lon Nol whom he had instructed to do the ‘deed’ – and said he would ‘punish’ Lon Nol once he returned to Cambodia. Sihanouk also subsequently ignored the pleas by Lon Nol and others to immediately return to Cambodia.

The Coup and its Aftermath

On 18 March 1970 the Cambodian National Assembly stripped Sihanouk of his powers in a (sort of) ‘coup’. In contrast, it was not the Burmese Parliament but Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces General Ne Win who stripped U Nu of his powers. Ne Win also took the additional step of abolishing Parliament, arresting, among others, Chief Justice U Myint Thein and abolishing the Supreme and High Courts of Burma by military decree.

Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin told Sihanouk that the coup had taken place against him on Sihanouk’s way to Moscow airport to take the flight to Peking (now Beijing), China. When he arrived in Peking, Chinese Premier Chou En Lai (now Zhou En Lai) told him to ‘think over for a night’ whether he wanted to join the Khmer Rouge – his former enemies whom he had severely persecuted.

Perhaps ‘after thinking overnight’ Sihanouk gave his answer. Within days of his overthrow he had joined the Khmer Rouge and made a radio broadcast urging Cambodians to also join the Khmer Rouge ‘to fight the imperialist Americans and their lackeys’. And within a few weeks Sihanouk was in the Cambodian jungles wearing Khmer Rouge ‘pajama suits’ and embracing his erstwhile enemies in the Khmer Rouge, including Khieu Samphan.

Sihanouk (dare I write it) the wily, egotistical, opportunistic person that he was had an ego such that I am of the view that he was more bitter with his ‘former Deputy’ Lon Nol and the right wing coterie that overthrew him than he was with the Khmer Rouge who later killed some of his relatives. The killings of some of his relatives – together with hundreds of thousands of Cambodians- by the Khmer Rouge were made while Sihanouk was under house arrest after nominally putting him as Head of State of Democratic Kampuchea following the Khmer Rouge victory.

One of those who overthrew Sihanouk in March 1970 was his elder cousin Sirik Matak about whom Sihanouk had said when in exile ‘we will hang him, hang him and hang him.’ When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 they killed Sirik Matak either by shooting and disembowelling him whereby he did not die for three days, or beheading him, depending on which source you believe. In any case, Sihanouk was apparently informed of his cousin’s execution by the Khmer Rouge.

A Burmese Counterfactual

Imagine a counterfactual hypothetical scenario involving a comparable situation with Burmese Prime Minister U Nu who was at the time naïve and bumbling but not as egotistical as Sihanouk.

The imagined counter factual scenario is this: U Nu had (actually he hadn’t) at the start of his failed rebellion against Ne Win starting in August 1969 combined forces with the underground Communist Party of Burma (CPB), whom when U Nu was in government had also taken up arms—like the KR did of Sihanouk’s—against the U Nu government. Imagine that U Nu had met the CPB’s exiled leader (in China) Thakin Ba Thein Tin, taken photos—both dressed in Mao Suits—with him, and each pledging cooperation in their fight against their common enemy – Ne Win’s regime.

There have been unconfirmed (and this is to be emphasized) murmurs that the CPB offered sanctuary (so to speak) at their ‘liberated headquarters’ to U Nu and asked him to cooperate with the CPB in a common fight against Ne Win but U Nu refused such offers. One cannot help but remember, though, that in exile in October 1969 U Nu had said that he would take ‘arms from the Devil himself’ to fight Ne Win’s ‘cruel and sadistic regime’. (This was reproduced in both the official Burmese and English language government-controlled newspapers inside Burma at that time.)

Even in that counterfactual hypothetical scenario because of a number of differences in the geopolitical situations in Burma and Cambodia, the CPB-Nu combined forces would have been no major threat (albeit somewhat more than a minor irritation) to the Ne Win regime.

A note of caution is needed here. It is not (repeat not) Sihanouk’s action of joining the Khmer Rouge alone that helped bring about the Khmer Rouge era. The secret bombing of Cambodia by US President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a host of other alignments, factors and combinations of circumstances preceding and following the 18 March 1970 ‘right wing’ coup against Sihanouk contributed to this aspect of (to use the title of Cambodian specialist David Chandler’s book) The Tragedy of Cambodian History.

Commemoration Days

The past events and dates of 18 March 1970 and of 17 April 1975 (the day of the Khmer Rouge’s victory) is not commemorated (at least not positively) in Cambodia any more.

What then is the purpose of comparing only an aspect of what Prince Norodom Sihanouk did in 1970 and the early 1970s and what former (overthrown) Burmese Prime Minister U Nu did not do in the same time-period?

The 43rd anniversary of the takeover of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge on 17 April 1975, which ushered in Democratic Kampuchea and ‘Year Zero’, has recently passed. In the Kingdom of Cambodia, 17 April is not positively commemorated.

In the years since September 1988, two months after Ne Win (nominally) resigned and another group of military officers took formal control the terms ‘social revolution’ or ‘socialist revolution’ were no longer used (A more direct translation of the Burmese phrase would be ‘epoch changing socialist revolution’). Still, even in the era of the current military-National League for Democracy (NLD) power-sharing government (i.e. post March 2016), 2 March is still commemorated (in a very positive way) as ‘Peasants Day’.

Although it is unrealistic and is (still) politically incorrect and ‘rushing’ where angels or the Myanmar Legislative members ‘fear to tread’, it would be better that Peasants Day be marked on another date (such as December 22) so that the day of Ne Win’s coup is no longer even indirectly memorialized and commemorated.


Featured image: U Nu Sitting Source: Wikimedia Commons

Myint Zan is a retired professor from the Multimedia University, Malacca, Malaysia.

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