Since 1887, the southeast Asian nation of Cambodia had been under French colonial administration, with a figurehead king. In 1941, after the death of the king, 19-year old Norodom Sihanouk was selected by the French as the new king of Cambodia.
In 1942, Japanese forces moved into Cambodia but allowed King Sihanouk to remain on the throne and allowed Vichy French colonial officials to remain in their posts. In a desperate attempt to enlist some local support, the Japanese dissolved the French colonial administration in March of 1945 and urged Cambodia to declare its independence within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
However, after the Japanese surrender, the Free French attempted to reestablish their control over IndoChina. The Cambodians were allowed to form political parties and hold elections for a Consultative Assembly which would advise the king on drafting an new constitution. Under this arrangement, Cambodia was to be sort of "half independent", with Cambodians being given control over most administrative functions and their armed forces were given freedom of action within certain autonomous zones, but the French retained control over the judicial system, finances, foreign policy, and customs, and France still had the right to maintain military bases on Cambodian territory. In November of 1953, the French, deep in trouble throughout all of southeast Asia, finally granted full independence to Cambodia.
The Geneva accords of 1954 which ended French rule in Indochina proclaimed that both Laos and Cambodia would be neutral and unaligned. In addition, under the Geneva accords democratic elections were to be held in Cambodia. Since under a constitutional monarchy King Sihanouk would have few real powers, he abdicated the throne in favor of his father, and became Prince Sihanouk, freeing him up to run for political office. Prince Sihanouk created his own political party, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or People's Socialist Community. In 1955, Prince Sihanouk was elected as Cambodian head of state.
Prince Sihanouk is one of the more controversial figures in recent southeast Asian history. His admirers view him as a great patriot, whose insistence on strict neutrality helped keep his nation out of the wars and revolutions in neighboring Laos and Vietnam for more than 15 years. His critics attack him for his excessive vanity, his eccentric behavior, his intolerance for any political view that differed from his own, as well as for running a regime of unbridled greed and corruption and supporting an economy and a political system which were rapidly falling apart. Sihanouk ruled with an iron hand, but he delegated a lot of his powers to his ministers so he could spend more time on his hobbies, which included filmmaking, jazz, magazine editing, and having affairs with numerous women.
During the Vietnam war, Cambodia tried to steer a neutral course. In an attempt to keep his country out of the war in neighboring Vietnam, Prince Sihanouk underwent an assiduous courtship of the government of North Vietnam, as well as China and the Soviet Union. In addition, he tolerated Viet Cong and North Vietnamese activities inside the Cambodian border.
In 1965, Cambodia received ten ex-French Skyraiders. These planes were later supplemented by 5 more ex-French AD-4NAs. The Cambodian Skyraiders saw little use until the ousting of the government of Prince Sihanouk in a military coup on March 18, 1970. Lon Nol has been serving as prime minister and he was given control of the government. This marked a tilt from strict Cambodian neutrality into a more pro-Western stance. Prince Sihanouk went into exile in China.
Unfortunately, the coup that toppled Sihanouk brought Cambodia fully into the Vietnam war. With the fall of Sihanouk, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong became alarmed at the prospect of a pro-Western regime that might allow the United States to establish a military presence on their western flank. To prevent this from happening, they began transferring their military installations away from the border area to locations deeper within Cambodian territory. Reacting to this, on April 29, 1970, South Vietnamese and United States units unleashed an offensive into Cambodia. The North Vietnamese army then turned on the Lon Nol republican government forces, and the Cambodian Skyraiders saw some action against Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese troops. Attrition was heavy, mainly due to the lack of trained ground crews and pilots. There have been reports that some of these planes were returned to the US and were sent to MASDC at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona, but these reports seem to be in error.
When the Khymer Rouge won control of Cambodia in 1975, Sihanouk returned as head of state, but he was soon placed under house arrest and was forced into exile once again. In 1981–82, he forged a coalition with the Khmer Rouge and others to oppose the Cambodian government imposed by the Vietnamese after their 1978 invasion. He returned to Cambodia once again after a UN-sponsored peace treaty came into effect and became head of state in 1991 and became king once again in 1993.