The turning point for modern Cambodia came in the first half of 1970. A chain of events in Phnom Penh, Beijing, Hanoi, Saigon and Washington had consequences still felt 50 years later.
The Cambodian Coup
In March 1970, Prince Sihanouk left on a trip to France, the Soviet Union and China. Around halfway through his trip he was removed from office by the National Assembly in Phnom Penh. Later the same year the Khmer Republic was declared.
The motives behind the Cambodian coup of 1970 are still debated. The key plotter Sirik Matak was sent a secret recording of Sihanouk from Europe, on which he said he planned to have him and Prime Minister Lon Nol executed on his return to Cambodia. The prince was ordered to cut his trip short by Sirik Matak, and when he refused, it is said that Matak went to Lon Nol and threatened to shoot him if he didn’t agree to sign papers necessary to begin the process of deposing the monarch.
Lon Nol’s hesitation is seen by some as less than a mere power grab, but an attempt at a wake-up call for Sihanouk to step out of politics. The prince had become unpopular among the middle classes and urban citizens- the country was on the brink of economic ruin, corruption rampant and not only had Vietnamese communists taken over much of the countryside, but American bombing was driving them deeper into Cambodia and even into the larger towns in the provinces.
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