In the midst of government upheaval, civil war or even genocide, the decision by those who finally seize power to alter the national flag of a country is a minor footnote to the death and destruction accompanying such social unrest. Or, perhaps, it is not.
A country’s flag is a symbol; as is the act of changing one. Cambodia’s history is rife with coups, invasions and occupations which has not only fomented regime change but has also provided the impetus for the flag’s numerous transformations over the years. Since 1863, there have been numerous different national flags, including periods of time when more than one flag was in use in Cambodia – depending upon where one was in the country – and at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
This article is a brief overview of each of the country’s recent flags together with a summary of the conditions and circumstances which necessitated the flag’s various amendments.
Pre-1863 Kingdom of Cambodia
Flags and coats of arms have been used by nations and empires from the beginning of time. For the purpose of the article I am choosing to begin with a brief statement about the flag in use before 1863.
Prior to 1863, the Khmer ‘nation’ was in a state of disrepair. Several humiliations had occurred throughout the course of the preceding four centuries, including being conquered by Siam from the west, and Vietnam from the east. The French protectorate, requested by King Norodom, imparted a certain political distinction to Cambodia, which some social scientists see as a paradigm shift when critically assessing the nation’s history.
The pre-protectorate flag is better described as a pennant. It is a yellow triangle turned on its side so the base is depicted on the far left pointing right. The inner yellow triangle is bordered in green, a color that has never appeared in a Cambodian flag since. It was a truly unique style of flag, rarely used by other countries in recent centuries.
French Protectorate of Cambodia 1863-1948
Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1867, although historical data suggests the flag in use during this era was inaugurated in 1863.
It is unclear whether the image of Angkor Wat had been used as a national symbol before, but the temple features prominently in several other Cambodian flags through the years including the current one.
Blue, white, and red are three colors which are common to many East and Southeast Asian countries – including the Khmer Empire – going back centuries. They are the colors of the French flag as well, so it’s not surprising they were used in the protectorate. What is interesting is the use of red to designate the borders of the temple. This was only used only once more, in Lon Nol’s short-lived Khmer Republic.
Cambodia remained a part of French Indochina throughout the first half of the 20th century, although its status in the union was unclear after the Nazi occupation of France and the establishment of the Vichy government in 1940. The Atlantic Charter, crafted by the Allies in 1941, implicitly called for an end to imperialism as well. That, coupled with the French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu and the decision to prioritize its crumbling colony in Algeria paved the way for Cambodian independence in 1953. The flag, however, had already changed in 1948.
Cambodian Flag During Japanese Occupation 1945
Before that, though, there was a brief period when Cambodia’s flag reflected its status as an occupied country of Japan which held Cambodia from 1941 until its unconditional surrender in WWII. The Japanese authorities in Cambodia established a pro-Tokyo puppet state and between March and October of 1945 sanctioned the establishment of an official flag.
Against a red background, there are a total of 6 white squares: a central, white thin-lined square with a solid white square in the middle, and four more solid white squares in each corner. It is unknown what this symbolized; it was similar to neither Japan’s national flag nor the Japanese Army’s war flag. Furthermore, Japanese occupations in other Asian nations typically used Japan’s national flag.
At its zenith, the Japanese empire stretched from northern China to present day Indonesia and as far west as Burma. Compared to some of its other subjects, Cambodia could count itself lucky that Japan treated it with a certain degree of persiflage rather than the type of repression witnessed in places like China or Singapore. The flag reverted to the French Protectorate style once the Japanese were removed.
Kingdom of Cambodia 1948-1970
This is the current flag in use today. Although it was first used in 1948, Cambodia’s official independence as the Kingdom of Cambodia occurred in 1953 when King Norodom Sihanouk became the country’s ruling monarch.
The horizontal triband was adopted and the colors from the previous flag maintained. The depiction of Angkor Wat is outlined with black fimbriation. Buddhism was a major theme under Sihanouk’s rule, both as King and as a politician following his abdication in 1955. The Angkor Wat temple should be seen as both a symbol of national pride during this time, and culturally and religiously significant. “In a world without pity”, Sihanouk once told a New York Times reporter, “the survival of a country as small as Cambodia depends on your god and my Buddha.”
Cambodia was not immune to the geopolitical chess game of the Cold War period and proxy wars of the two global superpowers. In the delicate balancing act of trying to steer the country clear of international and regional tensions, as well as an effort to maintain Cambodia’s neutrality, Sihanouk tried to play the role of the great compromiser. This pleased no one, enraged everyone, and precipitated the collapse of his regime.
Khmer Republic 1970-1975
The tales of political intrigue – deal making and breaking between factions loyal to Sihanouk, the Sangkum, and myriad opposition parties radically opposed to him – were more than mere unpleasant innuendo in the run-up to the coup that ultimately ousted the King Father. General Lon Nol was awarded the premiership by Sihanouk in 1966, and the Sangkum dominated the political landscape of the Kingdom of Cambodia. The Sangkum had its own schisms, however, and it was the far-right, reactionary elements led by Lon Nol that succeed in toppling Sihanouk in March 1970. The far left was reduced to observer status at this time, but an underground movement led by Saloth Sar and a few others was beginning to take shape.
