The Vietnamization of Cambodia 1835-1840


The Vietnamization of Cambodia 1835-1840


When Chan returned to his battered, abandoned capital in early 1834,he found himself under more stringent Vietnamese control, Thai successes in their overland offensive had shown Minh Mang that he could not rely on the Khmer to provide a "Fence" for his southern and Western borders, and with the defeat of the rebellion, he now moved to intensify and consolidate his control, to head this civilizing mission,he named the general who had crushed the rebellion in Saigon,Truong Minh Giang Giang needed Chan and his officials to provide the Vietnamese with labor ,rice,and soldiers, Chan to have needed the Vietnamese somewhat less in material terms, but probably counted on them to protect him from assassination and revolt, like later outsiders operating in Cambodia, Giang probably expected too much from the King Oknha before 1834 was over, he had reported pessimistically  to Hue' that.

We have tried to punish and reward the Cambodian officials according to their merits and demerits, we have asked the King to help us, but he has hesitated to do so , after studying the situation, we have decided that Cambodian officials only know how to bribe and the bribed, offices are sold, nobody carries out orders, everyone works for his own account, when we tried to recruit soldiers ,the King was perfectly willing, but the officials concealed great numbers of people, when we wanted to compile a list of meritorious officials ( the officials were willing,but) the King was un-willing, because he was jealous, for the last four months, nothing has been accomplished.

Giang's impatience was understandable, for Cambodian politics at the time was characterized by a diffusion of power, a shortage of resources and a negotiability of position that effectively kept anyone from becoming powerful for very long, That Cambodians should hesitate to accomplish tasks for the Vietnamese struck Giang as insulting, even treacherous, but Minh-Mang urged him to do the best he could with the human materials at hand.

Bodin, in the meantime, had settle his force in the Northwest,as the 1830s,wore on,the Thai increased their military presence in Battambong and Siam reap. placing Im and Duang in ambiguous administrative control, presumably to attract indigenous support against the Vietnamese, these program was matched to the south and East by an intensive program of Vietnamization, which affected many aspects of Cambodian life, the program was set in motion in 1834 and played itself out under the threat of Thai invasions for the rest of the 1830s the last years of Ming Mang's Reign.

An early victim of Vietnamization was Chan himself, toward the end of 1834 according to the Vietnamese annals, he came under the influence of ' magicians" who allegedly encouraged him to accept bribes and "let criminals out of jail. in a sense the magicians, were merely asking Chan to act like a traditional King, but their influence distressed Truong Minh Mang, who had them arrested and shot, for Chan himself, the end of his struggle to stay alive and provide for himself and his people a modicum of independence had arrived, in early 1835, after a month's illness, he died abroad his royal barge, moored opposite his ruined Palace in Phnompenh, he was forty-four years old, and he had Reigned, in one way or another, for nearly forty years.

Chan's death posed problems for the Vietnamese,for he had no sons and his eldest daughter, Princess Baen ,was suspected of being pro- Thai,soon after his death,the Oknha agreed to Vietnamese suggestion that Chan's second daughter, Princess Mei,be named as queen,to officiate at her investiture Ming Mang sent a Vietnamese official from Saigon, and in a hall built specially for the purpose, Mei and her sisters faced North, toward the emperor's letter authorizing her to Reign, while the Vietnamese delegate and other officials faced South, as the emperor always did in his Palace in Hue'.

( picture) The Queen Mother of the Cambodia, 1895.

The ceremony bore no resemblance to a traditional Cambodian coronation, but from the Cambodian's point of view, the Queen's ability to grant tittle and bestoa official seals (as well as to officiate at royal ceremonies) meant that she was their Queen, to the Vietnamese, who treated her as the ceremonial leader of a protectorate, these aspects of the question were unimportant when compared to the administrative reforms that Truong Minh Mang ,at the emperor's request, was now ready to impose, whereas previously the Vietnamese fort at Phnompenh had been called Annam.. or pacified South, the City itself and the surrounding countryside were now renamed Tran -Tay, or Western commander, and Si-no Vietnamese names were given to all of Cambodia's Srok, Day to Day administrative decisions including personal postings salaries, military affairs, and the control of rice surpluses, were placed in Vietnamese hand, and some sixteen officials , seventeen clerks, and ten schoolmasters , were sent to Phnompenh to form the core of an infrastructure for the administration, until 1839-1840, however, the administration of the Srok-including the all-important matter of labor mobilization was left to the Oknha, who operated with royal seals even though their appointment were cleared through the Vietnamese.

