Colonial Times




Photo: French colonial rule influenced Cambodian culture, even the cuisine of ordinary people.

On April 17, 1864, after being alternatively controlled by Thailand or Vietnam for more than 400 years, Cambodian King Norodom accepts for his country the status of a French protectorate. King Norodom expects the French to protect Cambodia from the neighbouring countries Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam.

However, the French protectors cannot prevent politically strong Siam from temporarily annexing western parts of the country, including the town of Battambang. Nevertheless, by recognizing French rule, King Norodom preempted moves of Siam and Vietnam to entirely divide his country between them. In past centuries the loss of territory to Vietnam had been more significant. The Mekong delta, or rather the entire presentday South Vietnam, had been settled by Cambodians until well into the 18th century.

In 1884, with the acknowledgment of King Norodom, Cambodia's status is changed from protectorate to colony. The political influence of the French grows, and together with Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia becomes part of the Union Indochinois. In subsequent decades the French colonial masters install a European administrative system in Cambodia and improve the infrastructure of the country. Nevertheless, the economical development of the French Union Indochinois does not reach the extent of Burma's or India's development under British rule.

Photo: Phnom Penh's Psah Thmay Market (New Market), built 1927 by the French, in Art Deco style.

In September 1940 , after France is invaded by Germany, Japanese troops occupy Indochina without meeting any resistance.

Officially the word is that the French colonial power leaves all military installation for the Japanese troops to use; in exchange the French colonial administration remains in office. Therefore the years of World War II bring less destruction to Cambodia than, for instance, to the fiercely contested Southeast Asian states of Burma and the Philippines.

In 1941 the French colonial masters proclaim 18-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk king of Cambodia, expecting to be able to easily control the politically inexperienced youth.

In March 1945 the Japanese military remove the French colonial administration and force young King Norodom Sihanouk to proclaim the independence of his country.

In East Asia, World War II ends August 14, 1945, with the capitulation of Japan. Subsequently, France tries to reestablish herself as colonial power in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

In 1946 King Norodom Sihanouk demands independence for his country from France. The French colonial masters respond by abolishing the absolute monarchy in Cambodia and by restricting the position of the king to representative status. A national assembly is elected.

In 1952 King Norodom Sihanouk enters self-elected exile, announcing he would return to Cambodia only when the country is independent.

Last updated: March 2, 2016