The flag of the Khmer Republic was very different from previous flags. A red canton was introduced with the Angkor Wat, now with red borders similar to the French Protectorate flag, minimized in order to fit into the canton. According to the Khmer Republic’s constitution, the three stars represented three items: the nation, the republic, and Buddhism. The constitution also references the three branches of the government (legislature, executive, and judicial) and the three jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha).
In contrast to Sihanouk’s vehement anti-Americanism, Lon Nol’s regime became a willing enabler of the US foreign policy towards Southeast Asia engineered by Nixon and Kissinger. The US military pounded Cambodia’s eastern provinces and beyond throughout the course of its war in Vietnam. Eight years of saturation bombing and a wanton disregard for the sanctity of life significantly deepened the gravity of the country’s descent into madness. It also drove many of Cambodia’s peasants into the arms of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge guerrilla movement based in the country’s hinterland.
Democratic Kampuchea 1975-1979
After months of remorseless fighting, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, and forcibly evacuated the capital city. It banned things like families, money, and religion as its ultra-Maoist leaders attempted to create an agrarian communist utopia. Most readers are no doubt aware of the grim statistics to emerge from this era: millions displaced, disappeared and killed. Historical estimates cite figures between one and two million dead from starvation, overwork, and execution, roughly 20% of the population in that decade.
There is a mild but unmistakable irony that the flag used in Democratic Kampuchea was quite similar to the modern Vietnamese flag, the neighboring nation to the east which liberated Cambodia and put an end to its genocide. Instead of a five-pointed yellow star on a red background, there is a three-spired depiction of Angkor Wat with no borders or outlines at all. The flag’s simplistic design reflected a political philosophy that preached simplicity and curtailed creativity.
People’s Republic of Kampuchea 1979-1989
Former Khmer Rouge military officers who had defected to Vietnam led an invasion into Cambodia in December 1978 and ousted the Khmer Rouge from power. However, the government of Democratic Kampuchea maintained strongholds along the Thai border and were part of the ruling coalition which was recognized at the UN by both China and the United States. When the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was declared, the country itself was a shambles: the educated class had been mostly liquidated, food and medical care were non-existent, and the infrastructure was in a state of disrepair.
The flag of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea maintained a similar design to Democratic Kampuchea with the notable exception of the towers of the Angkor Wat which were altered from three to five.
This was not a new design. It had been used first by the Khmer Issarak (“Free Khmer”) anti-French resistance in the immediate post-World War II period until Cambodia’s official independence in 1953. It was then used by the Vietnamese-based dissident group, the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, who viewed the struggle against the Khmer Rouge to be analogous with the one waged against imperial France.
State of Cambodia 1989-1991
Political scientists are unclear exactly where the administration of Hun Sen and company fit on Cambodia’s political spectrum; somewhere on the left but obviously not as far the Khmer Rouge. In 1989, he renamed the country the State of Cambodia, most likely an attempt to distance the nation from the negative connotation the word Kampuchea had attracted in western circles.
The new flag reincorporated the intricate Angkor Wat design, outlined in black once again, but maintaining five towers representing various industries in Cambodia: soldiers, traders, workers, peasants, and intellectuals. The use of red and blue was an integration of previous flag designs.
The country remained in a state of civil war being waged between Khmer Rouge remnants clustered around the Thai border, and the de facto government of the State of Cambodia. This lasted until the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) 1991-1993
UNTAC signified the first time the United Nations took over the administration of a sovereign member state. Diplomatic personnel, led by Sergio de Mello, trekked deep into Khmer Rouge territory to negotiate its disarmament, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Elections were held in 1993 and a coalition involving the Royalist Party FUNCINPEC, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen, was formed. A new constitution was also introduced.
The UNTAC flag was styled in customary UN fashion: a powered blue background and a white, physical image of Cambodia’s geographic space with the word “Kampuchea” spelled in Khmer across the country’s face. This design has since been used by the UN in other parts of the globe where it has undertaken peacekeeping and/or peacemaking operations such as Kosovo and East Timor.
The flag and time period deserve space here because of the impact the UN left on Cambodia in the years which followed, both positive and negative. UNTAC was the first step taken in Cambodia to bringing about the resolution of a decades-long conflict. However, the arrival of international institutions left Cambodia heavily dependent on foreign aid.
Kingdom of Cambodia 1993-Present
The country was renamed the Kingdom of Cambodia after the UN departed, and the flag reverted to the one used during the last Kingdom of Cambodia period.
The past two decades have been tumultuous but constant. There have been crackdowns and there have been amnesties; there has been war, and peace. The flag has not been changed, however, a reality mirroring the political administration of the country. Next year will mark the 22nd year of the present Kingdom of Cambodia, precisely the same amount of years the previous Kingdom of Cambodia lasted. Whether the symbolism of that peculiar fact is a good thing or something darker might simply depend on the reader.