Minh Mang's policy of Vietnamese Cambodia had several facets, he sought to mobilize and arm the Khmer, to colonize the region with Vietnamese, and to reform the habits of the people, he also tried to standardize patterns of measurement, mobilization, and food supply for military reasons, control that is, control of the adult male population and the formation of a standing army ,if possible, to resist the Thai was essential ingredient of all the Vietnamese programs , problems of recruitment arose because many of the Oknha were unwilling to relinquish control over their followers, the Vietnamese soon found, in fact, that Cham mercenaries were the only troops they could recruit.

Because ethnic Khmer caused so many problems, Minh Mang sought to colonize the region with Vietnamese, he justified this policy on the grounds that "Military convicts ordinary prisoners, if kept, in jail, would prove useless, therefor, it would be better for them to be sent to Cambodia and live among the people there, who would benefit from their teaching".

Ironically, Vietnamese policies toward Cambodia in the 1830s ,fore shadowed the French mission civilisatrice( Civilizing mission) that was, during the colonial era, to weaken and dismantle so many Vietnamese institutions, in a lengthy memorial to Truong Minh Giang, the emperor outlined his policy.

The barbarians (in Cambodia) have become my children now, and you should help them, and teach them our customs,, I have heard, for example, that the land is plentiful and fertile, and that were are plenty of oxen(for plowing),, but the people have no knowledge of( advanced) agriculture, using picks and hoes, rather than oxen, they grow enough rice for two meals a day, but they don't store any surplus,, daily necessities like cloth, silk, ducks and pork are very expensive,, now all these short comings term from the laziness of the Cambodians,, and my instructions to you are these, teach them to use oxen, teach them to grow more rice, teach them to raise mulberry trees, pigs and ducks,,as for language, the should be taught to speak Vietnamese, (our habits of)  dress and table manners must also be fallowed, if there is any out-dated or barbarous custom that can be simplified, or repressed, then do so."

The emperor closed by advising Giang to move cautiously in engineering social change, let the good ideas seep in, he wrote, turning the barbarians into civilized people, speed was not essential, as for winning the hearts of the people, and teaching them, we plan to do this rather slowly, in a subsequent memorial, the emperor recognized that even this slow process might never succeed , because , the customs of the barbarians are so different from our own that even if we were to capture all their territories, it would not be certain we could change them.

 There is no record of Vietnamese success in altering Cambodian agricultural technique , although the need to do so was a recurrent theme in their correspondence of the 1830s,likewise,Vietnamese efforts to quantify and systematize landholdings ,tax payments, and irrigation works came to little. what impressed the Khmer about the Vietnamese, it seems, were their persistent demands for corvee' labor and their cultural reforms, which struck at the root of Khmer notions of their own identity, one of these was the order that Khmer put on trousers instead of skirts and wear their hair long rather than close-cropped, other "barbarous" Cambodian customs, according to a Vietnamese writer, included wearing robes without slits up the sides, using loincloths, eating with the fingers, and greeting from a kneeling position rather than from as upright one, the two peoples lived on different sides of a deep cultural divide, perhaps the most sharply defined  of those in effect in nineteenth century Southeast Asia, this divide was to be savagely exploited in the 1970s, first by Lon-Nol and latter by Pol-Pot.

Customs, people ,and agricultural produce, I was to know whether the people are prosperous, and whether or not the Cambodian militia has been trained( I also want to know) if the barbarian people have learned Vietnamese ways, and if they are happy.


In yet another memorial, Minh Mang outlined plans for replacing Cambodian Chaovay Srok with Vietnamese, beginning with Srok close to Phnompenh, in 1839, he was annoyed to hear that the Oknha continued to use Cambodian rather than Vietnamese official title.

At tran Tay ( the emperor said) Cambodian officials have all been given title from my court, however, I understand that in correspondence and conversation they still use Cambodian title,, The Cambodians should be told that it is an honor to have title bestowed on them by this court in conversation, therefore, they should use our titles rather than theirs.

Chan's brother Duang had been living in Battombang for several years, under Thai protection, and an obscure sequence of events in 1837 culminated in his arrest by the Thai and his return in chains to Bangkok. The sources suggest that Vietnamese emissaries from Phnompenh had tried to lure him down to the capital with promises that he could be given the throne, Duang's replies to them were so ambiguous as to convince both the Thai and the Vietnamese that he intended to betray them, using Oknha in the Capital region to gather supporters in an effort to regain Chan's somewhat dubious independence.

In the mean time , the growing apprehension of the Vietnamese about Thai mobilization, and the slow progess of their own reforms, led them to tighten their administrative machinery, anti- Vietnamese uprising in 1837-1839 were both a cause and an effect of these reforms ,according to the Vietnamese annals, there were four parts to their revised strategy, the most innovative one was to redraw the Srok and replace indigenous Chaovay troughout the country with Vietnamese, in making selections for these posts( never actually filled,it seems) the Vietnamese ministries were urged to find, about twenty, low- ranking officials , whose educational attainments were less important than their agricultural experience and their talent as military leaders, the second element of the policy was to open more plantations to train more indigenous soldiers and to store more rice in an attempt to free the Vietnamese and mercenary garrisons from dependence on Southern Vietnamese, third, the Cambodians were to be taught Vietnamese so as to improve communications" finally the Vietnamese were to encourage further colonization of Cambodian by Chinese immigrants and Vietnamese convicts, even though Truong Minh Mang had pointed out the dangers of this policy at great length in memorial to Minh Mang early in the year.

These reforms led the Thai chronicles to refer to Minh Mang's naming in the Khmer"new Vietnamese"saw nothing harmful in this. any more than they did in changing Cambodian weights , measures, fashions and coiffures ,of the innovations, the one aimed at replacing the Chaovay Srok probably had the most to do with the rebellion that broke out against the Vietnamese in 1840 - 1841, it is significant that the Oknha, when attacked in this fashion, could easily rally followers to defend the statues quo rather than what might well have been a more equitable and forward-looking Vietnamese administration,there are interesting parallels here,moreover,with the opposition to the people's republic of Kampuchea (PRK) administration in the 1980s.


In the 1839, Prince Im, favored by the Thai since his brother's imprisonment, defected to Phnompenh with several thousand men, mistakenly convinced that Vietnamese intended to place him on the Cambodian throne, when he reached the capital, he was arrested by Truong Minh Mang and take off to Saigon and Hue', thus removing from the scene yet another contender for the Throne.

One Thai response to these events, when they heard of them in early1840, was to install a military garrison in Battambang, when Chaophraya -Bodin reached the City to investigate Im's defection, he found that of three hundred Cambodians with some sort of official standing in the Srok,nearly two hundred had fled, his plans for a full- scale invasion of Cambodia were temporarily postponed because he was uncertain of local support.

The rebellion against Vietnamese that broke out in September and October 1840 had reached the planning stage in May, intermittent uprising, in fact, had broken out every year since 1836, and deteriorating conditions in Cambodia, as we have seen, had led Minh Mang to tighten his administration, one of his steps was to improve the collection of taxes, traditionally, these had been collect through the Oknha, however, the amount of Tax, paid in rice and cloth, had never been sufficient to support the Vietnamese, in an 1840 decree, Minh Mang ordered that Cambodia's arable land be remeasured and that records be maintained concerning rainfall, granaries, and irrigation works, so that Vietnamese operations inn Cambodia could pay for themselves, he had been making similar demands for six years, he said, but little had been achieved.

By June 1840, Minh Mang's patience was exhausted, he demoted Mei and her two sisters,giving them low rank in the civil service, following the demotion, the six highest-ranking Oknha, including the Ta-La- Ha, were place under arrest and taken off to Saigon, accused of falsifying census records and 'hiding" some fifteen thousand people otherwise liable for militia duty and corvee', this was done in secret, and their followers assumed that they were dead, their disappearance was one of the most significant cause of the revolt ការជិនឆ្អន់.

Indeed, the failure of the Vietnamese to impose a workable pattern of administration in Cambodia was connected with their willingness, in the early years at least, to work through the Oknha, whose loyally to them was intermittent at best and whose operating styles based on such as things as fear, arrogance,patronage,local ties, and loyalties to relatives and other officials, were neither sympathetic nor conductive to a Vietnamese administration, most of the Oknha were happy enough, it seems to accept rewards occasionally from the Vietnamese, they showed no eagerness ការខ្នះខ្នែង to become Confucian civil servants,by working with them,Vietnamese accomplished few of their objectives but as Vietnamese measures added up to a policy of laissez-faire, most of the Oknha had no reason to take arms against them.

When they took over the administration of the Srok themselves in 1840, however, the Vietnamese reached the point at which they could impose their will at the same time that their actions perhaps inevitably ignited a revolt, with a Thai invasion imminent, however, and failure of the Oknha to perceive that Vietnamese economic and military interests in Cambodia overlapped their own, the Vietnamese had little choice,unless they were to abandon Cambodia altogether, Minh Mang policy failed because he was unable to understand the intransigence  ភាពដាច់អហង្ការ or ingratitude
សេចក្កីអកតញ្ញូof the "barbarians"in the face of paternally administered social change in the decree to the Cambodian people in 1838, he had stressed the irrationality of this ingratitude.

Thanks to,, my generosity, imperial troops were dispatched to Cambodia, costing millions of coins, and brought you security by destroying the Thai, troops were stationed(among you) to bring peace, this action was like bringing the Cambodian people out of the mud onto a warm feather bed, and was well known by everyone,,anyone who can think for himself should be grateful to the court, why are there people who hate us and believe the rebels ?

The situation become worse in September 1840,when a wide ranging rebellion broke out, the uprising which was centered in the eastern and southern Srok, is a rare example in pre-revolutionary Cambodia of sustained and coordinated political action, the only others that spring to mind are the anti-french rebellion of 1885-1886 and the so called 1916 affair smarting under Vietnamese mission civilisatrice; the Oknha had discussed the idea of rebellion for several months, in letters known today by their date, address, and general contents, the letters themselves do not seem to have survived, what set the rebellion in motion was as interlocking set of provocations by the Vietnamese together with Cambodian expectations of Thai invasion and Thai support, the uprising collapsed in the early months of 1841, when a new emperor in Vietnamese in the Thai invasion the insurgents had hoped for coincided with Vietnamese military successes and the rebels' shortage of supplies, the rest of the early 1840s, were filled with seesawing warfare and negotiations between the Thai and the Vietnamese and by gradual shift in the balance of power in Cambodia in favor of the Thai.

The immediate cause of the rebellion, from the point of view of the Oknha, was a sequence of Vietnamese actions that seemed to the Oknha to be aimed at extinguishing Kingship, Buddhism, and the official class in Cambodia, the sequence began with the demotion of the Princesses and the reshuffling of Vietnamese officials in Phnompenh, it continued in June 1840 when Minh Mang instituted a Vietnamese taxation system this made new demands on the Oknha by Taxing additional products, such as fruit and vegetables, and by calling for a new census, cad-astral surveys and reports on the water resources.

Another part of the Vietnamese program was to call in Cambodian seals of office in at least some of the Srok, replacing them with Vietnamese ones that carried no indication of rank, at least one rural official was dismissed at this time for corruption, and rumors spread among the Oknha that all officials would soon be arrested by the Vietnamese.

The climax came in August, when the Vietnamese arrested Mei and her Sister in Phnompenh two women were lured abroad a barge after their immediate entourage had been softened up with liquor and a performance of Vietnamese opera, at this point all of them,according to an eyewitness "laughed whenever they talked" the princesses were taken off to Vietnamese, and Cambodia's regalia,. which Mei had inherited from her father, accompanied them, at this point, the Oknha in Phnompenh and the Srok, with rumors and the Vietnamese record toward Cambodian to rely on, assumed that  Ta- La-Ha Lung, his associates and the four princesses had been killed, and they thought that they were next.

To many Cambodians , the disappearance of their monarch, however restricted her authority might have been, signified the disappearance of the state, the absence of regalia លក្ខណះសញ្ញាព្រះរាជា which to legitimize someone else made the situation worse,for the Oknha, the disappearance of their high ranking patrons at court, the reformed tax system, the devaluation of the seals of office, and the Vietnamese assault on their freedom of action were precipitants of revolt, Vietnamese"rational" actions, supposedly beneficial to the Khmer, struck at roots of the identity of the Oknha and at their concepts of Society as a whole,Vietnamese contempt for Buddhism and for Cambodia's language, culture,and institutions also hastened the decision of the Oknha to revolt.

The uprising was concentrated at first along the East bank of the Mekong but soon spread to Vietnamese settlements along the coast, like Ream and Kompot, to parts of Southern Vietnam inhabited by Khmer, and to fortified villages inland, the news of the princesses' disappearance seen to have triggered the revolt, and the rebels goal at stage was the restoration of the status , personified by Mei and the exiled officials , another objective, apparently, was the mere killing of Vietnamese, as one rebel wrote," We are happy Killing Vietnamese, We no longer fear them in all our battles we are mindful of the three jewels (of Buddhism) the Buddha, the law, and the monastic community.

The Vietnamese were surprised by the level of coordination among the Oknha and the blamed it on Thai influences, which Thai source fail to confirm, they were also baffled by the absence of single leader, their estimate of rebel strength ran to thirty thousand men operating throughout in Kingdom in "hundreds of" small bands and occasionally larger ones, usually in territory familiar to them and commanded by people they could trust, the formidable problems of counter guerrilla ពួកឧទ្ទាម warfare were summed up in one Vietnamese report in 1841:

The rebels have established posts along river banks at strategic points they appear and disappear at will, if our troops look to the east, the rebels escape to the west,,they concentrate their forces where the jungle is thick, and in swampy areas where our troops can not maneuver, other regions have tall grass at eye-level and are very hot and dusty, one can march all day without finding potable water, moreover, we have no intelligence about enemy, and no guides.

The Vietnamese also had problems moving troops and supplies against the river currents prevalent at the time of year, and the report adds that " not even one" rebel had surrendered, despite the 'tolerant' policies of the Vietnamese court and even though the record is full of references to the Khmer fleeing like 'Rat and mice" or attacking like swarms of mosquitoes" at the start of rebellion, Minh Mang ( who was to die following an accident at the beginning of 1841) thought that an adequate application of force, combined with rewards to loyal troops and local officials, would be enough to put down the rebellion, which angered him, he wrote, so much that his "hair stood on end",he ordered ta-la-ha-lung and others to write letters asking their relatives and clients in Cambodia to surrender, thus mis-reading Cambodian loyally to un-available and devalued patrons, and he also approved sending' monks and magicians,  into Phnompenh to undermine morale, in the last months of his Reign, he demanded weekly reports from the front and suggested that Cambodian crops and orchards be burned down as a preemptive measure,'The Cambodians are so stupid he declared" that we must frighten them, ordinary moral suasion has no effect.
It is impossible to say what Minh Mang would have done had he survived the next seven years, but it is clear that the rebellion had begun to lose momentum before his death and that his successor, Thieu Tri, was less committed than he had been to a victory in Cambodia, the new emperor began his Reign looking for a solution that would be acceptable to his court and to be Cambodians,of not necessarily to the Thai, at one stage, he brushed aside a suggestion that he negotiate directly with the Thai as being, Wrong and foolish" distance, distrust, and the momentum of the war, however as well as the ambiguity of Thieu Tri' objectives in Cambodia, kept the conflict going until 1847.

Despite Vietnamese reports to the contrary Cambodian troops were often poorly supplied, at the end 1840, a rebel Oknha complained to the Thai that" we are unable to continue fighting the Vietnamese, we lack the troops to do so, the rifles, the ammunition, and the supplies for weapons we have only knives, cross-bows,and clubs we can not continue to fight"

The end of The Vietnamization of Cambodia 1835-1840


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